President Paula-Mae Weekes’ recent scolding of both Parliament and its politicians raised serious questions regarding the role of parliament, more precisely, the role of the opposition in a Westminster-type democracy. Many of the political blunders she cited are really symptoms of a frustrating, dysfunctional parliament needing constitutional reform; and a review of the relationships between the political party, the executive and parliament.
President Weekes declared: “Parliament and its members have long been objects of public derision.” And with rolling rhetoric, she asked, “If unnecessary contentions, the exchange of wild accusations and insults and abrupt withdrawals are the order of the day, how and when will the people’s business be conducted?” Both PM Dr Keith Rowley and Opposition Leader Kamla Persad-Bissessar, for different reasons, disagreed with the President.
“Abrupt withdrawals?” Ms Persad-Bissessar felt these words fell into her political garden, so she hit back with: “Yes, we are elected to represent persons and sometimes we have to do it stridently.” Regarding the President’s call to “work together,” Ms Persad-Bissessar explained: “It would be unreal that everyone should have the same perspective on every issue.” Constitutionally correct here.
More than that, the evolution of parliamentary democracy shows that with the sudden possession of power, government politicians become quickly seduced into corruption, extremely self-serving, resistant to accountability while busy manipulating the system to retain office. Their quickened transformation from ordinary persons into ugly arrogance and selfish distance is plausibly echoed in Samuel Butler’s verse: “Power, the fumes of it invade the brain and make men giddy, proud and vain.” The opposition’s role in a spacious democracy is to help tame this curse and when resisted, use whatever parliamentary device available.
Last May 1, UNC MP Saddam Hosein, after several questions, asked National Security Minister Fitzgerald Hinds in Parliament whether “$66 million will go towards the purchase” of spyware devices. (Response from Hansard record) Hinds: “I will treat that foolish, idiotic question with silence.” (The word “foolish” was ordered out). Even if irritated, Mr Hinds is experienced enough to know of a different way as the President advised. Like the minister, Mr Hosein represents thousands of citizens.
The need for a parliamentary opposition gained constitutional status to provide checks and balances on government. Certainly, an elected government must be allowed to govern but govern fairly, equitably, and with integrity: hence the godly oath of office. The Opposition naturally gets frustrated when their questions are not properly answered, when matters for debate are circulated just hours before, when due respect is not given to them. And frankly, I have long sympathised with any opposition when they face the powers of a majority government whose executive (cabinet) virtually controls our Westminster parliament.
I wish to cite three troubling ground-level issues which need accountability, attention from civil society and some quiet advice from the President to the PM. These may not be as glamorous or seductive as oil and gas but are not cursed by the “Dutch disease.” We need the money but remember this is a commodity exploited by foreign companies and shakily dependent on international politics.
The Government needs to show much greater attention to local food production in its various forms. From the World Bank to Caricom, there are warnings of crippling food shortages. The president should press politicians on this. Two months ago this column asked: “Why is Government not ensuring that the Moruga Agro-Processing and Light Industrial Park and Gran Chemin Fishing Depot are fully functional?
How can the Government say “there is no land for agriculture?” There is less and less land for agriculture because of misguided housing development. Why seize some seven precious agriculturally-purposed lands in the heart of congested St Joseph to build a 504-unit complex? Doesn’t urban planner Dr Armstrong have a view on this. Or Drs Townend and Furlonge? Or even the President?
What about Clico assets held by government? Finance Minister Colm Imbert should provide in his budget speech the full list of all Clico assets – those already disposed and those currently on hold. This high-finance matter has drawn some $20 billion taxpayers’ money into that curious rescue effort. This country now exists with a dysfunctional parliamentary system and a threatening economic climate. It may help if the President presses the politicians to do what is right.