How the Legislature Functions under the Constitution
The core features of Bermuda’s Constitution are the provision of a Governor who represents the Monarch; a parliament has a legal supremacy within the framework of the Constitution. Cabinet Ministers collectively serve as the executives of the country and are responsible to the Legislature and the electorate and an independent Judiciary. The changes embodied in the Constitution represent a change from a representative to a responsible form of government, in which virtually all of the executive power is vested in the elected representatives of the people (i.e the Cabinet Ministers) and in which the Governor’s role has moved more in the direction of being the ceremonial head of the Government, rather than the effective administrator of it.
Under the Constitution, the Legislature consists of Her Majesty (represented by the Governor), the Upper House (the Senate) and the Lower House (the House of Assembly). The main functions of the Legislature are to pass laws regulating the life of the country, to make finances available for the needs of government and to act as a forum for public debate of issues of importance to the community. By custom all proceedings of either House are open to the public, and since 1991 debates in the House of Assembly and Senate have been broadcasted over the radio.
When in session, the normal practice is for the House of Assembly to meet on Fridays and for the Senate to meet on Wednesdays. During the busy period when the Budget is being debated, meetings are more frequent in both Houses (on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays and spanning a period of about three weeks) to ensure that all key areas of the budget are discussed and that the necessary budget – related legislation is enacted before the March 31st deadline (the Government’s financial year runs from April 1st to March 31st).
Both Houses meet together only on occasions of symbolic significance, such as the Convening of Parliament, when they assemble as a group, to hear His Excellency read the Government prepared Throne Speech to launch the new session of the Legislature. Under the current Government, the Convening of Parliament (which up to and including the 1998 ceremony, had been held in the Senate Chamber) has been moved outside to the grounds of the Cabinet Building to enable the members of the general public to witness first-hand what takes place during the ceremony and to provide a more intimate and meaningful setting for the occasion.
In previous years, both Houses have met in joint session for other purposes, as well e.g. in 1993 to celebrate the twenty-fifth anniversary of Bermuda’s Constitution; in 1995 to commemorate the three hundred and seventy – fifth anniversary of Bermuda’s Parliament; in 1996 to pay tribute to the late Fredrick Wade, JP, MP, who at the time the Leader of the Opposition and in 1999 to pay respects to a former Premier of Bermuda, the late Sir John Sharpe. Joint sessions also took place as key components of the ceremonies surrounding the visits of Queen Elizabeth II, Baroness Scotland, former President Jimmy Carter and the British-American Parliamentary Group.
The House of Assembly consists of thirty-six members, one of whom is elected by his parliamentary colleagues as the Speaker (Presiding Officer). Once elected the Speaker renounces all party affiliations and does not participate in any of the debates, his main function being to ensure that the rules of the House are observed and the order and decorum are maintained during meetings. He arbitrates on matters relating to procedure, decides on points of order and gives rulings where and when necessary.
The Senate has eleven members, all of whom are appointed by the Governor – five on the recommendation of the Government Leader, three on the recommendation of the Opposition Leader and three (referred to as Independents) by the Governor action in his own discretion. Like the House of Assembly, the Senate has a Presiding Officer, by convention an independent Senator elected to serve as President by his/her fellow Senators and vested with similar responsibilities as the Speaker for maintaining order and decorum. She does, however, participate in debates and has the right to vote on all occasions. The Speaker, on the other hand can only vote in the event of a tie (i.e. he has a “casting”, as opposed to an “original” vote), and he does not take part in any of the debates. A Deputy Speaker and a Vice-President are also elected by their peers to assist the Presiding Officers in the event of illness or absence or to provide relief during lengthy debates.