Lambert Brown, Contributor
During Prime Minister Portia Simpson Miller's contribution to the Budget Debate last Tuesday, there were several signs of the growing maturity of our parliamentarians on both sides of the aisle. On different occasions, members of the Opposition were seen publicly applauding comments and benefits announced by the prime minister. This has not been the norm in our Parliament for a very long time.
Our partisan political divide has meant that opposition parties basically oppose, oftentimes for opposing sake. Tuesday was different and may have been the result of a confident Simpson Miller reaching out to wish happy birthday to the daughter of Opposition Spokesman on Finance, Audley Shaw. She did this despite the blistering critique of the Government delivered by Shaw, in his own Budget presentation days before.
Opposition Leader Andrew Holness was caustic towards the Government. He went for the jugular of the prime minister, accusing her of deceiving the people. There was tension in the air, and chatter of planned protests was in circulation. The stage was set for a battle royal in Parliament during the week when the Queen of Jamaica was celebrating her diamond jubilee.
It is against that background that notice must be taken of the decency displayed by our members of parliament last Tuesday. Make no mistake, the debate was not a Sunday school picnic; it was robust. Biting comments were made, but mutual respect was shown. Unusually, the prime minister, on numerous occasions, gave credit to the Opposition for programmes it either commenced or continued in its four short years in government. That Mrs Simpson Miller demonstrated honesty and respect in her contribution augurs well for our politics going forward.
Jamaica 50 sobering our politicians
The fact that our nation is celebrating 50 years of Independence this year may very well be having a sobering impact on our politicians. That the example of good behaviour was breached on Wednesday should not detract from the reality that decency is possible. Six years ago, when Portia Simpson Miller rose to give her first presentation in the Budget Debate, she was heckled and disrupted on several occasions. Her plea for respect and decency was seen as weakness.
As The Gleaner reported on May 10, 2006: "Prime Minister Portia Simpson Miller's first contribution to the Budget Debate in Parliament yesterday was not without incident as the House descended into a stormy exchange following her pronouncement that the Opposition had come with a plan to heckle her during her presentation."
Two years later, with a new government in place, The Gleaner of April 3, 2008, carried the following headlines: "Rabble-rousers reign free in Parliament - Montague forced to apologise for foul utterances again". It would appear that our parliamentarians are beginning to get the message that the country wanted constructive dialogue and cooperation instead of constant bickering. The fact that Phillip Paulwell and Delroy Chuck, respective government and opposition House leaders, are cooperating, and so, too, are A.J. Nicholson and Arthur Williams in the Senate, makes good sense and could foretell a vibrant and productive parliamentary session this year. The Government has promised to pass over 30 pieces of legislation this year. This will require serious scrutiny of each bill, vigorous debate, and a willingness to find consensus through compromise. The Budget Debate, therefore, has provided a good template to go forward.
It certainly was refreshing to see the warm greetings received by the prime minister from the Opposition at the end of her two-and-a-half-hour presentation which Dr Peter Phillips described as a "tour de force by my prime minister". Mrs Simpson Miller was critical of the previous Government's performance. She was critical of ideas and policies, but avoided personalities. This is how a mature democracy must debate issues, and Jamaica passed that test in the recent debate, especially considering this most difficult time in our economy when the dispensing of bitter medicine was the option facing our leaders. We should all be proud of this achievement. There are many countries in the world which cannot claim such political maturity.
PM's obvious confidence
It would be remiss of me not to note and appreciate the obvious confidence displayed by Prime Minister Simpson Miller in choosing to act like a statesman rather than yield to the temptation of political partisanship. Her acknowledgement, and rapport with the diplomatic community present in Parliament revealed that the prime minister, who has had meetings with presidents Bush and Obama, among other world leaders, is not only comfortable with dealing with foreign affairs but does so with aplomb. The many doubting Thomases who expected her to embarrass Jamaica must now acknowledge that their fears are unfounded.
The fact that some people have expressed criticisms that she departed too much from her prepared text on Tuesday, must be Mrs Simpson Miller's answer to those who argued that she could not speak on her feet without a written script. The fact that Mrs Simpson Miller had a full day of Cabinet and a state function at 9 p.m. on Monday, and according to sources at Jamaica House, stayed up until after 3 a.m. working on her Budget presentation, are indicative of a leader not afraid of hard work.
The call on parents to take responsibility for the proper upbringing of their children was needed from the highest levels of authority in our country. It should resonate through every parish, district, and community in Jamaica. It should be repeated often until positive attitudes and values become the norm among all Jamaicans.
This is a time of serious challenges in our country. The economy needs all hands on deck, with every single Jamaican contributing the widow's mite and more. The conduct of our parliamentarians on Tuesday gave hope that a new approach to tackling our nation's problems is possible. We must not allow it to slip from our grasp.