On Friday, Patrick Manning, the Member of Parliament for San Fernando East and former prime minister of Trinidad and Tobago, tabled a motion seeking greater involvement by legal professionals in a matter before the Privileges Committee.Mr Manning had been referred to the Privileges Committee over allegations that he made in Parliament regarding the private home of Prime Minister Kamla Persad-Bissessar. In presenting his motion to the House, Mr Manning argued that he did not feel that he would get a fair hearing before the Speaker of the House and the opposition members of the committee.Given Patrick Manning's seniority and experience as Parliament's longest sitting member, the issues raised must reach deeper than perceived injustice.
The Member for San Fernando East will celebrate his 40th year in the House in 2011 and he is certainly aware that the same argument he presented on Friday could have been raised by any opposition member called before the Privileges Committee over the last four decades.He will also be aware that members facing the scrutiny of the Privileges Committee have the benefit of legal counsel before as well as during their hearings, although parliamentary protocol dictates lawyers do not speak for their clients in those chambers.
The reasons for this should be crystal clear to such an experienced politician. Parliament, as the guiding gathering of elected officials tasked with directing the management of the nation's affairs, must be mature and sophisticated enough to evaluate and police any perceived infractions by its members without external intervention or influence.For Mr Manning to threaten, in Parliament, that his concerns about unfair treatment might move him to take this issue to the Privy Council must represent a crafty and focused effort to bring to shine a new light on Privileges hearings since it represents nothing less than a clear attempt to change the due process of parliamentary procedure.
The argument by the former prime minister might be favourably viewed in light of the essential right of any citizen of T&T to have legal representation when accused of an infraction, but that presupposes the Privileges Committee to be something of a court of law, when it might be better described as an ethics panel empowered to levy appropriate penalty.Such an argument also sets aside the role of a member of Parliament, who acts as a sort of "supercitizen" in the House, a representative of the interests of both party and constituents in matters that define the economic and legal advancement of the business of this country.
Such members are expected to be able to speak not just on their own behalf, but decisively and learnedly for thousands of nationals who elected them to office to fulfil exactly that role. When discussions in Parliament go sufficiently awry that they become a matter for review by the Privileges Committee, it is not unreasonable to expect that the elected member, having presented his initial case, should be able, with suitable legal advice, to defend his position or to apologise for an error.This is the way that Parliamentary process has operated here since it became the linchpin of self-government in 1962 and it is the way it has operated in most other Commonwealth Parliaments.The challenge to those principles, therefore needed to be presented more robustly and with greater resonance on Friday.
It seems that the Opposition was well aware of the far-reaching repercussions of the proposed motion when Patrick Manning held discussions with his party. According to Opposition Chief Whip, Marlene McDonald, amendments to the specific requirements of legal representation and cross examination were requested of the Member for San Fernando East. When the changes were not made, the party's official position was to abstain from the vote.
The motion, already defeated when the Opposition was called on to vote, raises some questions worthy of further discussion, particularly because of Patrick Manning's insistence that the matter was "one of fundamental rights and constitutional rights."Key to the issue remains the question of whether the expectation of a right to have a lawyer speak for an MP before the Privileges Committee is trumped by established Parliamentary procedure.It's a question that was voted on during Friday's session, but it should remain open to wider national debate and discussion.