The Political Impotence of Parliament!

However, many times when I tune in to listen to a riveting session of parliament, hoping to hear a wholesome exchange of ideas and initiatives, I am frequently forced to bear witness to unwarranted arrogance and aggression. So much so, that you would think that you missed the correct radio station and accidentally connected to a live broadcast from our local fish market or rum shop!

It is not to say that I don’t sometimes expect a very heated and feisty debate; for while all parliamentarians most likely want our country to get to a stage of enviable development, they will certainly differ in their means as to how we should get there. I readily accept this, knowing that they all come from different political backgrounds and possess divergent philosophical beliefs.

Far too often, however, our politicians get much too easily distracted and go way off course, to the point that it becomes unbearable and actually detracts from the essence of the debate. Sometimes you wonder if all the time that is spent going at each other’s neck and incorporating all manner of wholly irrelevant material could not be spent fleshing out one or two additional programs for our country’s benefit.

The grandstanding is just not always necessary, the cursing and shouting need to be significantly toned down and our parliamentarians really have to be more mindful that children are listening to them; such that when they beckon our youth to conduct themselves with civility and deportment, they too must practice what they preach.

Mark you, I am not painting all parliamentarians with a broad brush and labelling them guilty. In fact, I have always found that both Dr. the Hon. Timothy Harris and the Hon. Vance Amory generally make a conscientious effort to conduct themselves with decorum and in a statesmanlike manner, whilst endeavouring to stick to the issues. Regrettably, I can’t always say the same about some others. I can only hope that they would see the error of their ways and endeavour to reorient their focus, sooner rather than later.

I also believe that historically, the Government has had way too much control of the legislative process, such that whatever takes place in parliament, more often than not, only serves as a rubber stamp of cabinet’s policy. You can almost be sure that 99% of the time, whatever legislation the Government intends to pass in parliament will go through; irrespective of the views of the Opposition or in spite of insufficient consultation with civil society. Frankly, this is the way it has generally been under Labour, CCM, NRP and PAM.

Quite often, some of them even forget that the very legislation which they pass to deal with “the others” may one day be used by “the others” to deal with them! The process of parliamentary debate sorely needs reconfiguring so as to become more embracing and all-inclusive.

Firstly, with all the economic challenges that we face, the practice whereby the Minister of Finance simply goes into parliament, tables the budget and the Government side will say “yay”, while the Opposition says “nay” can no longer cut it. The Minister of Finance and indeed, other high ranking civil servants such as the Permanent Secretary and Budget Director, should be called before the Public Accounts Committee. They should be asked searching questions on the aims and direction of the budget, be able to account for why there was any shortfall or overspending in the previous financial year and be subjected to other queries of this sort.

In fact, I think regardless of which Minister is tabling legislation, that Minister and the senior technical officer in his/her Ministry should submit themselves to questioning and inspection by a Special Committee of Parliament, before approval is granted.

If tomorrow, the Minister of Energy and the Environment wishes to table legislation, granting a foreign company rights to develop renewable energy in St. Kitts and Nevis, the Minister, his Permanent Secretary and even the CEO of that foreign company should first be subjected to scrutiny by a Special Committee of Parliament on Sustainable Development; similar to the process of congressional hearings in the United States.

This may just help to inject a greater sense of openness and probity in all matters of the state, while serving as a more effective tool to devise solutions. Moreover, it may help to reduce some of the excess and irrelevant political banter that we continue to bear witness to.

Due thought and consideration also needs to be given to enhancing the size/membership of parliament, particularly to carry out the aforementioned function in the most efficacious manner. Perhaps, five or six ‘independent’ senators can be appointed from civil society, by the Governor General, acting in his own deliberate judgement or rather, have specified interest groups make those nominations themselves.

Interest groups from business (Chamber of Industry and Commerce), legal (Bar Association), religious (Christian Council or Evangelical Association), labour (Trades and Labour Union), youth (SKNYPA) and women/gender based organizations should be allowed to nominate one person from their membership who they feel can serve as an ‘independent’ senator in parliament and best articulate the interests that are germane to their area of activity.

I make this suggestion because too often, entrenched party loyalty takes predominance in parliament, which I guess is simply a function of how our political system works. However, in making provision for five or six ‘independent’ senators from civil society, we can have individuals who are not first and foremost beholden to a political party but are mandated to primarily put forth the views of the various sectors of civil society from which they emanate.

We must also remember that not everyone necessarily wants to get into the daily grind of elective politics. Nonetheless, this does not minimize their knowledge and the contribution which they can make. Our policymakers should therefore contemplate a space for these people within our legislative process. At the very least, the diversity of debate and the scope of solutions can only be strengthened, if we allow different interest groups to make presentations in parliament and carry out the work of the various committees in drafting legislation and scrutinizing our chief public servants.

I believe I can rest temporarily, knowing that the majority will agree with me when I say that the present arrangement is not working as well as it should. The time for reform is ripe and ought to be thoroughly examined so that parliament can truly perform in the most effective way; lest public confidence be further shaken and the entity itself be rendered irreparably impotent!

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