Opposition calls Parliament’s new $18 million PA system a ‘gag-o-phone’
Gordon House, government say it was essential to replace ageing, malfunctioning equipment
The new state-of-the-art microphone system installed in the Jamaican Parliament over the summer holidays, and which gives the presiding officer sole authority to determine who speaks and when, cost approximately $18 million, The Sunday Gleaner was...
The new state-of-the-art microphone system installed in the Jamaican Parliament over the summer holidays, and which gives the presiding officer sole authority to determine who speaks and when, cost approximately $18 million, The Sunday Gleaner was told.
According to a statement from Gordon House, it was necessary to replace the malfunctioning system that was more than 30 years old.
On March 16, Prime Minister Andrew Holness’ Budget Debate presentation was interrupted for almost an hour due to a microphone malfunction.
But the new public address (PA) system is already generating controversy, drawing the ire of members of the Opposition on the resumption of Parliament on Tuesday, who accused the Government of trying to muzzle them because the House Speaker has sole control over who is allowed to speak.
The office of Parliament said the new setup is a Televic D-Cerno conference system, which consists of two ‘chairperson’ consoles – one at the presiding officer’s desk for meetings of the Senate and House; and the other at the chairperson’s desk for use in committee meetings. The other consoles are ‘single delegate’ units, which allow the presiding officer/committee chairperson sole control to open the microphone of a member who has pressed the button to signal his/her intention to speak.
The new system automatically selects the member to speak based on the order in which persons signal their intention; that is, the first person to indicate that he/she wishes to speak will be the first person allowed.
The old system had only one ‘chairperson’ console, which was located at the presiding officer’s desk and gave the presiding officer the ability to mute other microphones. There was also a manual interface located above the Chamber that allowed the user to open and mute the microphones. However, this option was not used as it would have to be operated by a member of staff and the Standing Orders only give the duty of deciding the order of speakers to the presiding officer or chairperson.
With the newly installed system, members wait to be acknowledged in keeping with Standing Order 32(1).
Checks by The Sunday Gleaner revealed that a similar Televic D-Cerno conference system is used in Trinidad and Tobago’s Parliament. At least one other Caribbean country uses a similar system to what Jamaica just discarded, while others use variations of the new and old.
Natalie Neita Garvey, the deputy leader of opposition business in the House of Representatives, is contending that there was no consultation in installing the new system.
The Opposition has described the system as a “gag-o-phone” with the sole purpose of preventing its members from speaking on critical matters. It noted that if a member has not been acknowledged by the chair and persists in speaking, their comments will not be captured by the Hansard writers, who must record every word said in the Chambers.
On Tuesday, Opposition leader Mark Golding stood in the House, telling then Speaker Marisa Dalrymple-Philibert that he wished to ask a question after she had tabled a report from the Integrity Commission on a matter concerning her.
Golding engaged the new system, which showed a green light, indicating that his attempt was registered. However, he was not acknowledged. The Speaker, without hearing the question, told the House that the report was referred to two committees and would not be discussed in keeping with the Standing Orders.
Golding then led an Opposition walkout of the sitting, saying the system was a plot to silence them.
“This incident suggests an institutionalised strategy aimed at silencing the Opposition in Parliament, especially when it comes to the most critical matters. It undermines the core principles of parliamentary democracy, including robust debate, accountability, and checks and balances,” said Neita Garvey in a release from the People’s National Party.
“The Opposition strongly objects to this slide towards autocracy within the House. Using the microphone system to stifle dissent and silence the people’s representatives is an abuse of power and seriously weakens our parliamentary democracy. We call on all Jamaicans, regardless of political affiliation, to join us in condemning this dangerous development,” she said.
According to her, the system reduces spontaneous interaction, which was not good for democracy.
The Opposition has called the former Speaker blatantly partisan in her handling of the sittings, noting that opposition members have been denied the opportunity to speak while government members have been allowed. The Opposition said that under her stewardship, its members were often called out for “unparliamentary behaviour”, while members of the ruling party would “do the same things and not get called out”.
UNLIKELY TO IMPROVE BEHAVIOUR
Information Minister Robert Morgan is rubbishing the gag claims by the Opposition, while admitting that the new system is unlikely to improve behaviour in the Chambers.
“No. I don’t think it will. But we have to insist that the Standing Orders are followed. People can’t object when the Standing Orders are cited as it does not suit them or their agenda and then cite it when it suits them. The Opposition leader has cited the Standing Orders against me in the House. And when it is used like it was on Tuesday, they walk out,” Morgan told The Sunday Gleaner on Friday.
Pearnel Charles Sr, who served as Speaker between 2016 and 2020, also noted that the Standing Orders require that the person be acknowledged by the Speaker before speaking.
He told The Sunday Gleaner that this was at times ignored by some members.
“However, one Mr Peter Bunting was the most disrespectful member I can recall. He would simply get up and say ‘Mr Speaker’, and without being acknowledged, begin to speak so I just left him alone,” Charles said.
Members of government have also been accused of similar behaviour.
Charles noted that the old PA system was in bad shape, and many times, members had to verbally get his attention as the microphones frequently malfunctioned. He said that as far as he was aware, the system was controlled by engineers in the Parliament.
He would not comment on the new system, stating that he was not au fait with its features.
Senate President Tom Tavares-Finson said the new system was sourced and purchased by the Office of the Clerk of the House.
“The Government is not responsible for how it operates, procurement or anything to do with the system. Like the PNP, we will learn to operate it. It is a new system that replaces the one that has been there for decades,” he told The Sunday Gleaner.
Tavares-Finson said it was “ludicrous and childish” to suggest that it will infringe on members’ democratic rights.
In its statement, the Clerk’s office said the new PA system was installed by Caribbean Technology Solutions.
It said there were some key considerations in choosing the new system. Among them was that a state-of-the-art system was needed, which had a series parallel circuitry so that in the event of one unit malfunctioning, there would not be a complete shutdown.
It was also important to get a system that was durable and less susceptible to malfunctioning because of the repeated desk banging – a feature of parliamentary meetings – and one with a suitable after-sales agreement, “to ensure cost-effective preventative maintenance and/or repair of the system in the future”.
It is also hoped that the new system will aid in greater adherence to Standing Orders.
“It promotes greater adherence to the Standing Orders, particularly Standing Order 32, which addresses the ‘Time and Manner of Speaking’. It allows persons to speak in the order in which they signalled their intention to speak and removes the possibility of the member who indicated his/her intention to speak first not being noticed by the presiding officer/chairperson,” the office of Parliament noted.
However, it acknowledged that if a presiding officer/chairperson does not notice that a member signalled an intention to speak, the person’s microphone will not be opened.