Unparliamentary events

Whoever thought in our lifetimes that we would live to see a dust-up in Parliament which was indistinguishable from a rum shop brawl? But there was one on Monday in full view of the public, where some of the big names from the PPP were involved in a scrimmage with junior members of the Guyana Police Force. And the first mentioned are the people who are elected to represent us; who are entrusted with having an input into the crafting of our legislation; who are required to ensure the government does not overstep the constitutional or legal boundaries; and who are expected to be gifted with a fluency and versatility of linguistic expression which makes rum-shop tactics utterly superfluous.

There is a context to what happened of course.  In the first place general relations between the government and opposition and by extension their supporters, are fractious and mistrustful.  Both sides are responsible for this: the administration for what it does, which often serves to antagonize the other side and which bears little relationship to the inclusivity it trumpets, and the opposition for the venomous and sometimes mendacious nature of its allegations and insinuations. Perhaps we should not be too surprised, therefore, that the crudeness which characterizes their behaviour outside the Parliament Building has crept into the Chamber itself.

It is true that there are MPs currently representing us who are newcomers to the National Assembly, and who are perhaps not as committed to parliamentary practice as they should be. That said, however, many of those involved in the fracas were anything but newcomers to the space over which Castellani’s ceiling forms such a sophisticated canopy. In addition, it should be mentioned that it was clearly a decision of the PPP per se to hold a protest inside the Chamber when President David Granger addressed Parliament not so long ago. In other words, the opposition party is conveying the impression that it no longer feels itself bound by the Standing Orders, more especially if there is a decision by the Speaker which goes against it.

Its implied excuse is that it is being treated unfairly by Speaker Barton Scotland. Now it is true that Dr Scotland is no Ralph Ramkarran, and that some of his decisions have not always been perceived as even-handed.  However, it is certainly not the case that every decision he has made which has gone against the PPP could find no justification. Furthermore, he has a civilized approach in trying to encourage the kind of behaviour in the House which is in consonance with the rules and conducive to its work. In contrast, whether the opposition intends it or not, it nevertheless is sending a message to the electorate that it is not just confronting the government outside Parliament Building, but is also prepared to resort to extra-parliamentary methods of confrontation within its walls as well.

Which brings us to the specifics of what happened. There had been a meeting on the matter of time allocations for the debate on the Estimates which involved both the government and opposition, but which the Speaker told the media the opposition had left. In its absence, presumably, it had been agreed to reduce the time allocated from what obtained last year, and it was this to which the PPP raised objection. Opposition Leader Bharrat Jagdeo was quoted as telling reporters that under the Standing Orders, consideration of the Estimates could take as much as seven days, but they had reduced it to five days “even though we are dealing with a budget that is over $265 billion…”

It has to be said that much of the ‘speechifying’ and interrogation in the National Assembly is unnecessary, formulaic and unhelpful. In addition, the members are not always distinguished for doing their homework on the issues on which they hold forth. A great deal of time too is sometimes wasted on irrelevancies rather than on substantive matters, something which also applied to Mr Juan Edghill, the MP at the centre of the drama on the day in question. Whatever the intention of the government, therefore – and Mr Jagdeo claimed it was to avoid scrutiny – it could possibly be argued that the truncating of the time slot might have improved the quality of the debate, if members had only concentrated their minds on what was important and germane in relation to the Estimates. It could be claimed, for example, that by the time Mr Edghill ran out of time and persisted in asking questions, he had already wasted some of the allotted time.

Be that as it may, one cannot help but feel that his refusal to sit down when asked by the Speaker perhaps had been anticipated and a response planned for by the party. We reported in our Tuesday edition that Mr Edghill had exhibited a belligerent attitude throughout the morning session, and at one point was cautioned for shouting. After Dr Scotland ordered him removed from the House when he refused to sit down, he also shouted that he was not leaving. When the Sergeant-at-Arms was called on by the Speaker to escort him out, he still refused to go.

Everyone is familiar with the sequence thereafter, when two senior police officers entered the Chamber but failed in their efforts to induce Mr Edghill to leave. Mr Edghill had previously announced that he was an elected member of the House and therefore was not moving, while his colleagues circled him with their arms echoing the same sentiment, that they would all have to be arrested since he had parliamentary immunity and could not be touched by the officers.

He might have had parliamentary immunity, but he was still obliged to obey the Speaker’s ruling which was in conformity with the Standing Orders, and his fellow PPP MPs were no less obligated to respect the Speaker and the Standing Orders also. None of them had even a wobbly leg to stand on where that was concerned.

Exactly who called in the junior police officers is a matter still not established beyond doubt, but unlike the seniors, they moved in to try and physically remove Mr Edghill, and it was then the melee started. Ms Priya Manickchand claimed assault, and sat in tears, although our reporter did see bruises on her hands. There was total confusion, with various cries, including ones of “Rape! Rape!” which hardly redounded to the credit of the PPP. While the allegations were all against the police, SN’s reporter did see one officer with the buttons torn off his tunic, and a video reviewed later showed the same officer being assaulted by two PPP MPs.

(It might be noted en passant that Commissioner (ag) David Ramnarine was reported in our edition yesterday as confirming that the police should not have gone into the Parliament Chamber.)

Mr Jagdeo was quoted as saying afterwards, “This is not going to go down easy in this House. It is unprecedented and I think it is designed to distract attention from the [signing bonus]. This is all carefully worked out. I have seen egregious breaches in the House from the other side that he [the Speaker] refused to act on and on this issue suddenly the police [are] called in.”

It is indeed unprecedented, but it could not possibly have been carefully worked out by the government side. How could they know in advance that Mr Edghill was going to refuse to obey the Speaker, although they might well have anticipated he would complain about not being allowed further questions? And how could they know that the other members of the opposition would encircle Mr Edghill to prevent him from being moved? The PPP are the only ones who could have decided that Mr Edghill should ignore the Speaker’s ruling and that they would support him in so doing. They may not have expected the police would be called, but the Speaker himself said he did not call the police.

For all Mr Jagdeo’s thundering, Mr Edghill’s misconduct and Ms Manickchand’s histrionics, the responsibility for what happened lies fully at the door of the opposition party. While the government MPs are no angels in the House, and the PPP has reason to criticize how government business there is sometimes discharged, the constant open flouting of the Speaker’s authority only serves to undermine the institution of Parliament. If the Standing Orders are bypassed, then the Assembly cannot discharge its business. The voters did not put Mr Edghill or any other MP there to shout, refuse to comply with a Speaker’s ruling or contribute to mayhem. And make no mistake, from a causal point of view it was Mr Edghill’s behaviour which led in due course to the mayhem. We need to return to an atmosphere of more rational debate, and perhaps the whips on both sides  as well as others could hold discussions on how that might be best achieved. In the first instance, however, the PPP has to change its tactics inside the Chamber, otherwise we will soon not have a Parliament in the traditional sense of that term.

In the meantime, since Mr Edghill is not the possessor of a turn-the-other-cheek temperament, every time he feels a fit of belligerence coming over him in the House, he should lift his eyes upwards and be calmed by Castellani’s ethereal ceiling.

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