Vulgarity is part of life; in this country, some might say, too much part of it. But even here, there is a general feeling that there are some places and some occasions where it should not find a receptive environment, and one of those is the nation’s Parliament. While in some ways the National Assembly is a dysfunctional institution, the reasons for which cannot all be blamed on the MPs who grace its precincts, some of our lawmakers are nevertheless guilty of inappropriate behaviour which diminishes its status in the eyes of the public.
Those who sit in Parliament are paid by the citizens of Guyana to represent them. As such, they are expected to take seriously the issues before them; research their areas of expertise; listen to the concerns of their particular constituents and try to pursue these; engage in genuine debate with those on the opposite benches to arrive at the best decisions for the country; and generally conduct themselves in a way that commands respect – or at a minimum, does not attract opprobrium. The last-mentioned particularly applies to ministers of government.
The rules require that members do not simply read an address, although they can refer to notes and read out certain portions; for the most part, however, they should be speaking extempore. As it is, that tradition has been in abeyance for many years, and certainly there is no one in our Parliament who could emulate the former British Prime Minister Harold Macmillan who at the age of 90 gave a fluent maiden speech in the House of Lords without notes that lasted 32 minutes. Not surprisingly, the assembled peers of the realm gave him a standing ovation.
The citizenry is probably not too fussy at this stage about whether MPs read their presentations or not, but they do want to feel that some level of serious debate is going on, and as said above that the nation’s potential projects and real problems are the subject of meaningful exchanges. But even this is open to question, with the situation deteriorating in the current Parliament probably because the government has turned its face against any level of negotiation, dialogue or debate with the combined opposition. As a consequence, the members’ addresses for the most part are at best formulaic and at worst polemical. A notable exception during the recent budget debate, was that by newcomer Dr Karen Cummings.
This does not mean that the National Assembly should be devoid of any humour or even some controlled raucousness in the form of heckling, which is an old tradition dating back hundreds of years to the British House of Commons. There are well-established limits to what can be said, however, as there are during the formal presentations as well, where members have to eschew ad hominem comments. (To cultivate an air of respect members also refer to each other by the title ‘Honourable.’) Personal insults should invite the intervention of the Speaker, who will then demand an apology, which if not forthcoming can produce a ban on the offending member.
So it was that the week before last Minister of Education Priya Manickchand heckled APNU member Volda Lawrence while she was speaking about rape victims with a remark about the father of MP Jaipaul Sharma. As is well known, Mr C N Sharma has been charged with sexual offences and the matters are currently sub judice. Rightly, Speaker Raphael Trotman asked for an apology, which was not forthcoming, and so he placed a ban on Ms Manickchand. Quite inexplicably, however, Mr Trotman appeared to reverse himself when the National Assembly next met, and Minister Manickchand was allowed to speak on education with APNU Chief Whip Amna Ally being the only opposition member present; the others had walked out.
It was without question a flawed decision, more particularly since last year Ms Vanessa Kissoon had behaved similarly inappropriately, this time with the heckle being directed towards Minister
Robeson Benn. She was required to apologise by the Speaker, and did so. It might be noted in passing that there is nothing like consistency to enhance a Speaker’s reputation, while the reverse, of course, will damage it. That aside, as Mr Jaipaul Sharma later observed at the time of his resignation, no member of APNU came to his defence when the Minister heckled; it was the Speaker who took action. As for Ms Manickchand, she apparently believes herself above reproach. She should be careful, because she is acquiring a reputation for contemptuous behaviour, which is never good for a politician.
If the public thought that this year’s spate of budget vulgarity was at an end, they were mistaken. There was Presidential Advisor Odinga Lumumba to come. It was not just that what he had to say was vulgar; it was also that it was incendiary, offensive, unmitigated drivel. Futilely attempting to ground his insults in the events of the American Civil Rights movement and the statements of the Black Panthers, he said “certain people” could be labelled “termites and uncle Toms.” And what triggered this aberrant outburst? It must have astonished all rational citizens to learn that it was the opposition stance on the sugar industry.
He also told members in the House that those who took this stand “run the risk of being mistaken as architects of ethnic and geographical discrimination. Let us not forget Rwanda, Kosovo, and Hitler Germany… it was narrow analysis that led the conflagration in these states.” Leaving aside the rank absurdity of this piffle, it is also testimony to appalling historical ignorance. Should we really have someone who cannot tell the difference between what Hitler did in Germany and opposition criticism in relation to the sugar industry, representing us in Parliament? Quite clearly, this is a member who does not have a clue what he is talking about.
One would have expected that even Mr Lumumba’s own colleagues would have been embarrassed, but it seems nothing disturbs the smooth contours of their political cocoon. And in contrast to the case of Mr Sharma, Leader of the Opposition David Granger was on his feet fast enough in this instance.
There has always been bottom house vulgarity in our politics and later on our TV screens, but up until the last few years it tended with some exceptions to be kept off the big public political platforms (although there were plenty of code words in use) and outside the confines of the parliamentary chamber. The father of political vulgarity in its modern incarnation is undoubtedly former President Bharrat Jagdeo, who used any and every occasion, formal or otherwise, to unleash his political barrages. Ms Manickchand clearly belongs to the same school. One must infer that both she and Mr Lumumba have the sanction of Freedom House for their approach. If so, the PPP needs to rethink its modus operandi. Taxpayers don’t pay MPs’ salaries for this kind of dismal vulgar performance.