Marlene Malahoo Forte is right!
Government Senator Sandrea Falconer on Friday got rather defensive and accused Senator Marlene Malahoo Forte of seeking to put a slur on the Jamaica Information Service (JIS), a state agency, which Malahoo Forte used as an example of the entities that could be manipulated for political ends.
But anyone who thinks Malahoo Forte is off the mark may either have been living under a rock for the past 300 years or have a difficulty embracing the truth.
The JIS is essentially the propaganda arm of the state, and it takes seriously this mission - to the point where one will never see it publishing a story that is critical of the government. This, however, does not mean the staff is not professional; sure they are, and they conscientiously discharge their duties in accordance with their mandate. This does not suggest that the agency is part of any political machinery, and surely Malahoo Forte never said or even implied that. What she did was to correctly point out that the JIS is an example of a state agency that can be manipulated to political ends by the ruling party.
Falconer, as the line minister in charge of the propaganda office, thought she had stepped overboard. Perhaps Falconer would have been more comfortable if the National Works Agency, the National Water Commission, the Rural Electrification Programme or parish councils were proffered as examples.
Well, I do recall travelling through Central Westmoreland two weeks before last Monday's by-election and having to contend with potholes of various sizes and shapes, only to drive on those roads to realise that marl was dumped on some of them ahead of the polls. It may be coincidence, but it is a coincidence that happens far too often around the time of elections.
Our history is replete with examples of the governing party using state agencies to either repair roads, lay pipeline overnight, and even have gullies cleaned and verges cut.
The People's National Party (PNP), of which Falconer is a member, frowned at the practice in 2008 when there was mass mobilisation of state resources in West Portland by the Jamaica Labour Party government to secure the re-election of Daryl Vaz in that by-election.
The same scenario played out in North East St Ann in 2001, but despite the disgraceful mobilisation of state resources ahead of those polls, Shahine Robinson of the Jamaica Labour Party (JLP) won what was then a strong PNP seat.
Governing parties have been digging into the pockets of taxpayers to run their elections, either though state agencies or the underwriting of election costs such as the payment of indoor workers and scrutineers. The political parties get import duties waived on high-end vehicles for campaign purposes, their representatives on the Electoral Commission are paid by the taxpayers, and state jobs are disbursed to party workers in exchange for their electoral muscles.
Where I part company with Malahoo Forte is in her support for state funding of registered political parties, which is proposed in the amendment to the Representation of the People Act. She, like many of her fellow senators, want the provision for state funding to be deferred until a time that Jamaica can afford it.
I am not convinced that we can afford the luxury of financing political parties anytime soon. And even if we get to that stage, it ought to be at the bottom of the list, way after we have fixed all our roads, educated our people and provided homes for the homeless. Our focus, in addition to party registration, must be at stamping out corruption in our electoral process. We should not be subsiding the parties in their vote buying and other nefarious activities.
While parliament is focusing on the funding of political parties, there should be attention placed on curing the mischief of the inequality of equity.
Dwayne Vaz, who is to be sworn in as member of parliament for Central Westmoreland, a constituency with over 40,000 voters and perhaps twice that number of residents, will soon find out he does not have enough money to effect the changes he needs in his constituency.
Certainly, the current way of allocating resources to constituencies equally has to be unjust. It cannot be that an urban MP such as Desmond McKenzie should get the same $14 million for CDF as, say, a Damion Crawford in East Rural St Andrew or Dwayne or Daryl Vaz in West Portland. Constituencies have varying needs, and have peculiar geographic make-up which predisposes some, more than others, to the ravages of natural hazards such as the weather.
If MPs are to be able to effectively answer the call of bringing transformation to their constituencies, a fairer system other than the one that exists now has to be put in place. Perhaps the University of the West Indies' Department of Government could dedicate resources to come up with a formula for a more equitable way of providing resources to constituencies.
On another note, totally unrelated to the use of state resources by either political parties or the people's representatives, I see where Senate President Floyd Morris has taken the view that he relied on the correct Standing Order when he treated with an outburst from Tom Tavares-Finson during the sitting of the Senate two weeks ago. While not getting into a quarrel with the president, I am convinced that I am on sound footing, and that my rebuttal of the president's version will lead to a better understanding of the matter.
Strictly interpreting Section 42 of the Standing Orders, I formed the view, and expressed such belief in this column last week, that Morris should have relied on another Standing Order in seeking to remedy the breach.
Standing Order 42 reads: "Whenever the President or the Chairman rises during a Debate, any Member then speaking or offering to speak shall sit down, and the Senate or Committee shall be silent so that the President or Chairman may be heard without interruption".
The fact, however, is that Morris, at the material time, did not rise, but remained seated when he was addressing Tavares-Finson, who was out of order, and should have been punished under Standing Order 43 (2) which states that the president or chairman shall order any member whose conduct is grossly disorderly to withdraw immediately from the Senate during the remainder of that day's sitting, and may direct such steps to be taken as are necessary to enforce such order.
Erskine May: Parliamentary Practice, which is considered to be the most authoritative and influential work in parliamentary procedure and British constitutional convention, also pours cold water on any suggestion that the term 'rise' is a term of art, as had been suggested.
May says that "whenever the Speaker rises to intervene in a debate, he should be heard in silence, and any Member who is speaking or offering to speak should immediately sit down".
"Members who do not maintain silence, or who attempt to address the Speaker, are called to order by the majority of the House with loud cries of 'order' and 'Chair'. A Member who persists in standing after the Speaker has risen and refuses to resume his seat when directed by the Chair to do so may be either directed to withdraw from the House for the remainder of the sitting or named for disregarding the authority of the Chair."
Indeed, there is precedence in the Senate for a president to rise whenever there is grossly disorderly conduct. The Reverend Stanley Redwood, who Morris succeeded as president, on one occasion in 2012, noted that there is a Standing Order that requires that there be silence whenever the president rises. He then stood and brought order to the Senate.
So there is precedent for standing. Morris cannot properly rely on Standing Order 42 while being seated as it specifically speaks to when the president rises.
Therefore, it is not sufficient to use the argument that the convention where people shut up while the president is speaking has pride of place over the Standing Orders. The rule has been honoured in the breach over time, and it would make sense for the Senate's Standing Order Committee to simply replace the word 'rises' with the word 'intervenes'.
And for the record president Morris, although you are blind, you are a very wise man. I have never doubted that.