For the first time since 1961, Members of the Trinidad and Tobago Parliament are revisiting the rules about speaking time. That the Standing Orders Committee of the House of Representatives was able to agree on these far-reaching changes demonstrates that its members, drawn from both sides of the House, have been able to discharge a properly bipartisan mandate.
As a starting point, the measure to reduce the MPs’ allotted time should be welcomed by all citizens who follow parliamentary debates. And the other proposals may prove even more effective for updating and upgrading MPs’ performance. The public thus looks forward to approval by the Parliament of the proposed arrangements, starting with reduced speaking time from a maximum 75 to a new 30 minutes.
Research from cognitive psychology suggests that the average person can listen attentively to a lecture for no more than 20 minutes before their concentration lapses. Good speakers keep their audiences alert by inserting climaxes or topic shifts into their speeches at 10-minute intervals.
However, only a minority of MPs on either side of the House are ever good speakers. The 75 minutes for speech-making allows loud latitude for waffle, repetition, and irrelevant digression. A tighter time-frame should, hopefully, force MPs to make their points on any particular issue more succinctly and perhaps more memorably. This will also let ordinary citizens hear more speakers within a shorter time.
Indeed, as another promising measure, the Leader of Government Business and the Opposition Chief Whip can agree to impose a time limit on an entire debate. If, for instance, the House decides to debate a measure for six hours, the Speaker would have to divide the time equally “among the parties represented in the House, provided no member is unfairly disenfranchised”. This again should make for more informative and fruitful debates on issues.
But perhaps the most radical proposal offered is for the Prime Minister to be required to answer questions every second Friday on the performance of her administration. This is standard practice in the British Parliament, and it is clearly useful in holding leaders to account, even if only on the petard of public opinion. Not only this, but such a requirement forces prime ministers to remain advised on all important issues, rather than just fobbing off concerns with spin and rhetoric.
If the head of the executive branch will be regularly braced by the legislature, and if MPs are obliged to make the best use of their time, these arrangements should make the Parliamentary experience more lively and more productive, as well as provide more engaging content for broadcast. The crucial outcome, hopefully, will be better information and instruction in public affairs.