Standing lessons in 'Order'
TWO INCIDENTS in the Parliament have brought into sharp focus the need for legislators to not only be au fait with the Standing Orders but also for those rules to be respected.
The first matter pertains to the walkout by the Opposition after the speaker of the House of Representatives, Michael Peart, correctly interpreted the Standing Orders and decided answers from Prime Minister Portia Simpson Miller to questions tabled by Opposition Leader Andrew Holness were not yet due.
As history will recall, despite having egg over their faces, the Opposition made one of the tamest walkouts of Parliament that one will ever see. The walkout was not caused by the failure of the Government or a government member to abide by House rules or deliver on a promise, it was not motivated by disrespect, and it was not due to acrimony or unfair refereeing by the Speaker. It was just a cheap political signal, which was meant to put pressure on the Government, particularly Simpson Miller, over the handling of the National Housing Trust-Outameni affair.
ANSWERS NOT DUE
Under the Standing Orders, at least seven clear days must elapse before questions on matters of urgent national importance become due for answer. Holness' questions to Simpson Miller would have been due for answer on Wednesday, a day which the House can also sit.
Phillip Paulwell, the leader of government business, has said he decided for similar urgent questions to be answered three weeks ago by Simpson Miller, even though seven days had not passed, because of the provision in the Standing Orders for Prime Minister's Question Time. Under the Standing Orders, a part of the business of the day on every second Tuesday is Prime Minister's Question Time.
But discretion is often the gateway to corruption, and with the rules being bent earlier, the Opposition expected a perpetual breach. However, the rules are there for a reason, and if members of parliament feel strongly that they are stumbling blocks, they should change the rules.
Let us recall that at the start of the life of this Parliament in 2012, the Opposition questioned whether Simpson Miller would follow one of her predecessors, Bruce Golding, and take oral questions during Prime Minister's Question Time. The response was that she would follow the Standing Orders. At the time, the Opposition indicated it would be moving to amend the rules. No motion to that regard has been put before the Parliament. Instead, the Standing Orders committee has found more important work to do, such as amending the rules to mandate male members of the press to wear suits and ties.
POLITICALLY GOOD MOVE
But it is a politically good move for the Opposition to have the Standing Orders remain the way they are. It can always be held up as being proof that Simpson Miller is unable to think on her feet and that she has to read from a script.
Holness said last week that the prime minister has a duty to present answers to the people forthwith, arguing that in some jurisdictions, they don't even get time to research the answers. I think that is dangerous, especially if it is a matter on which the prime minister has not been briefed.
Like Holness and most Jamaicans, I would like to hear from the prime minister more often; I would want her to answer piercing questions. But it would be dangerous if the holder of such an important office is required to speak on issues for which the answers need in-depth research (perhaps that is why after nearly three years, I am still awaiting an interview with Mrs Simpson Miller as her handlers are ensuring she's properly briefed).
DISRESPECT IN SENATE
Now, from the House and the Mickey Mouse walkout to the flagrant disrespect shown to the president of the Senate, Floyd Morris.
Under the Standing Orders of the Senate, whenever the president or 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.
There has been this tendency, especially on the part of Robert Montague, to speak while the president is speaking, as if he is seeking to overrule the presiding officer. This is a behaviour which conflicts with Montague's commitment to be supportive of his blind schoolmate and St Mary colleague.
Last week, things got ugly when Tom Tavares-Finson, the leader of opposition business, decided he had had enough of Morris being unfair to him and constantly telling him to either be quiet or to sit down. Truth be told, Tavares-Finson is no Montague. He will seek to push the envelope, but it was out of character for him to stand and confront Morris in the way he did last Friday.
Montague, on the other hand, has a habit of making statements, even after the president has ruled against it. He has specialised in acknowledging the ruling of the president and, in the same breath, defy his ruling. This is ugly and contemptuous.
Morris has said that he will no longer tolerate such behaviour, and one hopes that when the Senate meets on Thursday, Tavares-Finson - and more so Montague - will apologise for what happened last Friday.
If Montague, in particular, fails to withdraw his "a hope what you start yuh can finish" comment, history may not be kind to him, and the quest to make this Senate the best since Independence would become an even more elusive dream.
But in the same way the House needs to revisit its Standing Orders, especially as it relates to asking questions, the Senate must take a look at how order is maintained. From my reading of the rules, there is no requirement for silence while the president sits, and the president hardly rises to speak.
Montague attempted to bring to the attention of the president that he had relied on the wrong Standing Order in dealing with the Tavares-Finson matter. The Gavel agrees. The appropriate Standing Order is 43(4), which calls for the suspension of a member from the Senate for persistent breaches of the rules. Tavares-Finson's defiant behaviour fell into that category last Friday.
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