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Parliamentary privilege abused
The political culture is completely bereft of integrity and without the capacity to regenerate itself and to advance a national agenda of development. So, as a means of engendering the kind of transformation required, constitutional reform has to focus on the maladies of the politics, not on abstractions and certainly not on notions of creating a Head of State on whom we devolve even greater powers than those now exercised by a Prime Minister, the Parliament and the Cabinet.
One such malady that has been demanding to be changed for decades is the privilege now enjoyed by parliamentarians to say what they want, wilfully and criminally indict private citizens, encourage backwardness, ignorance, even illiteracy and pander to base instincts in the society, including racist tendencies, and to do so with complete immunity from having to face the courts like the average citizen and media do when they step out of line.
The most recent indulgences by National Security Minister Jack Warner, calling names and making unsubstantiated charges against certain citizens whom he claims are seeking to engage in unlawful/criminal activities, is a case in point. But Warner is not singular in this practice. Calling names and imputing criminal motives to citizens not in the Parliament to defend themselves are representative of a pattern set decades ago and indulged in by politicians from all sides.
The examples are many to illustrate the point. Many years ago, confronting a strike by BWIA pilots, then Prime Minister George Chambers read the medical records of a BWIA captain under the protection of parliamentary privilege. Former Prime Minister Patrick Manning displayed pictures and made unfounded allegations about the construction cost of the home of the present prime minister.
The present Speaker of the House of Representatives gained notoriety for frequently “bussing a mark”—no pun intended—on Tuesday afternoons in the Senate. Fact is, very few of those marks were ever substantiated. As it has come to be allowed and practised, parliamentary privilege relating to statements made in the chambers is for the purpose of granting freedom of speech to MPs to conduct the business of the Parliament in the interest of advancing the cause of the people.
Research to direct the constitutional reform exercise should be done on the instances when MPs have used the immunity from prosecution for the national good to uncover wrongdoing and/or to advance the work and development of the Parliament and the country.
From consistent observation, the power of the privilege has been used for narrow partisan political interests by parliamentarians to advance the cause of their party.
Like our Parliament, the immunity from prosecution is modelled on what obtains in the UK Parliament. As could be expected, it is a privilege which is enshrined in the Constitution and in practice in many parts of the Commonwealth and in the United States.
The power of the privilege is also based on the principle of the Parliament being supreme and able to regulate itself without outside interference from, for example, the courts. In this political/legal jurisdiction, such a claim has been proven to be false as the courts have sat on and ruled on matters emanating from the Parliament. So advancing the view that the courts should be able to adjudicate on allegations made in the Parliament is not going against a constitutional principle and practice. This is yet another aspect of our Constitution, imported from a very different political culture, which is contrary to the political culture which has grown up here in the post-Independence period.
What is certain is that the parties and politicians inside the Parliament will never advocate and support the removal of the privilege. This obtains even though whenever the privilege is used by one side to abuse the other, pious and hypocritical objections emanate from the mouths of the abused.
In addition to contributing to the continuing degradation of the Parliament and its credibility, the abuse of the power of privilege fosters the culture of illogical and simplistic arguments to advance the objectives of the MPs, the Government and or the Opposition.
Recently, I heard the Attorney General arguing for the Bill to give soldiers the powers of arrest on the vulgar and generalised grounds that if the Government spends $1 billion on the defence force annually then it follows that the soldiers can simply be given the powers being required. I wondered if defence attorney Anand Ramlogan would dare to approach a judge with such an argument.
We should also probe the contribution that the abuse of the power of privilege through the use of unsubstantiated arguments makes to the political culture of mindless partisan politics. Would it be fair to suggest that if such methods of arguing your case are consistently used in the Parliament by government ministers, including a prime minister, then the method could become part of the accepted practice, influencing students and the general public?
So here is another element of the political culture in need of being guided by reform of the Constitution.
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