Thursday, January 18, 2018

Fine first step

 This week’s inauguration of a Prime Minister’s Question Time marked a promising start to long-awaited reforms aimed at making Parliament more productive of timely information and less deserving of the image of a tiresome talk shop. 

 As Prime Minister Kamla Persad-Bissessar answered Opposition MPs’ relevant questions, neither side appeared to exploit the occasion for political one-upmanship. Even the time limit was met. Whether this will be a norm or the exception remains to be seen, but the latter seems the more likely possibility, given that the next general election is due in less than a year and so unofficial campaigning will intensify within the Parliament.

 But Opposition Leader Keith Rowley can ensure that the question period remains a high point of the Lower House sittings, by instructing his MPs to maintain the same standard of the first session. After all, as a prime minister-in-waiting, it is to his own benefit to do so.

More importantly, though, this new measure benefits the public. Although not a desirable trait of our politics, the fact is that questions answered by the Prime Minister carry more weight than information given by other MPs. A prime minister is the main measure of an administration, and he or she would thus be less willing to appear uninformed or foolish in responding to questions of public interest. Indeed, Prime Minister Persad-Bissessar has already suffered from this, with her habitual “I am advised” phrase now often interpreted as avoidance of responsibility. The decision to put herself in the question period hot-seat in Parliament was, in this regard, a commendable public relations move.

More than that, however, the question period has imparted a refreshingly constructive image to the proceedings—an image that has long been lacking in an institution which, according to several opinion polls, only 25 to 40 per cent of citizens have confidence in. 

 In recent weeks, Parliament, now extraordinarily sitting in August, has been drawing an unusual degree of attention both to its proceedings and to its performance as a national institution. Most of that attention has been negative. MPs’ focus on pay and pensions for themselves, followed by the continuing debate on constitutional amendments, necessarily entailed an unusual spotlight on a legislature which, like other institutions, has long been a candidate for reform. 

 The question period encourages hope for more positive changes, which now includes reduced speaking time for MPs’, which would hopefully result in fewer of the marathon all-night sessions that have too easily become acceptable. It may be too much to hope for that more productive debate, as distinct from gallerying to score political points, will be the norm, but these measures are good first steps on that long journey.