Wed | Oct 17, 2018

Editorial | Fix Parliament in 2018

Published:Saturday | January 6, 2018 | 12:00 AM

There is an old proverb that goes like this, "If fish come from river bottom and tell yu seh alligator have gum boil, believe him."

Earlier this week, Rev Ronald Thwaites, the member of parliament for Central Kingston, exposed the nation's Parliament as a near-dysfunctional body.

Even though the majority of citizens may be more interested in the actions of parliamentarians outside of Gordon House as it relates to services provided in their communities, their law-making role cannot be overlooked for it is key in keeping the executive in line.

It may be difficult to compare constituency work, but it is easy to measure a member of parliament's contribution in the House of Representatives.

Absenteeism and tardiness are chronic in Jamaica's Parliament. Rev Thwaites reported that every meeting of the House in 2017 started late as members awaited the arrival of the prime minister or one of his ministers.

He was also critical of the way the agenda was handled, observing that the agenda was usually only available the night before the sitting, and in his words was subject to whimsical changes. When then are members supposed to digest the agenda and prepare to make meaningful contributions?

Rev Thwaites described a situation of executive dominance in our Parliament with the Government and not the legislature determining the timing and substance of what is discussed in Parliament. Most private members' bills do not get heard, partly because they lack the legal resources to properly draft these bills.

Traditionally, the Government introduces bills to ensure that the laws it considers to be priority are passed at the time and in the shape it deems fit. So, in effect, Parliament, as a whole, scarcely exercises any constitutional powers.

Fifty five years ago when Jamaica became independent, the new nation carried with it many of the legacies of her colonial past. The architects of the new Constitution appeared keen on maintaining some symbols of continuity, which meant that a number of somewhat contradictory characteristics were retained within the governing structures of the new Jamaica.

 

NO CHANGES

 

Nearly six decades later, there continues to be intense debate about the need for wide-ranging reform. However, not even small, necessary changes have been undertaken. Rev Thwaites cited the opening prayer in Parliament and the outdated wig and gown of the speaker as vestiges of bygone eras.

Even with the best of intentions, our political leaders have not been able to deliver on their promise to replace the monarchy with a republican president as head of Government. The People's National Party Government led by Portia Simpson Miller promised to do so, Bruce Golding also made a similar promise, and now Andrew Holness has this task on his agenda. A two-thirds majority is needed in Parliament together with an amendment of the Constitution's specially entrenched provisions in addition to a referendum to determine which way to go. An inactive Parliament is not likely to overcome these constitutional hurdles and make the necessary changes.

By Rev Thwaites' estimation, the most significant piece of legislation to come out of the House in 2017 was in relation to the zones of special operations aimed at combating the spiralling criminal activities in some communities. On paper, this could not be commended as a stellar performance.

As public-sector workers, including teachers, nurses and the police, press for better pay and improved working conditions, there is a steady chorus of voices demanding that they put in better performance to justify their demands.

We also need to demand no less from our parliamentary representatives. They should arise from their slumber in 2018 and be active participants in the legislative agenda-setting. Those who serve on sectoral committees should take their jobs seriously and be much more accountable to the public.

It is in all of our interest that Government be prevented from usurping the legislative powers granted to Parliament.