Sun | May 20, 2018

Ronald Thwaites | A lazy Parliament

Published:Monday | January 1, 2018 | 12:35 AM

Every meeting of the House of Representatives started late this year. Sometimes there was no quorum of 16 members; most often, the wait was for the prime minister or another minister to arrive.

Although an outlined agenda for each sitting is sometimes available, at best the night before we meet, this is subject to whimsical change and there is seldom enough time to prepare reasoned debate. The quality shows.

The stilted-language opening prayer for the Queen and the 'estates' of the land is as dated as the Speaker's wig and gown. We have not even bothered to convene the committee to review and substitute a modern, inspiring oration, although a draft was presented about eight years ago.

Neither have the Standing Orders been recently reviewed. They are routinely used or abused conveniently. The biggest procedural advances in recent times have been giving the Opposition the right to reply to ministerial statements, as well as the time limits on some presentations to save us the pain of windy, self-indulgent presentations.

In about 33 weeks of mostly once-a-week meetings, each lasting an average three and a half hours, the House passed some 37 pieces of legislation, mostly tidying-up matters and all but the ZOSO law, being bills carrying over from the previous administration.

PARLIAMENT'S AGENDA

Except for emergencies, Parliament's agenda has been greatly determined by whatever bill the chief parliamentary counsel has ready, very often something that the International Monetary Fund wants us to pass by a certain time.

It is no exaggeration to say that the pivotal constitutional function of each member of Parliament to pass good laws continues to be cramped by the long-standing insufficiency of resources available for legislative drafting.

Look at the song and dance that Fitz Jackson has had to endure to get an amendment to the Banking Services Act before the House. And he provided his own draft. How many others do you think will ever try this tedious but healthy task of introducing privately sponsored legislation?

All this while billions of dollars of savers, money continue to be unjustly charged by usurers.

Poor Mike Henry, and poor us. Despite his repeated promises, who can tell when the Road Traffic Bill will ever become law despite the chaos and carnage on our roads. What about the Jamaica Teaching Council Bill, the new regulations to the Education Act or the reform of the Bail Act?

After the big stink about the National Registration Bill, rest assured that given the need to draft complex regulations, unless accorded emergency attention – to the detriment of everything else – it will be years before that law can come into force.

So, during 2017, there were times when it appeared that Parliament had too little work. The order paper is largely a sparse inventory of what the Cabinet wants us to talk about. The Executive has overreached the Legislature to an extent that is dangerous to our democratic constitutional order.

But it could and should be very easily otherwise. Both the House and Senate (and when are we going to start requiring senators to be elected?) ought routinely to be debating and setting policy for Cabinet to consider and execute on a whole range of national issues, for example, the state of family life, the need for zero budgeting, the costefficiency of the bauxite industry and the texture and direction of Jamaica's foreign policy.

All these topics are currently the subject of undebated private members' motions. Up to now, the House has shown no interest in sparing the time to deal with them.

Many years ago, after a stint on the Public Accounts Committee (PAAC) which only looked at state functioning retrospectively, I played a part in reviving the up-to-then dormant Public Administration and Appropriations Committee which is now by far the most penetrative arm of Parliament. It is the public exposure of its sittings which makes the difference, and the fact that the chairman is an opposition member.

Sadly and culpably, PAAC reports to the House are never debated. It is just the same for the reports of the commissions of Parliament, like the contractor general. Thus, it is left to the press and the often inadequately informed and short attentionspanned court of public opinion to do the scrutiny and therapy, which is also the Legislature's remit.

In 2018, the public must demand that all the sectoral committees, and especially joint select committees, become more active, listen more to the public, report more insistently to the House and gradually reduce the hegemony of the Executive.

- Ronald Thwaites is member of parliament for Kingston Central and opposition spokesperson on education and training. Email feedback to columns@gleanerjm.com