President Carmona ‘strongly’ suggested that Parliament start at 8 a.m. instead of 1.30 p.m. on Fridays “to deal more efficiently and effectively with the nation’s business” and received great praise for his ‘idea’. So understandably hungry are we for something positive that we clung to this trite suggestion as though it were a gem from a fountain of wisdom. But let’s get serious here. This is mere ‘small change’. It would do nothing to improve the effectiveness of the Parliament which affords no real representation of the people in the decision-making process and the general governance of the country.
How will a few more hours stop our Parliament from being mainly a tool of the Cabinet? How will these additional hours ensure that the Parliament effectively supervises expenditure in ministries and state enterprises to ensure transparency, accountability and lack of corruption? How will this little extra time empower parliamentary committees with the authority and resources to investigate any whiff of malfeasance and recommend that criminal investigations begin into possible misconduct in public life? How will it ensure that, for the sake of the people, the government is constitutionally obligated to conduct negotiations with the Parliament on the annual budget, national policies and the enactment of legislation instead of the antiquated ritual of useless ‘debate’ with its hollow posturing, grandstanding and ‘bussing mark’, but with the government always getting its way. How will a few hours every Friday change that Mr President? How will it fundamentally improve governance in Trinidad and Tobago?
The suggestion is the kind of tinkering we must avoid, pretending it is change. We are in dire need of transformation. We require a larger Parliament of full-time parliamentarians to constitute a body with the power, resources and authority to be a fierce watchdog on the government; a Parliament anchored in genuine separation of powers that gives it dynamism, independence and creativity; a Parliament liberated from the dominance of any one individual, group, or handful of financiers. Away with the silly stuffiness and ceremony that passes for parliamentary procedure. Let our Parliament be the ‘house of the people’ for the first time in our history.
Right now the government always gets its way. Watch what will happen with the Debe to Mon Desir section of the highway, despite the views of the Highway Review Committee, the Highway Re-Route Movement and respected, rational opinion that it is absolutely unnecessary and that it only saves a few minutes of travelling time but destroys so much that is valuable in terms of infrastructure, ecology, agriculture, heritage, settled communities, uprooting hundreds of families in the process. There is no way our impotent Parliament can call a halt to this our largest infrastructural project ever, to ensure that all issues are settled to the satisfaction of all concerned.
There is a strong suspicion that with the Debe to Mon Desir segment, a humongous feeding trough is being created for “kickbacks to public officials, to reward financiers who were civil engineering contractors, or who provided equipment, trucks and materials, or who were suppliers of aggregate, or those who speculated in real estate transactions in the route of the proposed segment of the highway.” Also, the report of the Highway Review Committee concludes that “ a significant concern with the Debe to Mon Desir Highway is whether or not the lawful authority responsible for this large public expenditure is conforming to due process, including observance of various oversight statutory requirements for environmental management, the development of land, and due consideration of the socio-economic impact of affected persons.”
In the face of all this and so much more, including the recent Auditor General’s report that points to atrocious waste, mismanagement and lack of accountability in public expenditure, where is the parliamentary committee with the power and resources to summon anybody to an inquiry into malfeasance and where non-attendance or perjury are offences with jail terms? Will starting Parliament a few hours on any Friday provide the nation with this kind of protection from our predator politicians or irresponsible public servants?
For 50 years we have had massive waste, mismanagement and thievery in our public affairs and our Parliament has done absolutely nothing to stop it. It couldn’t and still can’t. Billions of dollars have either been wasted or stolen under its very nose. No prime minister, minister or other public official has ended behind bars as they do in countries with real parliaments that keep an eye on the public interest.
Today a former president of Israel and cabinet minister is serving a seven year jail sentence and in the Nixon administration no lesser person that the Attorney General ended behind bars for misbehaviour in public office. In these cases both the media and the parliaments of those countries played key roles. Our media does its work but our impotent and manipulable Parliament facilitates corruption, making this country a haven for corrupt public officials. It should be entombed in ignominy especially after section 34, with inscriptions on its slab detailing the massive corruption it allowed from the gas station racket to the Piarco airport terminal building project and continuing. It should not be given any extra time. It should be placed in the dustbin of history.
So let’s not hold on to straws like starting the Parliament earlier. Instead, let us have a Parliament elected by proportional representation that will provide the room for collaboration across the aisle in the people’s interest after the competition for power once every five years. We don’t need our MPs for a few more hours on any one day. We need them there all day, every day, looking after our interest. Anything else is ‘small change’ that further cheapens our condition.
* Ralph Maraj is a former