Wed | Aug 23, 2017

Editorial | Put the slothful Parliament to work

Published:Tuesday | August 9, 2016 | 8:00 AM

Like Ronald Thwaites, the MP and former education minister, this newspaper is concerned with the torpid indolence with which Jamaica's Parliament goes about its work. As Mr Thwaites pointed out in a column published yesterday, the House sits, on average, for one three-and-a-half-hour session each week, usually on Tuesday.

Further, meetings for its committees often fall through for lack of quorums, and when they do take place, they usually start late. In perhaps its most productive period in recent decades, the House, during the 2012 to February 2016 period, Parliament managed 215 sittings. The Senate packed in all of 155. During that time they combined to pass 123 bits of legislation, or around 31 a year, most relating to fiscal and economic matters, fast-tracked at the behest of the International Monetary Fund.

In its busiest year over the past decade, the House managed 57 sittings in 2014, one more than the previous year, when the legislators - measured by bills, passed 40 - did the most work. And as if this approach was not dilatory enough, parliamentarians, as is currently the case, take a six-week break each summer to recharge their batteries for the next round of lethargy.

In the meantime, important work remains undone, such as analysis and debate on - in as much as what usually takes place in the Parliament passes for such - and passage of a modern Road Traffic Act.

Essentially, Mr Thwaites has made an unassailable case for the overhaul of the Jamaican Parliament - for its transformation from a stage for "a great deal of egotism, bombast, and petty triumphalism", where there is "very little serious discussion (and) even less research", to a body driven by empiricism, data, and thoughtful engagement. One which eschews sloth.

 

LOCAL AND NATIONAL ISSUES

 

No one expects Jamaica's Parliament to mirror the workload of the British Commons, which, in the 2015-16 session, met for 158 days for 1,215 hours and 15 minutes, which translates to nearly 51 full 24-hour days. The average Commons sitting was seven hours and 41 minutes. We might, though, try for New Zealand, a country of comparative size and population to Jamaica's. Their Parliament projects to hold at least 88 sessions this year, each lasting around four hours.

Getting this change done is not particularly difficult if the Government and the Opposition are serious about getting the people's business done and parliamentarians are made to reflect on what they signed up for when they sought election to the House and accepted appointment to the Senate.

First, there need only be agreement between the House leader and his Opposition counterpart, acting on the mandate of their respective bosses, to agree to additional and extended sessions of the House, including, we suggest, evening sittings.

The House Standing Orders Committee should also be put to work to modernise the rules by which it conducts its affairs and to make the legislature more accessible to backbenchers by opening new avenues to raise concerns and ask questions and by relaxing the "rigidities" that Mr Thwaites and others complain undercut serious debate.

An arrangement like the UK Commons' standard Westminster Hall debate that provides MPs an opportunity to question available and rostered ministers about local and national issues would perhaps be a good antidote to the sterility of Jamaica's Sectoral Debate.