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No place for bigotry, verbal abuse in the House

Sunday, October 18, 2015
Douglas Mendes

I’m shaking my head. The PNM invited members of the public to reject the People’s Partnership in the last election in part because of the way they abused their control over parliamentary proceedings. That abuse was evident in the outrageous accusations of rape made against the Leader of the Opposition personally, and the even more astonishingly tactless allegation that Dr Rowley’s deceased mother had been raped. It was also evident in the suspension of the Leader of the Opposition from the House, an event which signalled the launch of the Partnership’s election campaign strategy of vilifying Dr Rowley. Nothing is objectionable about such a campaign in principle, although one can take exception to its content. The objection is to using parliamentary powers the electorate has entrusted you with in aid of a political party vying to return to power. There is a close analogy here with the US Republican party's admitted use of the House Select Committee on Benghazi to smear Hilary Clinton and stall her momentum in her presidential bid.

It is unusual in this region, in the absence of dire economic circumstances, that a party in power is not given an extension of its tenure to continue the work it had begun in its first term. The result of our last election can therefore only be interpreted as rejection of a certain type of politics characterised by highhandedness, arrogance, favouritism, cronyism and, of course, the stench of corruption. 

So, I’m shaking my head because I find it incredible that so early in this Parliament’s life the leader of government business and a minister could be displaying such blatant insensitivity to the public's mood in their taunting of the Opposition that their government is in charge.

At one level, I suppose the assertion of control over parliamentary proceedings is an understandable human reaction to a period of abuse by those now in opposition. I say, get over it. The people of T&T have spoken. They demand a different type of politics. We do not need to be reminded that we have put another party in charge of the legislature. We want power to be exercised with dignity and grace, not with vengeance and spite.

Having said that, there is clearly nothing wrong with providing the population with hitherto unknown evidence of squandermania and nepotism, as long as such evidence is presented fairly. Indeed, it is the Government's duty on representatives of the people to bring such matters to light.

Which brings me to the way our parliamentarians converse with each other. It is obviously unacceptable to mock a MP about his mannerisms or sexuality, and I am glad to see an apology was issued. It is also obviously crass in the extreme for one parliamentary representative to be shouting to another across the aisle to “shut his stinking mouth.” Even “shut up” or “be quiet” might be an excusable overreaction in the spur of the moment. But from whence does this reference to a fellow parliamentarian’s “stinking mouth” emanate? Dr Moonilal gave any apology of sorts, describing his remark as part of the normal cut and thrust of parliamentary debates, an example of the picong that is customarily exchanged. Really? How revealing!

No doubt, politics is not for the faint of heart or the prude, and harsh criticism of each other’s positions is to be expected. But there is no place for bigotry and verbal abuse in the House, or anywhere for that matter. Why not try the witticisms or the double entendres of the past masters of political repartee. Make debate in the House a master class in the art of public speaking. More than everything, focus on issues and not personalities. Present strong, incisive and insightful arguments. How can the failure of the Prime Minister to rise to object to an accusation by Dr Moonilal that he flew in a helicopter to Tobago constitute justification for repeating what it appears Dr Moonilal now accepts as a false statement?

Leadership on both sides is required to raise the level of debate in Parliament and effect a change in the way parliamentary affairs are conducted. Parliamentarians must appreciate that it is only die-hard supporters who will defend the unbecoming behaviour to which we have been hitherto accustomed. And even die-hard supporters are fed-up.

There is a role here for the Speaker and the President of the Senate. In this regard, apart from her rough treatment of Dr Tewarie, I thought the Speaker has been setting the right tone, intervening to ask members to be quiet during presentations of fellow members and reminding members of the conduct which the standing orders require of them. She needs to enforce the rules, ensuring always that this is done fairly and with restraint. There is still freedom of speech in Parliament. The trick is to ensure that it is not abused.


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