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"Tea Party" Parliament !

I happened to be present in the Senate last week when the Hon. Prime Minister made a Statement on the matters involving the Hon. The Chief Justice.

During that sitting, there were heated exchanges between members and the Chair both before and after the said statement was made. In particular, much controversy was generated by in relation to rulings made by the Chair on points of order taken by the Opposition both before and after the Hon. Prime Minister’s Statement.

I am very much aware of the principles of fair hearing and the desirability of decision makers to give reasons for their decisions. These principles form part of a body of ideals that are supposed to underpin the rule of law in any constitutional democracy- including ours.

I am also cognisant of the fact that the Standing Orders of the Senate give the President, as presiding officer, control over the conduct of those proceedings and that such conduct is governed by certain rules in relation to decorum.

While it is not the purpose of this letter to criticize the rulings of the Hon. President of the Senate on the abovementioned points of order unsuccessfully raised by the Opposition, I am very much disturbed by the manner in which those points were dealt with by the Hon. President.

From where I sat, the Hon. President seemed not to have, or at any rate was unwilling to give certain Opposition Senators ample opportunity to present their objections. It was quite clear that those Senators that rose to make objections were prepared to quote “chapter and verse” from authorities in order to make their point.

Sadly however, it appeared as if the Hon. President viewed such objections as obstructive and perhaps embarrassing to the Hon. Prime Minister, who was a visitor to the Senate that day.

The second point of order involved a ruling on the question as to whether members were allowed to ask questions of the Hon. Prime Minister on the Statement he had just delivered. It took a great deal of insistence on the part of a certain Senator in order to present his point in the face of an outright refusal by the Hon. President.

It was extremely sad to see a Senator having to robustly stand his ground and shout in order to be able to quote May’s Parliamentary Practice and authorities supporting his point. After conferring briefly with the Clerk of the House, the Hon. President relied on the “practice and custom” of the Senate in not allowing questions to be put to the Hon. Prime Minister.

Clearly, the Clerk had relied on Order 84(1) of the Standing Orders, where the practice of the Senate takes precedence over the practice of the UK Commons (May’s) where the Standing Orders are silent.

My point however is, where is this practice recorded? What is this custom? Unlike the UK Parliament, where rulings of the Houses are published in Digests for the guidance of members, we in Trinidad have to rely on the “memory” of Clerks-at-the-Table.

It is a bleak day for democracy when in our Upper House of Parliament, the Presiding Officer gives a ruling bereft of reason or justification, with absolutely no authority or precedent.

In matters of national importance, the memories of the best-intentioned Clerks ought not to be relied upon to inform decisions like this. While it may not have been the case here, ambiguous terms such as “custom and practice” can be abused in order to stifle free and frank debate in the Parliament.

As if that were not enough, immediately after the second ruling, a certain Independent Senator had cause to suggest to the Chair that something has to be done about the “shouting” in the Senate- evidently referring to the previous heated contributions of the Opposition Senators on the points of order.

The sad irony is that if these Opposition Senators were given more of an opportunity to present their points, be they frivolous or not, such “shouting” may never have occurred.

In this country, while we insist on transparency and fairness from the government and those in authority, we seem to have little interest in ensuring that those principles are applied and respected in our Parliament.

Parliament is not a “tea party”. It is the forum in which members who represent the citizens, debate and discuss issues of national importance and make decisions which affect us all. It should be a place of robust and frank discussion, of course regulated by standards ensuring common decency and respect.

On the other hand, Members of Parliament, not unlike lawyers in court, have the right and duty to present their views fully and firmly when required. They have the right to be heard on all points of order they raise, or else the whole exercise will be a farce. In the face of an apparently dismissive presiding officer, it is my view that “shouting”, which has been so sanctimoniously condemned, is entirely justifiable in order to force a considered ruling on any issue (especially when the Member’s microphone is shut off).

As a society we need to appreciate the context in which a Parliament operates. It is necessarily adversarial, and obviously political.

Outdated Victorian Bourgeoisie pretensions of behaviour and “respect”, adopted by the descendants of slaves and peasants as the “norm” and “standard, have no place in a people’s forum in modern Trinidad and Tobago.

The irony is that in more mature Parliaments, where there is a history of fighting- and dying- for the rights of free speech and accountability of King to Parliament, much worse behaviour occurs. The Commons is a case in point. So too in the Irish Parliament!

The Member who deprecated such “shouting” should have appreciated this, she herself being of Irish heritage.

Our unfortunate plantation concept of “respect” sadly means “subjugation” in the minds of many of our citizens. It is a mindset we have inherited from our Colonisers, which was convenient for their purposes. Anyone who questions authority, regardless of the merit of his argument, is seen as a “troublemaker” and not fit for “polite company”.

We should therefore not criticize others for standing up for what they think is right in Parliament, when we constantly teach our children to do the same in other aspects of life.

Likewise, we should hold our decision-makers accountable for every action taken on our behalf, and insist on cogent and compelling reasons for their rulings.

Appreciate our democracy before it is too late!

Concerned Patriot

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