Nobody familiar with how events have unfolded in Guyana in recent times would have been altogether surprised by the raucous heckling from the placard-bearing ranks of the PPP/C in Parliament on Thursday. During President Granger’s address to the nation they were expressing their dissatisfaction over developments in general, but most particularly in relation to his unilateral appointment of a Gecom Chairman. The President, who clearly sought to evoke the mood of the US President’s State of the Union address to Congress, or perhaps even the Queen’s speech at the opening of the British Parliament, was perhaps anticipating a walk-out of the opposition, whereafter he would have been left to deliver his oration in peace, but it was not to be.
No other head of state since 1992 has appeared so often in the National Assembly to address the nation. Yet, President Granger’s predecessors were more disposed to give press conferences, which at least allowed the latitude for questions to be put about policy and the issues of the day, as opposed to the magisterial approach favoured currently. The present incumbent did have ‘The Public Interest’ programme most weeks, but the structure of that only allowed two journalists – one from the state and one from the private media – to be present, and in its more recent format, the limited time available had been shared with a member of the Ministry of the Presidency’s Press and Publicity Unit as well. But as for true press conferences, those are non-existent.
It seems the Head of State wants to get his message across without it being muted by static emanating from what he might regard as centres of hostility, or even just critical provenance. His recourse to the Parliament to speak to the nation, therefore, is premised on the assumption that it is a formal, respectful setting, where he will not have to endure interruptions from disparagers or even analysts, and certainly not any relentless questioning from dogged reporters. Furthermore, as mentioned earlier, a hostile opposition would at worst be likely to walk out; after all, that is what APNU and the AFC did on many occasions when they were the occupants of the opposing benches.
But Parliament is not what it was, as the President found out on Thursday, while MPs are altogether more disrespectful within its precincts than has been the case previously. The National Assembly ceased to function as a forum for rational debate a very long time ago, and the behaviour of members was a cause of complaint by the Speaker of the House as recently as July this year. He told them then, “Our predecessors left us a legacy of decorum and good practice for this House. I ask: What shall we leave our successors?”
One of those whom he had censured was junior Minister Simona Broomes, who had behaved most inappropriately. She, it would appear, had still not taken his lesson on decorum and respect for the honour of the institution to heart, since after the PPP/C produced their placards silently, we reported Ms Broomes as being heard to shout, “Get out de place!” Almost immediately the opposition began their heckling, which then evolved into chanting, led by Leader of the Opposition Bharrat Jagdeo.
Our report described how the chants and periodic thumping of the desks coupled with some cries of support from coalition members drowned out the President’s voice. He was described as sometimes looking at the Speaker who tried quite futilely to restore order by striking his gavel, but the opposition tactics continued. For his part, President Granger was clearly wearied by the unexpected proceedings, pausing on occasion, and at other times taking a sip of water.
Certainly, since the placards and the chanting were clearly pre-planned – undoubtedly under the direction of Mr Jagdeo – all veneration of the institution and all sense of occasion on the part of the opposition have been lost. This is something, it should be added, which carries over to the government benches at other times as well. The taxpayers of this land do not pay the salaries of parliamentarians to carry placards in the House, or to chant so the President’s speech cannot be heard, no matter how tendentious it might be. There is a time and a place for that kind of response, and as far as the House is concerned, the most extreme measure available to a party – and then only if the circumstances warrant it – is, as already stated, the time-honoured Guyanese habit of walking out of the chamber.
As observed above, sensible debate has not been heard in Parliament for a long time; even when there is reasonable civility in evidence, members do not engage in genuine exchanges, they read out interminably long presentations supporting their own side. Parliament, in other words, has become a forum for polemic. If there is any glimmer of light on the horizon, it may possibly be in the work of some of the committees, but this little glimmer is yet to start flickering on the main floor of the House.
Of course, what happened on Thursday is also a reflection of the lack of communication and the polarisation in the society at large. It is too a reflection of an inability to understand the role certain institutions have to play if any meaningful society is to be built, and the respect they must of necessity be accorded. If such institutions – and Parliament is one – are just treated like any old building where gang members, for example, gather to lime and shout at one another, then the nation can never evolve, because there will be no venerable traditions on which to found it.
The electorate voted in parliamentarians to represent them, which they can only do effectively if they are well informed about their brief or the topic on which they seek to speak – and many of them are not. They cannot represent their constituents either if they lack a capacity for true discussion, and regularly resort to irrationality and abuse. The starting point for this is civility – a matter to which the Speaker made reference before – because only then will any serious argument take place, divorced from the mud-slinging so inimical to genuine debate.
As for the President, he would be advised to reduce his appearances in the House, and instead hold regular press conferences where he can answer questions publicly about his government’s policies, performance and the like, and have exchanges with reporters. That said, presidents too are entitled to common courtesy if they do come to Parliament.