A scathing editorial in the Kaieteur News last Friday shockingly castigated Members of Parliament in most unparliamentary language, from which the headline is taken. Here is another sample: “In some respects what Guyana has is not a legislative body, but a Roach Motel overflowing with a cast of creepy characters, a real life Bates Motel horror of shocks that frightens the public. It is obvious that the great majority of members have little by way of shame or nonnegotiable moral imperatives. This is a set of people paid well to perform and deliver the crass and the cheap. They like being the way they are. They do not prepare, do no research, have no pride. They falsify, they exaggerate, they dissemble and all the while revel with their fellows in what has been reduced to a brawling parliamentary slum. They care neither about the image projected nor the impressions left.”
Some time ago I explored in an article the issue of brawling in parliaments around the world during which, invariably, members are injured by fists, objects and missiles, including furniture, hurled from one side to the other. I discovered that misbehavior, especially by the opposition, plays well back home. Supporters of opposition parties who do not normally get their way, either become angry or frustrated, or both, and explode in apparent rage. Sometimes the reverse occurs where government members are the primary offenders.
The lack of quality in preparation and presentation results from lack of application and training. Party and parliamentary leaders are primarily responsible for this. The Parliament itself encourages visiting parliamentarians, conducts seminars (which are poorly attended) and send parliamentarians to conferences to represent Guyana, from which they are supposed to learn. Members know that the reading of speeches, the heckling, the loud disruption and general low standards as described violate the rules. But they also know that these are not matters of consequence to the general public which largely support one group or another. The small minority, however, which includes the editorial writer, who expect a higher standard, will obviously be offended.
In countries with established parliamentary systems, where governments change frequently and where, after elections, it is recognized that the government is entitled to speak for the entire country and not merely for those who elected it to office, anger at government policies is generally contained and do not normally become disruptive of Parliament. Parliamentary devices are employed to challenge government policies. This is best exemplified by what is now going on in the British House of Commons over the issue of Brexit. But there are exceptions. The Lok Sabha, the Indian Parliament, has a history of behavior not dissimilar to that which is complained about in the editorial. It has also exploded into violence from time to time.
In Guyana, the situation is quite different. Parliamentarians belonging to the Opposition openly state that they are speaking for their supporters. They expect the Government benches to speak for their supporters. I don’t know if this still goes on, but I was very surprised when it emerged during the time I presided in the National Assembly. I tried to steer such views to the constructive by pointing out that the Government represents all the people and that each side was supposed to advance policies for the benefit of all the people of Guyana, and not one section. But there is no, or limited, recognition of this concept. Each side, therefore, plays to the gallery of the lowest common denominator of its support, hoping on the one hand, to sustain enthusiasm in the stormy seas of economic turbulence, or on the other hand, to sustain enthusiasm that despite the anguish of having to forlornly sit in the National Assembly only a few feet away from the seat of power, from which it was only recently forced to depart, after two decades, victory will soon be here.
I don’t know what drives the disruption that is experienced in other parliaments. But in the Guyana National Assembly, the conduct of members is at least partially rooted in the ethnic dimension of our politics in which no side is accepted as speaking for the other. And this makes it more divisive than usual. However, if our National Assembly is as bad as the editorial suggests, it can be substantially transformed in a single day by the leaderships of the Government and Opposition instructing their members to observe the rules of conduct that are prescribed in the Standing Orders. But they must have an incentive.
The Speaker of the National Assembly is the person who has the responsibility of ensuring that Members observe the rules. It is the Speaker who must devise the incentives and persuade the leaders to accept them. He will have no problem with Government members who elected him. It is the Opposition he will have to convince. In doing so, the Speaker should bear in mind the adage that I picked up while I was serving in the post: “You cannot be regarded as a successful Speaker until the side which elected you regard you as partial to the other side.”