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Raffique Shah


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Damn right to deny MPs 'gallery' time

By Raffique Shah
May 11, 2008

There should be no tears shed over Government's decision to hold parliamentary Joint Select Committee meetings in camera, and not on camera. Already, members of the Opposition and some independent senators have expressed outrage, accusing the Government of using its majority to muzzle MPs and senators. Many people who follow parliamentary proceedings also view the move as one to deny the public the right to follow the proceedings of these committees. It reeks of cover-up, they argue.

Nothing is further from the truth. Indeed, I think it was Leader of Government Business in the Senate, Conrad Enill, who pointed out that existing parliamentary regulations do not allow for such committee meetings to be open to the public. By broadcasting these sittings live, as happened over the past few years-and more so since Parliament acquired its own television channel-the members of both chambers were violating the regulations.

But that is really not the issue. Members of both chambers have the power to change those regulations tomorrow, if they so wish, so they can continue to gallery themselves to the viewing or listening audiences. What is at stake here is the gross abuse of parliamentary privilege. Some time ago I wrote asking that the immunity parliamentarians have enjoyed for as long as we have had this system of government, be withdrawn. That is not a light statement coming from a libertarian who has fought on all fronts to enhance people's democratic rights, who continues to call for transparency in the conduct of public affairs.

Not so long ago parliamentary proceedings were viewed live only by those in the public gallery, and even that was at the discretion of the Speaker. Still, with the media allowed to monitor and report on proceedings of both House and Senate (although not committee meetings), whatever was said in either chamber could reach the public domain via the media. And since, except if the Speaker or President of the Senate ordered otherwise, the media could report verbatim what any MP or senator said, citizens were open to abuse, to having serious allegations about them published or aired, without recourse, without justice.

With the advent of live broadcast and telecast of the proceedings, and worse when that was extended to committee meetings, many irresponsible members of both chambers used the exposure not only for politicking, but also for maligning the characters of people. Many years ago-it must have been in the latter 1970s-a statement made in the House illustrated just how private citizens could be abused by parliamentarians. George Chambers was then a main spokesman for the ruling PNM (he was yet to become Prime Minister), and there was a strike by BWIA pilots. In a bid to embarrass one executive member of the Pilots Association, one Hernandez, Chambers read into the records the man's complete medical report. As I recall it, that included the fact that Hernandez was a heavy drinker. I was among opposition members who stoutly protested that abuse of privilege.

But what Chambers did was child's play when compared with the George Street behaviour that takes place in Parliament, and more recently, at these committee meetings. One committee in particular, the Public Accounts (Enterprises) Committee, was chaired by UNC Senator Wade Mark. Wade is a fella with a big mouth who is given to making the wildest unsubstantiated statements that comes to his mouth. How many people recall, at one such meeting, he pronounced for all to see and hear: I am the King here! What I say goes!

Indeed, I had cause to take to task another member of that committee, Senator Mary King, who used her newspaper column to ventilate issues that came before the PAEC from sources that were at best uninformed, at worst mischievous. If parliamentarians can rely on dubious "sources" and bogus documents to malign private citizens or others who offer themselves for public service, one must ask if they really deserve the immunity from prosecution the Constitution allows them. Such privileges were bestowed on parliamentarians on the understanding they would act responsibly. The Constitution never envisaged that "jammettes" and "jagabats" would occupy those seats, that parliamentary and committee sittings would degenerate into catfights and dogfights.

Such abuse cannot, must not be allowed to continue. For far too long innocent people have suffered as a result of the disregard for decency by persons elected or nominated to Parliament, who, ordinarily, would not qualify to sit on a toilet seat. I am not suggesting that parliamentarians do not have the right or responsibility to unearth and expose wrong-doings by people who hold public offices. In fact, where public funds are concerned, they have every reason to bring to light what others may try to keep in the dark.

So if today people like Mark find themselves denied the publicity they so crave, especially when they are under cover of privilege, they brought this upon themselves. That does not prevent them from ventilating issues they feel strongly about. But come outside of Parliament and say what you want. Then face the legal consequences we journalists, like the public, do.