INDEPENDENT senators will not be molested or bullied in the performance of their duties as outlined by the Constitution and the law. Independent Senator Anthony Vieira made this declaration on Tuesday as he recalled the abuse meted out to him and his eight senatorial colleagues by opposition parliamentarians (senators and MPs) during a sitting of the Electoral College (the combined membership of the Senate and House of Representatives) on October 21.
On that day, the college rejected a motion filed by Opposition Leader Kamla Persad-Bissessar to appoint a tribunal to investigate the removal from office of President Paula-Mae Weekes.
Persad-Bissessar’s motion was in relation to events that led to the collapse of the Police Service Commission (PSC) in September and the failure to send a merit list of candidates for a commissioner of police (CoP) to the House for consideration.
Before debate began on a motion filed by Vieira to censure the conduct of the six opposition senators during the college's meeting on October 21, Senate President Christine Kangaloo instructed Opposition Senator Damian Lyder to leave the chamber because of an inaudible comment he made. Opposition Senator David Nahkid was told by Kangaloo to take his seat and be quiet, in relation to a comment that he made.
As Vieira prepared to speak, Opposition Senators Jayanti Lutchmedial, Jearlean John, Anil Roberts and Nahkid left the chamber. Opposition Senator Wade Mark remained behind as the sole UNC representative, for most of the debate. with Roberts and Lyder later returning to the chamber.
"While some members of the opposition (senatorial) bench were more prominent with the heckling and the insults...all (opposition parliamentarians- MPs and senators), all were involved in the charade." Vieira continued after Kangaloo reminded him the motion dealt with opposition senators and not MPs.
"Whether by booing, pounding the tables and adding to the general cacophony. All engaged in the conduct, amounting to an improper interference of the free performance of members of the independent bench." He observed, "Whether collectively or singly, this amounts to molestation."
Anyone describing the Opposition's behaviour on October 21 as picong, is a misrepresentation of the truth. "Picong and good natured- heckling among friends is not meant to traumatise. People should recognise the Opposition's behaviour for what it was.
" Unapologetic comments intended to insult, embarrass and obstruct independent senators whilst performing our duties as members of the Electoral College." Vieira said Independent Senator Charisse Seepersad, sister of former PSC chair Bliss Seepersad, was traumatised by the Opposition's conduct.
He walked Seepersad to her car after the college's meeting had ended. " I can tell you, she was fearful, anxious, confused. There is a big difference between experiencing something and just witnessing it."
The Opposition's actions, Vieira continued, was designed to bully independent senators. "But I believe that we must stand up against bullies and fight back." All of the UNC's actions had a common thread of questioning the independence of independent senators. Vieira recalled that up to November 21, Mark was continuing that strategy by calling for the revocation of his senatorial appointment.
He expected more of Mark as a former speaker and wondered whether the UNC was aware of how its actions were out of step with its own claims about the death of free speech in TT.
"Is the Opposition blind to the contradiction between their walk and their talk?"
As someone appointed as an independent senator by two former presidents, one of whom was in office while the UNC-led People's Partnership coalition was in government, Vieira said, "Neither president has ever contacted me, has ever asked me to speak, to vote on anything, in any particular way. They don't do that."
Vieira said none of the independent senators expected to be turned into pinatas and be publicly humiliated. The opposition's behaviour was both a breach of privilege and a contempt of Parliament.
The trauma inflicted by the Opposition was not confined to the independent senators. Vieira said Speaker Bridgid Annisette-George (in her role as chair of the college), the Parliament's staff and the population who watched the events unfold live on television and online.
The attacks against independent senators continued after October 21. For questioning whether her motion was doomed to fail, Vieira said Persad-Bissessar "unleashed her supporters to rain political blows on me and the independent bench."
Vieira underscored his personal independence and the roles of independent senators as outlined in the Constitution. "I have nothing against the UNC. This is not about choosing between red, yellow or any colour. I am the same towards all." While their actions were a breach of privilege and in contempt of Parliament Vieira was not calling for any opposition senator to be suspended or expelled from the Senate.
This was a matter of standing up for TT and upholding Parliament's dignity,which all parliamentarians have as their sworn duty. Vieira recalled being furious about what happened on October 21 but not deciding immediately to file this motion.
"Resolve came after the opposition noise machine began heaping insult on to injury." Vieira reminded the public that unlike Government and the Opposition, independent senators are not a political party and do not function like one. Whenever he disagreed with the Government, Vieira said he was never accused by government senators of being a UNC member.
There is no connection between this motion and Persad-Bissessar's "now extinct motion" to remove Weekes from office. Vieira said, "The two matters are separate and distinguishable." He recalled being contacted by ambassadors, judges and ordinary citizens about the Opposition's behaviour.
Vieira quoted messages he received from a judge who felt comments made by Lutchmedial in the media after October 21, were unbecoming of a junior attorney. He was saddened that the event was witnessed by school children and their teacher. Vieira said one student asked the teacher if the UNC would be sent to detention for their behaviour
As former sportsmen, Vieira said Roberts and Nakhid knew the Opposition's conduct was wrong. Direct challenges to the referee can result in a red card. "You must leave the pitch." He quoted comments made by Roberts and Nakhid against Annisette-George's rulings during the college meeting as evidence of this.
Whether or not a code of conduct is established for senators, there must be no compromise on proper conduct in Parliament. Vieira warned, "When you start attacking people instead of ideas, it's a slippery slope."
Vieira's motion to censure opposition opposition senator, comes months after the Senate's Privileges Committee said Roberts should be censured for claims he made about Kangaloo on his Douglar Politics social media programme. Roberts apologised to Kangaloo and the Senate for his comments.