Ronald Thwaites | Without a common cause
"There is an environment of hostility here today," bewailed bewigged Speaker Pearnel Charles in the House of Representatives last Wednesday. "What has happened to you today?" he complained as the uncontrollable decibels from Desmond McKenzie and Everald Warmington, later Edmund Bartlett and, always, Delroy Chuck, rose in response to the objections of the Opposition to the local government reform bill.
"Gweh, you a cow tief," was the taunt from one full minister of government to an opposition member, both sworn to uphold the dignity of Parliament and be called 'Honourable' ("Here is not a Sunday school, yu know!"). "Shut yu mout, remember you and the likkle underage schoolgirl," was the riposte to another.
Mercifully, no schoolchildren had paid scarce money to come to be impressed by the nation's legislature that afternoon, but then, the whole burlesque was being played out on public television. Indeed, no Sunday school here.
Tradition of referral
No common cause either. For what but rank political opportunism could have inspired members of the Government (for it will turn out that not all were apprised of what was going on) to try to force through a classic piece of gerrymandering, mindless of the decency of allowing time for consideration by Opposition and affected populace, let alone the important tradition of referral of all such matters to the Electoral Commission of Jamaica.
And then we lie to ourselves about partnership and a true balance of power in Parliament.
So it took unending bedlam, raised the speaker's blood pressure and other things till he took a stand, not to mention that with a few stragglers having been summoned, the bill could have been defeated, for Pearnel Charles, in a moment of wisdom, to suspend proceedings for the obvious face-saving compromise to be crafted.
What aggravated some of us the more was that between Tuesday's and Wednesday's sittings, the Order Paper, the official record of parliamentary business, had been falsified to indicate that the said controversial local government bill had been laid by Minister Montague (strangely not by the proposer, the minister of local government) and, therefore, would be eligible for debate the next day. Who would have an interest in doing that?
The moment of acknowledgement and shame came grudgingly from House Leader Derrick Smith only after Phillip Paulwell's unrelenting insistence that no such introduction of the bill had taken place, and Hansard confirmed this.
But who did it? The finger was pointed at the staff of the House, but I wonder ... .
Then there was the issue of the hasty and untidy referral of the said bill to the Electoral Commission overnight Tuesday to Wednesday for them to express an opinion. Predictably and correctly, they wrote back to the House leader declaring that the bill was not ready and further consultation was needed. So why was this not heeded and the whole fetid charade of the Wednesday sitting avoided? Two of the ministers with whom I spoke had not even been made aware of that letter when the orgy of self-imposed embarrassment took place. How come?
For democracy to work, there have to be strong elements of common cause. Tricks, deceit and one-upmanship demean the process and further reduce the already devalued confidence of the people in their leaders.
And all this for an advantage in local government elections in which neither side has laid out clearly what are their objectives and targets for municipal service. Hours of wrangling but not one word about how to improve the lives and conditions of the people of Portmore and Greater St Catherine concerning whom this was supposed to be all about.
I know we can do better.
- Ronald Thwaites is member of parliament for Central Kingston and opposition spokesman on education and training. Email feedback to firstname.lastname@example.org.