Ronald Thwaites | Talk without purpose
Parliament pleasures itself for six or seven weeks each year in an exercise dubbed the Sectoral Debate that follows the passage of the Budget. It is under way now.
Billed as an exercise in accountability, it has become more an opportunity for self-promotion, triumphalism and point-scoring.
The occasion is all-absorbing, too. While it is happening, a slew of urgent legislation is delayed. Only a few bills are considered. The Road Traffic Bill and the amendments to the banking regulations are among the casualties.
The unspoken emphasis, nay, passion, is to sound and look good, and, most of all, to court the shallow high of getting a standing 'forward' from your side when you are finished.
The sheer number and length of speeches mean that the programmes of entire ministries will attract one or two sound bites on the evening news and a few column inches next day, rather than the careful analysis that ought to attend the spending of billions of scarce dollars.
And even that only applies to the first and second speaker of each session, since if you don't finish in time to meet the 5 p.m. news cycle, there will be even less pick-up of what you have to say.
Thus the Sectoral Debate settles to be a show-off exercise for Cabinet members and a few, very few, desultory opposition voices. It may titivate the busload of constituents and constrained officials brought in for the occasion, hunched up in the gallery and expectant of the self-congratulatory food and drink provided afterwards, but is that really enough to justify the effort?
The format does little justice to the importance of careful review of state power already so heavily concentrated in the executive and, in reality, the person of prime minister.
A better way would be to distribute the written presentations at the start of each speech rather than as an afterthought towards the end, and for the presenter to take half the time (now mercifully regulated) to highlight the overarching policy direction of a ministry or, in the case of an opposition member, the responses, criticisms or alternatives to what the Government is doing.
Then each minister's report and the accompanying data and ministry papers, now largely ignored, should be referred to one of the joint standing committees of Parliament for thorough review - an exercise far beyond the useful but limited remit of the existing committees.
This would ensure not only the opportunity for interest groups being invited and heard, but also would give a role to backbenchers of both sides to really represent the interests of their constituents. Right now, other members are relegated either to desk-thumping or sullen silence, depending on who is speaking.
Best of all, if we are really serious about participatory democracy, a political administration would have the occasion to listen, heed and explain rather than imperiously proclaim its programmes and policies.
There must be an improvement over the weekly spewing of air-conditioned phlegm and scorn across the Gordon House aisle, caricatured as progress or prosperity by many of us, imprisoned in empires of desire where, normatively now, lies abound, trivia is exalted, and style and swag replace substance.
- Ronald Thwaites is member of parliament for Kingston Central and opposition spokesman on education and training. Email feedback to firstname.lastname@example.org.