Gordon Robinson, Contributor
One thing we won't be celebrating this 50th birthday is our parliamentarians' behaviour.
Over the years, we've tried to copy the United Kingdom (UK) House of Commons' style, but lacking its wit and charm, we've only succeeded in creating a House of Common Vulgarity. Missiles and insults alike have been cast across the aisle as medieval armies would cast stones from catapults into enemies' midst. We can't even copycat properly. Our crass, cowardly and ignorant parliamentarians say things under the protection of 'parliamentary privilege' that they wouldn't dare say outside the House for fear of being sued (or worse).
In the UK Parliament, MPs were careful about what they said about each other in respectful apprehension of possible dire consequences. On May 27, 1798, at the height of the Britain-France war, Prime Minister William Pitt fought a duel on Putney Common against George Tierney, MP, treasurer of the navy, president of the board of control, and master of the Mint. The duel arose from a statement in Parliament made by Pitt which Tierney interpreted as a comment on his personal courage.
At the duel, both parties fired and missed. There was some public dismay at the unfairness of the choice of weapons as Pitt was a very thin man while Tierney was very fat, thus making him the larger target. Satisfaction met on both sides, the two men withdrew.
It brings back another witty limerick from my childhood (amended for insert in a family newspaper):
"In days of old when men were bold and women were not invented, men put their socks between two rocks and went away quite contented."
This sort of contest provided enough friction-induced adrenaline rush for men of the time. Had wives been involved, we'd have had a singing, baking or hugging contest instead.
'Duking' it out
On March 23, 1829, a duel was fought between the Earl of Winchilsea and the Duke of Wellington, former commander of the victorious allied army at Waterloo; victor of several battles against Napoleon; and British prime minister.
The duel arose out of an apparent flip-flop by Wellington, resulting in his supporting the Catholic Relief Bill, an act to improve Catholic emancipation. Winchilsea, a staunch Protestant, accused Wellington of deception. Wellington felt insulted. Correspondence failed to resolve the rift.
The parties and their seconds met in the early morning on Battersea Fields (among the cabbages, as the Morning Herald observed). Wellington fired first, but missed. Winchilsea then discharged his pistol in the air. With both party's honour satisfied, the Earl then tendered a retraction and an apology, which the Duke accepted.
Unfortunately, we don't fight duels anymore. If we did, the appalling behaviour of MPs, including J.C. Hutchinson ('Hutch') and Everrude Warmington (obviously 'Starsky'), on July 3, mightn't have occurred. Jamaican media, paralysed by fear of being labelled politically biased, continue to manufacture reasons to assert both sides share blame for any national disgrace. Well, as everyone knows, I don't care. It's my opinion that Hutch's behaviour in Parliament on July 3 was the worst I've ever seen and crossed any conceivable line between decency and indecency. Starsky & Co made matters worse.
Of course, to appear 'balanced', everybody focused on the deputy speaker's loss of cool and misapplication of the Standing Orders. But it's a given that Deputy Dawg, already 'exposed' as one who struggles to keep his pants on, is inept at parliamentary appearances. Yet, suddenly, the bigger problem is his knickers seen again in a twist and his Keystone Kops reaction to parliamentary misconduct?
Fishing for trouble
Hutch, during a heated exchange across the floor, in direct response to an intemperate remark from a young MP, uttered this calumny: "I am no fish in here." Since nobody accused him of even swimming, what he meant was understood by all, sundry and relatives to mean was that the young MP was "a fish". Everybody in Jamaica, from the babe and suckling to the parliamentary buffoon, knows what is meant by 'fish'. But do we realise that in Jamaica, if a respected person makes this allegation, he endangers the safety and even the life of the person accused?
Subsequently, in a desperate scramble to escape responsibility, Hutch trotted out the excuse that he was referring to the young MP's junior status as a 'little fish'. I don't believe him, and this pusillanimous dissembling only compounds the initial disgrace. Everybody Jamaican knows that the expression for 'little fish' is 'small fry' or 'sprat'. Bob knows.
"One good thing about music, when it hits you feel no pain ...
Hit me with music, hit me with music now
This is (Trench Town rock), don't watch that
(Trench Town rock), big fish or sprat ...
(Trench Town rock) You reap what you sow
(Trench Town rock), and only Jah, Jah know."
By the way, Hutch, seniority is no excuse for barbarity. Nothing can justify your egregious act of misconduct. No matter how hot under the collar you may get, remember where you are. Consider Frederick 'Toots' Hibbert's admonition:
"Everybody just cryin' out (cryin' out)
Calm down (calm down).
Have your pomps and pride ... ."
Jamaica needs to review this monster called 'parliamentary privilege', as it appears we're not mature enough to own it. The end of duelling and the beginning of 'parliamentary privilege' has given the clueless and ignorant false courage to make scurrilous attacks.
The origins of parliamentary privilege can be traced back to the Roman Empire where, according to Michel Ameller in his report to the 1993 Budapest Inter-Parliamentary Union (IPU) Symposium: "The tribunes of the people, who were to some extent the parliamentarians of the day, were held to be sacrosanct and accordingly enjoyed special protection. It was strictly prohibited to attack or hinder them in the exercise of their functions. Anyone who infringed that prohibition ... could be executed by the first person to come along."
In a paper presented to the IPU's 2000 symposium titled 'The Parliamentary Mandate - A Global Comparative Study', Marc Van Der Hulst, Belgian House of Representatives' chief legal officer and lecturer at the Université Libre de Bruxelles, having quoted Ameller, wrote: "Although today's right to immunity ... stops short of such action, it's nonetheless based on the same idea: the [people's] representatives must enjoy certain guarantees, on the one hand to underline the dignity, gravity and importance of their office and, on the other and more importantly, to give them the peace of mind they need to discharge their mandate."
History of parliamentary privilege
For countries developing from the British colonial experience, parliamentary privilege's first codification was found in the 1689 UK Bill of Rights, Article 9: "That the Freedom of Speech and Debates or Proceedings in Parlyament ought not to be impeached or questioned in any Court or Place out of Parlyament." This had evolved from the first written thought that subjects enjoyed rights vis-ŕ-vis the Crown (the Magna Carta, 1215); through the 1627 Petition of Rights; then 1670's invaluable Habeas Corpus. Finally, a special category of rights was considered necessary for MPs.
Van Der Hurst opined (quoting again from Ameller): "The Anglo-Saxon concept of immunities ... has its roots in the progressive development of custom, ... slowly but continuously consolidated. In this context, 'the protection of the individual, whether or not ... a parliamentarian, is a natural right and, if by mischance that should not be so, there still remains one last recourse against the encroachment of power: an appeal to justice which has been based since 1215 on the Magna Carta, and ... further specified ... in the Habeas Corpus. It's, therefore, understandable that members of the British Parliament haven't felt the need to establish specific protection for themselves, since common law is sufficient to prevent ... illegal and arbitrary proceedings, arrests and detention.'
Such a system is clearly only possible if there's fundamental agreement in the country on basic political values."
This is the foundation of today's 'absolute privilege'. Since "fundamental agreement in the country on basic political values" remains elusive for Jamaica, we included, in our Constitution, Section 48(3):
"No civil or criminal proceedings may be instituted against any member of either House for words spoken before, or written in a report to, the House ... ."
Has this absolute privilege been used "to underline the dignity, gravity and importance of [MPs'] office ..."? Has its purpose "to give them the peace of mind they need to discharge their mandate" been fulfilled, or has it been abused to slander colleagues? Has Hutch's outburst furthered the "progressive development of custom"? Can we afford 'absolute privilege'?
In 1689, parliamentary proceedings were recorded only in Hansard. Today, cameras broadcast to the world every word spoken in Parliament. In those circumstances, is it that what is said there is truly said "in Parliament" (UK 1689 Bill of Rights) or "words spoken before, or written in a report to, the House" (Jamaica's Constitution)?
It's time our courts look closely at 'absolute privilege' and restrict it to proceedings heard and viewed only within parliamentary walls. As a spiritual truth, it's incongruous to apply the word 'absolute' to human endeavour. The only 'absolute' is God. How many bodies of alleged 'fish' must we find tortured, bludgeoned to death, then discarded on lonely roadsides before we address this vital issue?
Meanwhile, I believe J.C. Hutchinson owes the young MP an unconditional retraction, a fulsome, sincere public apology, and a humble request for forgiveness. Warmongerton owes the marshal a public apology. The scripted farce thrust upon the nation last Tuesday included what seemed sincere apologies from the opposition leader; deputy speaker; prime minister and young MP. Nothing approaching what I believe is owed came from either of the two main culprits, Starsky and Hutch. Jamaica's youth are watching and will assess what they see.
"Everybody's just crying (crying)
dying to see the light.
And, when they see it,
they see it's not bright.
Can this be right?"
To the young MP, I recommend the words of one of the best, most philosophical songs. Music icon Paul McCartney wrote:
"When I find myself in times of trouble,
Mother Mary comes to me
speaking words of wisdom, let it be.
And in my hour of darkness she is
standing right in front of me
speaking words of wisdom, let it be.
Let it be, let it be, let it be, let it be.
Whisper words of wisdom, let it be."
Peace and love.
Gordon Robinson is an attorney-at-law. Email feedback to firstname.lastname@example.org.