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Parliamentary privilege should have boundaries
Posted: Wednesday, October 20, 2004

by George Alleyne

No one can seriously question the need for Members of both Houses of Parliament to enjoy freedom of speech in the pursuit of their business in the Senate and the House of Representatives, whether when making statements or reports to either House, however damning. Nonetheless, the institution of Parliamentary Privilege under which Members are protected should have boundaries which while encouraging freedom will refuse to condone licence, and will allow for action by the relevant House to be taken, where the licence has been exposed as such.

Admittedly, it will be difficult to set clearly defined boundaries or limits. However, where an Inquiry into charges made in Parliament places beyond doubt that the integrity of the individual, against whom charges have been made, has been impugned, the House should be able to decide whether the Member making the charges should be suspended or otherwise disciplined. The principle of disciplinary action should also be applied to the Member against whom the charges were made, should they be proven to be true. As it stands, a member of either the upper or the lower house of parliament can believe himself or herself free to make the most serious charge against another member under the umbrella of parliamentary privilege, during his/her contribution at a meeting of Parliament that he/she can not or may not be able to substantiate.

"No civil or criminal proceedings may be instituted against any member of either house for words spoken before, or written in a report to, the house of which he is a member or in which he has a right of audience under Section 62 or a committee thereof or any joint committee or meeting of the senate and house of representatives or by reason of any matter or thing brought by him therein by petition, bill, resolution or otherwise: or for the publication by or under the authority of either house of any report, paper. votes or proceedings": Section 55:2 of the 1976 Republican Constitution of Trinidad and Tobago. Because of Section 55 of the 1976 Constitution and the fact that all of Trinidad and Tobago's constitutions prior to and after Independence have been flavoured by the Westminster system, itself wedded to the institution of Parliamentary Privilege, Trinidad constitutions from 1797, and Trinidad and Tobago constitutions from 1898 have embodied the principle of immunity. The cynical will no doubt scoff at the idea of a 1797 constitution and refuse to accept that any Legislature existed until 1925 when the then colony's first General Elections were held.

But the brash statements in successive legislatures were there, perhaps more noticeable after 1946, and moreso after 1950. Whether it was in the colonial legislatures or in Parliaments with a People's National Movement, National Alliance for Reconstruc-tion or United National Congress majority, gross charges, many without the provision or even the semblance of good grounds, have been made. And while parliamentary privilege was the vehicle employed by many parliamentarians to bring to the general public instances of corruption, there have been cases where charges have been levelled seemingly out of sheer political malice. Indeed, although the brutalised names of several were later cleared of all wrongdoing, yet some of the mud would stick and sad, long discredited stories would be repeated to provide the trigger for many an unfeeling guffaw. I do not wish to describe the latter as conscious efforts at character assassination, a vulgar means of scoring cheap political points. Instead I shall leave it to the imagination of my readers.

Nonetheless, if there are those who hold, or those who are likely in the future to arise and insist that accepted norms of honesty, justice, fairplay and truth amount to nothing, and as the late Albert Gomes, Trinidad and Tobago's 1950-1956 Minister of Labour, Industry and Commerce once said: "Anything goes in politics", then the constitution should be amended appropriately to allow for parliament to deal with them. By all means possible expose the corrupt, whether in Parliament or otherwise, but the age old practice of sullying the names of parliamentarians without the facts to substantiate the charges must go the way of colonialism. There will be instances in which a parliamentarian will bring to the attention of either the upper house or lower house damning material he believes to be true. But once he/she is made aware that his/her statements are without foundation, then the individual must be big enough later to withdraw them in parliament and apologise to the house as well as to the member against whom the unfortunate charges were made.

Then too, all too often the charges made do not only sully the good name of a member of parliament, but are designed to bring the government as well as the country into disrepute. But then the country is full of sick minds anxious to provide fodder for international print and electronic media willing to bash Third World countries and in the process damage the image of Trinidad and Tobago through harmful and unsubstantiated statements.

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