Tricameralism is the practice of having three legislative or parliamentary chambers. It is contrasted to unicameralism and bicameralism, both of which are far more common.

The term was used in South Africa to describe the Parliament established under the apartheid regime's new Constitution in 1983. Other instances of tricameral legislatures in history include Simón Bolívar's model state. The word could also describe the French States-General, which had three 'estates'.

South African tricameralism

In 1983, South Africa's apartheid government put forward a constitution providing for a tricameral legislature. On 2 November, around seventy percent of the country's white population voted in favour of the changes — black South Africans were not consulted, and under the proposal they continued to be denied representation since in theory they were citizens of independent or autonomous bantustans.

The South African tricameral parliament consisted of three race-based chambers:

  • House of Assembly — 178 members, reserved for whites
  • House of Representatives — 85 members, reserved for Coloured, or mixed-race, people
  • House of Delegates — 45 members, reserved for Asians

The creation of the tricameral parliament was controversial on two fronts. On the one hand, many white conservatives disliked the idea of non-whites participating in Parliament at all. The dispute was a factor in the creation of the Conservative Party, a breakaway from the dominant National Party. On the other hand, many coloureds and Asians rejected the system as a sham, saying that the chambers reserved for them were powerless.

The tricameral parliament was not particularly strong. The 1983 constitution significantly weakened the powers of parliament, and abolished the position of Prime Minister. Most authority was transferred to the State President, including the ability to appoint the Cabinet. This was seen by many as an attempt to limit the power of coloureds and Indians — not only were the 'non-white' Houses of Parliament less powerful than the 'white' one, but parliament itself was subordinate to a white President.

Bolivar's tricameralism

Simón Bolívar, the South American revolutionary leader, included a tricameral legislature as part of his proposals for a model government. Bolivar described the three houses as follows:

  • Chamber of Tribunes, holding powers relating to government finance, foreign affairs, and war. The tribunes would, unlike the other two houses, be popularly elected.
  • Senate, an apolitical body holding powers to enact law, supervise the judiciary, and appoint regional officials. Bolivar believed that the senate should be hereditary, saying that this was the only way to ensure its neutrality. There are parallels between Bolivar's Senate and other houses such as the British House of Lords.
  • Censors, a group who would act as a check against the powers of the other two. Bolivar described them as "prosecuting attorneys against the government in defense of the Constitution and popular rights". He also said that they should ensure that the executive was functioning satisfactorily, perhaps having powers of impeachment.

Bolivar intended his model government to have a presidential system, and so the tricameral parliament was not expected to govern. Bolivar was explicit that the legislature should not have an active role in administration — it merely made law and supervised other branches of government.

Despite Bolivar's huge influence in South America, no country employs his tricameral parliament. Early attempts to implement the model, such as in Bolivia, were not successful, although the chaos of the period was likely a factor in this outcome.

French tricameralism

Some historians view the French States-General as an example of a tricameral legislature. The States-General evolved gradually over time, and provided advice on various matters (including legislative issues) to the King. The three Estates were the simply labeled First (consisting of clergy), Second (consisting of nobility), and Third (consisting of commoners).

There are problems with regarding the States-General as a tricameral legislature, however. Firstly, the States-General never had any formal powers to legislate, although at times, it played a major role in the King's legislative activity. Secondly, the division between the three estates was not always maintained — the estates sometime deliberated separately, but at other times, they deliberated as a single body, undermining the idea of tricameralism.

Other examples

Isle of Man

The parliament of the Isle of Man, the Tynwald, is sometimes called tricameral, but this description is not universally accepted. The two commonly accepted houses of the Tynwald are the House of Keys and the Legislative Council, but according to some, the Tynwald Court (consisting of the members of both houses meeting together) counts as a third house. Others disagree, saying that as there are no members of the Court who are not also members of the other houses, the Court should not be considered separately. (By comparison, in Australia and Switzerland deadlocks between the two Houses can sometimes be resolved by a joint sitting, but experts would not classify either of those countries as "tricameral").

Church of England

The General Synod of the Church of England is sometimes described as tricameral. It is divided into a House of Bishops, the House of Clergy and the House of Laity. As the Church of England is the state church of England, the Parliament of the United Kingdom has given the General Synod the power (subject to veto) to make law relating to the Church.

However, a Diocesan Synod is not a tricameral institution. It is a bicameral institution, as it consists of the House of Laity, who are directly elected by the parishes, and the House of Clergy. The Bishop is not a member of either House, even though he is constitutionally a member of Synod.

Labor Unions

Tricameral meeting arrangements are a growing trend in labor unions where some members will always be working on one of three shifts. Under such arrangements, each shift will have its own meeting, but the action of one meeting will have to be adopted by the other two.

See also


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