PRESIDENT Christine Kangaloo on Monday lauded the diligence of MPs and senators amid some public disdain, but also urged them to collaborate to bring urgent solutions to the country’s rampant crime problem. Clad in all-white as if to portray truth, strength and purity, she offered several messages in her address to all parliamentarians at the ceremonial opening of Parliament at the Red House, Port of Spain.
She said she was amazed anyone ever agreed to become an MP or senator, amidst the burdens of such office.
Kangaloo said Parliament, like the President, was often misunderstood by the general public, even as both institutions could explain their role a bit more.
She claimed the public has been “fed a constant fare of negativity” about Parliament and been “almost programmed into a certain cynicism” on Parliament.
Kangaloo thanked outgoing, incoming and continuing parliamentarians for their service.
She touched on her own past as a senator, MP, minister and eventually Senate President to identify with the plight of MPs.
Just after her election as Pointe-a-Pierre MP in 2007, she was chided by a resident for not being seen since the election, she related incredulously.
She wondered if such cynicism was a simply an autonomic and unfair reaction to all pertaining to Parliament.
Saying TT has an “enormous amount” to be proud about its Parliament, she said, “In a society in which we are programmed to believe that ‘nothing works’, I can tell you that, as an institution, Parliament most certainly does.”
She attested that at commonwealth parliamentary conferences, the TT Parliament is often praised for its efficiency, while its clerks often visit other parliaments as subject-matter experts. On top of sittings on Tuesdays and Fridays, she said Parliament’s joint select committees (JSCs) provide invaluable oversight over government agencies, fostering accountability and public engagement. Several JSC recommendations have been enacted, she said, such as a fee structure for private banks.
Kangaloo said Parliament staff were always working and it was not by accident that Parliament was able to adapt to continue to sit during the pandemic. A lack of appreciation of all that Parliament does allows cynicism to fester, she said.
“Permit me to venture into potentially even less popular waters, and to say that there is also an enormous amount in terms of the sacrifices and the stresses that parliamentarians undergo, that our country can, and should, be grateful for.”
She said her words might seem unpalatable, even as some cynicism of parliamentarians has been earned, such as by breaches of the standing orders.
“Truthfully, sometimes we go too far and descend to depths of which we should be ashamed.
“But, equally truthfully, the work that parliamentarians – particularly elected parliamentarians – do, is fundamental to the well-being of our society, and that kind of work is, I fear, also under-appreciated.”
She recalled as MP once having to help a heavily pregnant woman with children who had just been evicted from her home late at night.
“Elected MPs face and have to deal with these, and sadly, far worse situations, sometimes many times in the course of the same day.
“People in need sometimes expect their elected MPs to pay their grocery bills, buy schoolbooks for their children, and take on the role of plumbers when pipes in their homes burst. Many elected MPs actually do these things.
“Yet, far from being appreciated for their efforts, elected MPs are often ridiculed just for drawing a salary.”
She noted the mistaken beliefs that the State pays for everything for an MP, and that MPs do not earn their keep or deserve a salary.
“Truthfully, there is no salary scale that can begin to compensate a Member for the emotional and the mental stress that are routinely undergone when he or she tries to do his or her best to serve at the constituency level.” Mulling MPs’ workload of bills, JSCs, Cabinet and constituency, amid a public cynicism, Kangaloo said, “It is a wonder that anybody offers himself for national service by way of parliamentary duty, at all.”
Having earlier said the Presidency is part of Parliament, she suggested five areas of focus this parliamentary session.
Firstly, she urged more cross-bench collaboration against crime.
“The urgency is obvious.
“The pain and the suffering are unbearable.
“These alone should drive parliamentarians to put aside their party rivalries, join hands across the aisle, and collaborate on how to stem crime and criminal conduct.”
Secondly, she urged new laws to support this society’s aspirations, including culture and the arts, such as declaring steel pan the national instrument on the heels of recent recognition by the UN General Assembly.
Thirdly, Kangaloo hoped for new laws to entrench TT in the modern age such as regarding people with disabilities.
“More than 20 years ago, when I held my very first Cabinet position as Minister with Responsibility for Social Services Delivery, it became clear, from the many protests that were held at that time, that it was urgent for more attention to be paid to the needs and the rights of persons with disabilities.” From 2003 onwards, Disabled People International leader the late George Daniel led protests at NFM, the Halls of Justice and elsewhere advocating disability employment and access.
Noting years of consultation on a Persons With Disabilities Act, Kangaloo hoped for legislation to protect and promote disability rights this parliamentary year.
She also hoped for legislation to address the “awesome potential and looming threats” of artificial intelligence (AI) and post-pandemic models of work such as working from home and hybrid work.
Fourthly, she advocated Parliament have a UK-styled Public Bill Committee to do in-depth studies of proposed bills and so save time on the parliamentary floor, freeing up MPs from clause-by-clause debate, to spend time on wider issues.
Fifthly, she called for a parliamentary timetable. “I hope that Parliament will see it fit to develop an annual timetable or fixed agenda, which will serve to promote certainty and efficiency by allowing, among other things, for better planning.”