Toying with the people

By Ralph Maraj

The fundamental flaw of our Parliament is that it is dominated by the Prime Minister and the cabinet, making for virtual one man/woman/cabal rule, with no real representation of the people through their MPs, and no oversight of ministries and State enterprises. Our retarded Constitution allows for no separation of powers between the executive and legislature. The Parliament therefore does not act as a check on the cabinet which, for 50 years has run rampant with our resources, leaving a legacy of horrible waste, management and corruption. 

In the face of such enormous inadequacy, the recent recommendations of the Standing Orders Committee are mere child’s pay, cosmetics that do not empower the Parliament to protect the patrimony from present and future predators. This is the useless tinkering produced by our politicians and the Speaker after “deepest deliberations”. It is frightening that our country is in such hands, ineptitude toying with the nation’s future.

And questions abound concerning the recommended “small change”. Some citizens welcome the reduction in speaking time; others say it is further curtailment of the already powerless Opposition. What are the rules regarding the proposed Prime Minister’s Question Time? Can the PM ignore it, refuse to appear without sanctions? Are there parameters for the questions that could be asked? What is the role of the Speaker in this? Will he be over protective of his patron, the Prime Minister? Must he or the Prime Minister see the questions before they are asked? Or are we going to have a real Question Time like in the British Parliament which we continue to imperfectly ape after half a century of Independence. 

And the new proposed committees. Would the Government again have both the chairmanship and the majority of members, continuing the debilitating domination of the past 50 years?  What are these committees’ mandates? Would they have the required authority and resources? Would MPs be made full time with offices, staff and research capability to make these bodies effective?  Would these committees have power to summon public officials to a hearing? And, as has happened, could officials disregard such summons with impunity? Could any minister refuse to answer questions of the committees without penalty? And if any official tells untruths would they be charged for perjury and jailed as happens in the US congress, counterpart to our Parliament?  And what would be the outcome of any hearings?  Could the committee recommend that criminal investigations be instituted against any minister or state enterprise chairman over whom there is abundant suspicion of corruption? Indeed, can we expect that any Government-chaired committee with majority members from the Government would recommend a ministerial colleague or one of their appointees be investigated for corruption?  

We all know the answers to these questions. The Standing Orders Committee lacked the guts to even contemplate meaningful change. As Lloyd Best would say, they “chinksed” in the face of a crying need for radical transformation of the Parliament which has never been a fierce guardian of the people’s interests, but a manipulable poodle that reached the depths of shame when all MPs voted thrice for Section 34. Now they come with this slackness, this apology of a document that sprinkles perfume on a corpse and will not stir a leaf in this country.

They have wasted the country’s time.  They should know that 21st century Trinidad and Tobago must go even further than the Wooding Commission’s hybrid of first past the post and proportional representation for electing a large unicameral Parliament, which does not remove prime ministerial rule since it does not frontally face the question of separation of powers. I said recently, “the hybrid  we  need is an executive president elected first past the post, and a unicameral legislature of full time parliamentarians all elected by proportional representation.” The  great boon of this proposal is that not only would it ensure clear separation of powers, but, after the battle for power every five years, it will  create room for collaboration in Parliament across party lines in the interest of the people, reducing the role of race that has diseased the  politics of Trinidad and Tobago.

Why didn’t the Standing Orders Committee come anywhere near such liberating recommendations? Why did the Opposition agree to its own continued impotence? Because all parliamentarians want the almost absolute power that now pertains. So the Government obviously did not yield an inch whilst the Opposition acquiesced, thinking their turn at the trough is around the corner. The result is recommendations that reek of despicable incestuousness. 

Our representatives have again failed to protect the people. They care only for power and prestige. If you want to see their true colours, observe them at Christmas. See them pretending to love but exploiting the poor and violating the teachings of the very man whose birth they pretend to celebrate. For, in giving to the needy, they display cruel insensitivity, having the media present so they could grin for the cameras as they give some parcel, some mere morsel to a needy mother who,  to have some food for her children, must swallow humiliating national exposure of her impoverished condition. 

To these politicians, incarnations of selfishness, I say heed the words of the greatest representative of the people, whose birth we now celebrate: “Watch out! When you give to someone in need, don’t do as the hypocrites, blowing trumpets in the synagogues and streets, calling attention to their acts of charity! When you give to the needy, let not your left hand know what your right hand is doing. Give your gifts in private, and your Father, who sees everything, will reward you.” Pay attention politicians, and stop toying with the people!

* Ralph Maraj is a playwright, former cabinet minister. 

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