Thursday, January 18, 2018

Boos that come not back

Sheila Rampersad logo14

Mark Fraser

 Independent Senators of Trinidad and Tobago, meet the citizens of Trinidad and Tobago. People of Trinidad and Tobago, these are your nine non-aligned senators who handle your business in the Upper House of Parliament.

Whereas members of Parliament are generally well-known names and faces, identities of Independents are less well known, especially because they are not elected members of the House and therefore do not interface directly with the population during election campaigns. 

Indeed, the only time citizens see Independents is when they debate bills in the Senate. Changes to the Independent members mid-term by President Anthony Carmona contributed to citizens’ unfamiliarity.

Swells and heaves over the Constitutional Amendment Bill (2014), however, have brought the Independents into national focus in an unprecedented way and citizens are learning in a crash-course the identities of the non-aligned senators as they are also learning parliamentary processes.

The Parliament Channel on TV I would think was among the most-watched over the past two weeks or so and certainly between Tuesday and Thursday this week. Parliament Radio 105.5FM must have also been well-subscribed. 

On Wednesday, when parts of west Trinidad suffered electricity outages, people turned to their mobile phone radios and dusty transistors, such was the level of interest.

People are asking questions about MPs, senators and parliamentary processes like never before. All this signals an awakening among citizens, an increasing desire for political and parliamentary literacy; only good can come of that. 

Several Independent Senators referred to this development in their presentations and that too is to be acknowledged, for the record as it were.

In this special moment of learning, it is the responsibility of everyone to contribute when opportune to the literacy of the population in these matters. I do not know with whom Independent Senator Dr Rolph Balgobin interacted. In his presentation he talked about people’s eyes glazing over when he questioned them about why they did not support the run-off provision in the bill. 

Rather than speaking in derogatory terms about all who oppose the bill, rather than painting all opponents with a broad brush, perhaps Senator Balgobin could have considered offering some education to those citizens wishing to learn and so aid the larger civic purpose of educating those with whom he interfaced about the provisions of this bill specifically and parliamentary processes more generally.

A more aware population is essential to better governance. The more knowing heads available to think through national issues, the better the outcome. Evidence of this is the combination of amendments suggested by senators Balgobin and Dr Dhanayshar Mahabir. 

I object strongly to the bill presented by the Prime Minister but I see how it would be more than palatable with the amendments proffered by both senators, with some tweaking such as a 15 per cent threshold rather than the 20 per cent suggested by Senator Mahabir. Several heads, in this case, are better than one.

This is the point made by Dr Merle Hodge in her two statements about the process leading to the bill and the bill itself. Addressing the run-off provision, Hodge said, “Citizens are finding this proposal to be potentially destructive of democracy, and as a citizen myself, benefitting from their wisdom, I have to say that I agree with that analysis.”

This, Senator Balgobin, is the benefit of consultation and this, Sir, contradicts your comment: “If you sign, you sign.”

Independent Senators, not having faced the polls and the people, are unaccustomed to interaction with the public on issues that arise in the Senate. 

This bill has been unusual in the boil it has generated among the population. In that context, I can understand Senator Mahabir’s hurt that he was booed by lobbyists outside the Parliament on Tuesday.

In truth, he was booed in error.

Some of the protesters did not recognise him and I do not recall vividly but perhaps he also exited the building after a Government Senator so he might have been caught in the boo continuum. By the time I informed partner protesters that he was an Independent, well the boo is among the things that come not back.

While I offer an apology to Senator Mahabir, I draw to his attention that on Tuesday morning a protester was lifted by the police and dropped on the edge of a pavement, a woman was scrambled to the ground by burly riot police, Dr Hodge was pushed with a police shield and several others were manhandled. 

These are far more egregious violations and far more offensive than the boo mistakenly directed at Senator Mahabir.

At the time of writing, yesterday’s Senate session was about to begin. By the time this is published, we are likely to know how receptive the Government was to the amendments proposed by the senators and the outcome of the vote.