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The Speaker's Wrong

November 24, 2002
By Raffique Shah

HOUSE Speaker Barry Sinanan was absolutely wrong to have rejected the attempt by Opposition MP Ganga Singh to raise the issue of flooding as a matter of urgent public importance to be debated in Parliament. Sinanan sheltered behind dubious rules that require such motions to be filed with the Clerk of the House at least three days before they can be entertained. But even as he took cover behind the book, large areas of the country remained inundated by flood-waters and thousands of citizens were marooned in their homes or in districts cut off from the rest of the country as bridges and roads collapsed, and rivers overflowed their banks.

People were in distress, but the Speaker demanded the regulation three-days notice before those elected to conduct the affairs of the nation could even discuss or debate the matter. Gross insensitivity on his part, I say. But Sinanan was merely following the precedents set by all his predecessors-and I stress on the word 'all'. From Arnold Thomasos to Rupert Griffith, every Speaker we've had adopted a similar stance whenever the opposition in Parliament chose to raise a matter it felt was of "urgent public importance". I challenge any of those who sat in the Chair and who is still alive to prove me wrong by pointing to one such motion-from the opposition, not government-that he or she allowed.

In the circumstances, one wonders why this eunuch-of-a-regulation exists. Because of its impotence, or more accurately its castration by all our House Speakers, it should be removed from the book. Let me explain for the benefit of those who are unaware of certain parliamentary procedures. On the agenda of the House of Representatives there is an item referred to as "matters of urgent public importance". Any member of the House can ask the Speaker for permission to raise, and hopefully debate, any issue he or she believes falls in this category. The rules of Parliament, however, require that the MP file his request with the Clerk at least three days before a sitting of the House. And even if one complies with this requirement, the Speaker still has the sole discretion to accept of reject the motion.

If the opposition did not raise the issue of flooding when Singh attempted to so do about two weeks ago, I would have been surprised. Because not only did the floods affect in the main their constituencies, but its effects were felt by tens of thousands of motorists and commuters, making it a national issue. The UNC saw an opportunity to score points. I have no doubt that had the Speaker allowed the motion, the UNC MPs would have waded in the mud, quite literally, to make the government look incompetent and insensitive. The fact that Cabinet had already discussed the matter, voted $20 million for relief to victims, and outlined other measures it intended to take, would have counted for nothing in the midst of naked politicking.

The issue here, though, is not whether or not the opposition abuses or treats in a frivolous manner an opportunity to raise in Parliament serious matters that are seen as being of "urgent public importance". The question is why Speaker Sinanan saw it fit to invoke the three-day requirement in the face of what was clearly a national emergency? And my answer is that he was merely following precedents. Because his predecessors never allowed the opposition leeway under this rule, he was determined not to break with that tradition. I have no idea if he had earlier consulted with Ken Valley, who handles the government side of parliamentary matters. I know the late Thomasos used to virtually read Eric Williams' mind on such issues before he ruled, invariably disallowing every such matter brought before the House.

Maybe Sinanan and the Patrick Manning government see this as "payback time" for UNC, whose speakers gave them hell when they were in opposition. As I mentioned earlier, I'd be surprised if either Hector McClean or Griffith could point to one such motion by a PNM MP that he entertained. Seapaul, too, during her short stint in the Chair, must have rejected several such motions by the then opposition UNC. And before her, Nizam Mohammed might want to indicate what "urgent" matters he allowed to be debated. It's as if that rule is there for window dressing, to make Parliament look democratic: hey, if ever there's a public emergency, even on your side-street, your MP has the right to raise it in the House.

But the reality is otherwise. Speaker Sinanan and Prime Minister Patrick Manning had an opportunity to change this illusion of Parliament as an instrument of democracy by allowing Singh and his colleagues to raise hell over the flooding. Let them rant and rave, but remind them of the floods that occurred under their watch and what their Prime Minister was doing while victims of the deluge, mostly UNC supporters, were under stress. On one occasion, I seem to recall, he went off to Tobago for "a spot of golf" as the raging waters wreaked havoc. It was a good opportunity for the PNM government to expose the forked tongues of those who discovered only yesterday that parts of the country are flood-prone.

In the face of obvious deficiencies in our Constitution and the abuses of power, Prime Minister Patrick Manning had an opportunity to restore people's confidence in Parliament. He or Valley could have quietly suggested to Sinanan that he allow the motion, even though the three-day requirement was not met. They missed out on it and had most of the public, PNM supporters included, wondering what the hell it took to qualify a matter as being of "urgent public importance".

This "tit-for-tat" mentality that permeates the highest levels of the society not only exposes the puerility of our politicians, but it undermines the spirit of the Constitution. Sinanan should not allow himself to be misguided by the partisanship that plagued his predecessors. While politicking is par for the course in Parliament, it is time that we demand maturity on the part of our politicians. And PNM people need to drum this into the heads of their MPs and leader. When the heavens open up, the raging waters do not seek out people wearing UNC T-shirts or balisier buttons. All in its destructive path suffer.

The House Speaker should note that. He should also note that his powers should be exercised in the best interests of the nation as a whole, and not as a baton with which to beat up on the opposition.

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