Mon | Aug 21, 2017

Martin Henry | Parliament or playpen?

Published:Sunday | May 28, 2017 | 5:00 AM

It's time for parliamentarians and the public to stop playing with Parliament.

A Gleaner front-page story two Sundays ago said that many members of the House of Representatives were 'Playing with Parliament' with their non-attendance. And we already know from the evening news that MPs play around a lot with their childish and crude behaviour while conducting the nation's serious legislative business.

Two MPs from the far west lead absenteeism from the sittings in the scringed-up box in the rundown neighbourhood of Duke Street in inner-city Kingston. Ian Hayles (Hanover Western) has missed 26 of 50 sittings, 52 per cent between March 10, 2016, and March 28, 2017. Luther Buchanan failed to show for 23 of 50 sittings, 46 per cent. The Gleaner could have done us the favour of publishing a full attendance listing. It's only 63 members. And we should want to see how our MP is doing.

Turning up for the appointed meetings is one thing. In fairness, some absences are accounted for by being away on business, particularly on the government side, where many legislators double as members of the executive as ministers. But the Jamaican Parliament has one of the lowest levels of sittings per year among Commonwealth countries. There were only 50 sittings in the one year and 18 days between March 10 last year, when the Parliament first convened after the February 25 general elections and March 28 this year.

Over this period, there were around 240 working days. But the Standing Orders only require that the House meet on Tuesdays, Wednesdays, and Thursdays. Even with only three sittings per week, over this 54-week period, 162 sittings could, in principle, have been accommodated. There are long holiday breaks for summer and Christmas, and sometimes, appointed sittings are cancelled.

But even if just half of the potential number of sittings were held, there could have been 81 meetings of the House of Representatives. With sittings only three days per week, you would think that most of the working day would be committed to deliberations. But no. The Parliament sits for only two and a half to three hours each time it meets. And every one of those sittings starts later than the set time of 2 p.m. The earliest start over the period was 2:10 p.m.; the latest, 2:56 p.m.

 

Chronic backlog

 

Meanwhile, there is a permanent and chronic backlog of bills to be debated. Private members' motions, which are rare enough, seldom come up for debate and mostly fall off the Order Paper. Bills, unless pushed by external pressure like that generated by the IMF, meander through the legislature for years.

Old laws don't get much chance to come up for review. Indeed, there is no system for regular review of legislation. So Tesha Miller can be fined $100 for false declaration of identity on travel documents.

The Office of Chief Parliamentary Counsel, a critical support service that drafts bills for legislative deliberation, is understaffed and overwhelmed.

Absenteeism from meetings of parliamentary committees is rampant, and meetings are regularly cancelled for want of a quorum. More than one committee cannot meet at a time. There is no space in cramped Gordon House to accommodate multiple meetings. I know from experience what it is to mill around in a corridor while waiting for a committee, before which one is slated to make a submission, to convene, late, as it waits for an earlier committee that started late in the same space to end.

The legislature has no time for the people's representatives to debate the really big national issues. Not the Budget. Not crime. Not the economy. Not disaster preparedness and management. Not education. Not health. Not Venezuela and the PetroCaribe Fund. Not CARICOM. Not terrorism. Nothing.

But playing with Parliament gets worse.

 

Too expensive!

 

In a follow-up story on May 16 by this newspaper, the joke gets better, or worse. 'Too expensive! MPs blame cost to use highway for parliamentary tardiness, absences'. Government operates nearly 200 departments and agencies at last count, entities in which standard operating HR procedure pays at commercial value for the expenses officers incur in discharging their duties, including travelling. How in heaven's name can the people who make the laws be complaining that their travelling does not cover the real cost of getting to the House to carry out their legislative responsibilities?

Leader of Government Business Derrick Smith is admitting that "in fairness, some of the rural MPs do have a problem, a money problem. It costs them $7,000-plus per day. They have to travel that way [on the toll highway] to save time and for convenience, and it is costing them a fortune."

Well, why doesn't the Government cut out the playing around and fix this simple problem? Perhaps the affected MPs need a trade union! Bad to bad, this is not something that the Jamaica Civil Service Association would tolerate for its members. Even if personal emoluments do not match reality, expenses incurred to get the job done have to be met at real cost.

The real costs of running Government must be reasonably met from the public purse as one of the first and most important calls upon that public purse. Debt payment leads! There is huge public sentiment in favour of government on the cheap and for punishing politicians by denying them any and everything that remotely looks like a privilege or special benefit. It is a stupid and self-defeating sentiment that leadership should find the courage and good sense to stand up to.

 

Proposal for hotels

 

The Government, beginning now without further ado, should not only pay the full commercial costs of travelling to Parliament from outside the Corporate Area, but should pay for overnight stays in the capital city on Parliament days for out-of-town MPs at a level befitting the office, if this is not already done.

Can you imagine if there would be for the purpose a nice hotel at the proposed Government Circle? Or, as in the better days of downtown Kingston, a Myrtle Bank Hotel on Harbour Street? Or, from more recent times, a viable Oceana Hotel on the prime Kingston waterfront?

While I am loudly lamenting the laziness of the Jamaican Parliament, not remunerating MPs at a level befitting the status of their office as senior officers of the Jamaican State is not the solution. No private-sector company would ever take that short-sighted approach to running their business. Remuneration for MPs should, in some sensible fashion, be pegged to a basket of salaries of very senior public servants.

The leader of government business and the leader of opposition business in the House, now Smith and Paulwell, respectively, backed by the prime minister and the leader of the Opposition, who are trying to outdo each other as transformational leaders, should stop complaining and apologising about the poor performance of the Parliament and conspire (which, in its Latin origins, means to 'breathe together') to drag their colleagues into higher-performance mode. More frequent sittings, longer sittings, more punctual starts, fixing the travel and accommodation issues, more support services, smarter management of the Order Paper, more time for backbencher issues and for big national issues.

And that big space and class issue. This is nothing to play with. A new Parliament building in a grand and graceful setting is long overdue. As a long-time advocate, one of a few voices crying in the wilderness of public opinion, I am much encouraged by the Government Circle plans, which include a new Parliament building. One must remain hopeful that the plan does not move at the pace of legislation through the playpen Gordon House or turns out to be as 'unaffordable' as travelling for MPs.

- Martin Henry is a university administrator. Email feedback to columns@gleanerjm.com and medhen@gmail.com.