Sat | Jun 6, 2020

Ronald Thwaites | For the record

Published:Monday | April 6, 2020 | 12:17 AM
We who were being accused of being disrespectful had in fact been the victims of disrespect dished out by the very accusers!
We who were being accused of being disrespectful had in fact been the victims of disrespect dished out by the very accusers!

LAST MONDAY afternoon at 4:30 p.m., I was disappointed by a notice from Parliament that the sitting of the House of Representatives scheduled for the next day was cancelled. Disappointed because parliamentary duties are what I am sworn and paid to perform, and because I had prepared to contribute to the debate on two important pieces of new legislation which could assist thousands more Jamaicans to obtain registered titles for land. No date for a resumption was indicated.

My quick thought was that, finally, the Government was heeding its own directive about social distancing, especially since almost a quarter of the members, including this writer, are senior citizens. The Chamber is fairly close quarters and since virtual work is the new order, why were we still meeting in the normal way in these abnormal times?

But on Tuesday afternoon at 3 p.m., there was a summons from the same source, informing me that the House would be meeting at 2 p.m., one hour earlier. No explanation was offered. No emergency indicated. Later in the evening, absent members would be excoriated publicly by the House Leader’s bromides about abandoning responsibility and the prime minister’s sneer about not “standing by”.

Does that narrative indicate the mutual respect we should be showing each other, particularly in this time of unparalleled national crisis? We who were being accused of being disrespectful had, in fact, been the victims of disrespect dished out by the very accusers! Talk about upside-down reasoning!

Look here: please stop jerking us around. This event was just the latest instance of the dysfunctional, ‘chacka-chacka’ Parliament that is being foisted upon the nation, to the peril of our national democracy.

There is no end to the evidence. I have been trying to pose questions to the minister of foreign affairs to find out who Jamaica voted for to be the secretary general of the Organization of American States, and whether we support efforts for regime change in Venezuela. Speaker Charles is trying to disallow them on the basis that they relate to state “policy”. Of course, they do. Policy positions which are being deliberately withheld from the public and about which it is appropriate to enquire on their behalf.

There is no issue of sensitive national security or public health here. The administration is afraid of disclosing and defending the truth about the decisions they have taken on the nation’s behalf, without consultation or the opportunity for debate and questioning. Autocracy, high-handedness and hubris abound.

The Cabinet is the executive of the Parliament and is subject to it – not the other way around, as these people would have it. Ministerial office is to be respected, but whatever they do must be subject to question and review.

The prime minister is primus inter pares. He is not Caesar. Ironically, it was this proper understanding of his role that led him, ineffectually as it turned out, to want to explain the emergency measures in Parliament.

The honourables Everald Warmington and Pearnel Charles, Snr delight in their selective recourse to the Standing Orders, an effete set of procedural rules which are in urgent need of revision. They routinely ignore several stipulations when it suits the Government, while invoking others against the Opposition.

To tease the venerable PPC for a moment: blatant disorder coming from members seated to the white side of the Speaker’s hairdo seem never to register in his ears trumpet, while, let the noise rise from the darker half, there is instant reprimand.

NOT SERIOUSLY ENOUGH

There is supposed to be a committee that reviews the Standing Orders, many of which stifle discourse and urgent inquiry with procedural trivialities. Predictably, the committee has not met for years.

I keep telling you: Parliament does not take itself seriously enough and easily descends to a place for tribal profiling. Motions are parked forever, and questions are answered whenever.

Moving from the seriously bothersome to the ridiculous, do you know that at every sitting we still pray for the welfare of the Queen before the intercession for our people? At state openings, the colonial virus (pun intended) is let loose as we add Philip, Charles and the rest of the royal family to be presented in pride of first place – before the Lord for the graces of ‘prassperty’. Yet, a simple, revised prayer lifting up the Jamaican people has not merited even five minutes of consideration for two years.

The role of members, now even more than before, has become less of legislators and more of social workers trying to ease the grief and starvation of constituents, now bereft of employment or hustling and fearful of this disease. Thanks for the extra to the Constituency Development Fund, but sharing it out will be a cruel exercise of triage.

This is not the job most of us signed up for. Instead, we should be legislating a radically reworked Budget that contains a comprehensive system of social security so that hunger, ignorance, disrespect and squalor do not end up rivaling COVID-19 as the main causes of death and national disorder.

Ronald Thwaites is member of parliament for Kingston Central. Email feedback to columns@gleanerjm.com.