(Trinidad Guardian) Buck up. That was the message that President Anthony Carmona gave to parliamentarians yesterday. Speaking at yesterday’s ceremonial opening of the Fourth Session of the Tenth Parliament in Port-of- Spain, Carmona laid down the law in a hard-hitting maiden address focusing on MPs’ performance and conduct, as well as rebuffing his critics.
“I have used the occasion of the Opening of this Fourth Session of the Tenth Parliament to again raise the issues of faithful service, personal honour and probity in public affairs,” Carmona said. “As the engine room for national political debate, Parliament must be about the people’s business, not the party’s business…always be patriots in this august assembly.” He said parliamentarians sometimes fell short in the conduct they display in and out of the Parliament.
In a departure from presidential tradition, Carmona also called for a referendum on the Caribbean Court of Justice and proposed changes to how Parliament operates. He welcomed the four newly-appointed Independent senators, whose appointments he defended, and also new MP for Chaguanas West Jack Warner.
He stressed the need for effective co-operation, noting that his predecessor, President George Maxwell Richards, had said the Government is accountable to the Parliament and that “oversight of the Government on behalf of the public is Parliament’s role and not a role only for the Opposition.”
Hence, he said, all parliamentarians should co-operate in holding the Government accountable and parliamentarians of differing political persuasions were also expected to co-operate on matters that promote the development, security and uplifting of society. There was a rumble of agreement from MPs when Carmona asked why debate should take place at 2 or 3 am.
“How does this compare with the disadvantage of a severely reduced complement of representatives, coupled with the obvious exhaustion of those who have managed or have been obliged to stay the course? Does this really augur well for the quality of parliamentary contributions? “Should major decisions, in this, the highest law-making body in the land, be made when the decision-makers are often barely awake? Would it not be preferable to start parliamentary sessions earlier?
It is highly unproductive to begin sessions at 1.30 pm subject to the vagaries of a heavy lunch and oppressive humidity.” He suggested sittings should begin at 8 am, and also frowned on MPs’ reading of speeches. He made a bold call for the CCJ to become the country’s final court of appeal and suggested a referendum on it. “Why can’t we start believing in ourselves and our competencies?” he asked.
“Let there be a vote of conscience, by secret ballot, on whether it becomes the final Court of Appeal or, if as parliamentarians you lack the confidence to make that change, place it before the electorate by way of public referendum on the ballot paper. “The upcoming local government elections, in two months’ time, affords an ideal opportunity for doing this. We must no longer pussyfoot on the matter.” He also called for change in election campaign financing.
“The time has come when we must bite the bullet of campaign financing reform and introduce appropriate measures for disclosure, reporting and enforcement laws to ensure transparency and accountability in the management of the country’s electoral system.” Carmona suggested using the Board of Inland Revenue to monitor politicians’ assets, a move he first backed when he worked in the Office of the Director of Public Prosecutions.
“There have been allegations of profligate enrichment by persons in authority,” he said. “There have been complaints and observations for just as many years that the asset base of politicians is inconsistent with their income and tax returns and there has been a hue and cry for the intervention of the Integrity Commission or the Fraud Squad. “Why are we taking such a divergent route when we can wake up that sleeping giant called the Board of Inland Revenue?
Rise from your slumber. Do what you are empowered to do.” Carmona also said the Government’s role is one of steward and not partisan benefactor. “The Government should ensure the nation’s resources are evenly and fairly distributed, not based on how one chooses to cast one’s vote,” he said. “It makes a mockery of a democracy if the exercise of my civic right attracts punishment, verbal flagellation and marginalisation. Regrettably, this has been the modus of successive governments.”
Carmona also said dignity and decorum in parliamentary conduct were of grave importance. “It is time to consider whether we are in contravention of the oath that we have taken, whether we have fallen short. Is our greatest allegiance to our country or are there competing allegiances? Can we say that we are discharging our duties in a manner that is ‘scrupulous, painstaking, principled and governed by conscience’”?
The country needed a return to honour, he said, to restore the personal credibility of its leaders, in every sphere. Carmona said: “Honour cannot be legislated. Honour does not only involve distinguishing between right and wrong. Honour demands we eschew the very perception of wrongdoing and impropriety.” Wealth, education and rank did not make one honourable, he pointed out.
Continuing to stress the need for inspired and inspiring leadership, he admonished: “Parliamentarians, you sometimes fall short in the conduct you display in and out of the Parliament.” He chided them for what he described as “forms of communication that denigrate and degrade, which he said signal “to the larger public, and especially to our impressionable children, that crass behaviour and disrespect are acceptable modes of conduct and communication.”
The President made good on his calls for improvements when he interjected reprimands to an MP who appeared to be making sotto-voce remarks about his address while he was expressing concern about campaign financing. Carmona, looking to one side, said, “Madam, we must get really serious about this. It applies to all and sundry.”
In a repeat occurrence while he was speaking about conduct, he said , “Ma’am, I’m speaking about conduct.” Carmona’s address received a standing ovation. PP House leader Roodal Moonilal later said Parliament would adjourn to a date “and time..” to be fixed.