Lambert Brown, Contributor
The recent outrageous behaviour by some of our parliamentarians during the discussion of the Estimates of Expenditure by the Standing Finance Committee of Parliament has left me very worried about the future of our country.
So bad it was that The Gleaner captioned its report from Parliament "Rabble-rousers reign free in parliament". Indeed, when ministers of government are so described as "rabble-rousers" without any dissent or murmur from the Cabinet or their political party, it simply confirms how deplorable the conduct of these 'honourable ministers' has become.
Apart from disgracing our nation, their party and themselves, I am deeply concerned about the example they are setting for the younger generation.
Imagine the following scenario: A young boy in school gets up and shouts out in class that his teacher is dishonest. In fact, he keeps repeating the same thing, disrupting the class. He is taken to the school's principal for corrective action. The boy, however, claims he did nothing wrong and asserts that he was justified in what he did. His defence continues that he was watching television and saw it happen in Parliament. Nothing could be wrong, therefore, with such behaviour on his part if our leaders engage in such conduct. Like that little boy, other viewers of the nation's television stations saw the "Honourable Robert Montague, minister of state in the Office of the Prime Minister", described former Agriculture Minister Roger Clarke as dishonest. I hope the rabble-rousers will reflect on the damage they are doing to our people by such a vulgar and crass display of arrogance.
Unfortunately, I doubt that any lessons will be learned by these young Turks, drunk on the new wine of fleeting electoral success.
This behaviour is not new on their part. Former Prime Minister Seaga, as leader of the JLP, had to rebuke some of them and cautioned them about entering his political constituency.
I well recall two years ago, when another former prime minister, Portia Simpson Miller, was heckled by some of these same members of Parliament while she made her maiden Budget presentation as prime minister. Then, many people criticised her for demanding a higher level of decorum and respect for each other in Parliament. She was weak and couldn't manage the rigour of parliamentary proceedings, some thought. She couldn't stand the heat, so she should leave the kitchen, others opined. An insufficient number of us recognised that she was really calling for the observance of a higher level of conduct by our national leaders. Maybe we refused to recognise her warning that "a nuh the same day leaf go a river bottom it rotten". Now the leaf is indeed starting to decay. Fortunately, the 'dissing' in Parliament did not lead to more than a walk-out by Roger Clarke. Other undesirable responses could have been pursued.
Allegations of dishonesty
In response to allegations of dishonesty, Clarke could have asked questions about which minister's former secretary had been recently jailed for nearly US$3,000 of taxpayers' money being unaccounted for. He could also have asked who the Minister was who should have made the trip abroad and didn't go. Clarke's restraint should be commended and taught to our kids as part of the Peace and Love in Schools (PALS) programme. Both the prime minister and the speaker should also be commended for taking a stand against the disgraceful and inappropriate conduct of their party colleague. They stood up in this case for the finest traditions of our Parliament in requesting the minister to apologise.
We must endeavour to adhere to the best practices of parliamentary conduct, rather than countenance the rowdy, raucous and disruptive performance of some Asian varieties we see from time to time on television.
The strength of a robust Parliament is not to be measured in the amount of disrespect displayed or the coarse shouting of the rabble-rousers from either side. Instead, the strength of Parliament is to be found in the high quality of debates, underpinned by passionate presentations of persuasive argument and the high degree of civility and respect shown to each other. This is the way to get people to respect our politicians. This is the way to attract decency back into the body politic. This is the way to build national unity so desperately needed. Most important, by planting these seeds of peace and harmony, we will destroy the poisonous weeds of tribalism and reap the beautiful flowers associated with a united and productive Jamaican nation.
Maybe with the current election season well and truly on in the United States, our politicians could learn some lessons from how the candidates and their surrogates conduct themselves in the political process. It is the norm for people debating each other or engaged in public discourse with their opponents to describe each other as "my friend". In the recent State of The Nation speech to Congress by President Bush, both Republicans and Democrats found things to applaud, and even to give a standing ovation - all this despite profound and fundamental differences and disagreements between the parties.
I dream of the day when, instead of rabble-rousers reigning free in our Parliament and partisan conduct ruling supreme, the national interest will triumph and issues relevant to our people will dominate the thoughts and deeds of our parliamentarians. There is still time to stretch down and rescue the leaf from the bottom of the river.
Lambert Brown is president of the University and Allied Workers Union and can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.