PURELY POLITICAL: Clash of two duties
After the first sitting, unless the House otherwise decides, the House shall meet on every Tuesday at 12 o’clock noon, and, unless previously adjourned, shall meet until 9.30 p.m. – Standing Order 6 (2)
When the House of Assembly met last Friday, it was the third occasion in recent times that it had done so and it raised some eyebrows.
But it is not as if Friday House sittings have never been scheduled; they are rare but not unusual.
It is worth restating upfront that despite the provisions of the Standing Orders, the House makes its own rules for its own good governance. In the extract from the Standing Orders, therefore, the operative words are “unless the House otherwise decides”.
Clearly, then, the House can make a determination as to the day and timing of its sittings independent of any other entity. Indeed, there was one week in which the House met on the Tuesday as well as the Friday.
Still, even the House must have valid reasons for sidestepping the Standing Orders and ignoring the tradition.
“If you don’t have the numbers, then it makes no sense calling a meeting,” was the swift and curt response from a senior Government official when asked what was behind the apparent emerging trend of more frequent Friday sittings.
It was a candid and revealing acknowledgement of one of the severe, if irritating, consequences of this Government’s slender two-seat majority following the February general elections.
What this means is that the Freundel Stuart Administration has very little wiggle room – at best – in seeking to push through its legislative agenda in Parliament, and at worst, it could be open to pressure from backbenchers making representations on behalf of special interests in their constituencies, and possibly held to ransom if there are any disaffected Cabinet Ministers.
To this must be added the terrifying reality that illness can strike anyone, anywhere, anytime, and without warning – it makes no exceptions for Government Ministers or other MPs.
It is public knowledge, for example, that Minister of the Environment and Drainage Dr Denis Lowe has not been enjoying the best of health in the last couple of years and has even had to be detained at the Queen Elizabeth Hospital (QEH), which became grist for the rumour mill.
During the Friday, October 18 sitting, Lowe made a powerful and impassioned reference to his struggle with illness and the strength of his faith in God to whom he expressed his “gratitude and indebtedness” for His love, enduring strength and mercy and for His control over the destiny of many.
“And to speak confidently that my days are numbered only by Him and that no one who seeks to propagate the end of my life can do so, and that it is only in the hands of the Almighty, and that those who would seek to put themselves in a position to speak of that time could only be characterized as inhumane and, frankly, disgusting.
“. . . I realized a long time ago that what becomes of a man can only be determined by God, and not by men, and I remain faithful to His purpose and to His cause and to my calling to serve the people of this country and to continue to reflect the virtues of His righteousness in all of my life.”
Reports of illness also dogging Speaker of the House Michael Carrington have, on the other hand, not been confirmed either by himself or any of his colleagues in the House or in the Democratic Labour Party (DLP).
Still it makes for an uncomfortable setting for a Government which before scheduling a sitting of the House has to make sure that all of its votes are available and can be counted on to support proposed legislation.
The difficulty arises when unavoidable travel on Government business is factored in. Ministerial travel, in particular, despite the carping criticisms of every Opposition since Independence, is an essential component in the conduct of Government business.
And while in these tough economic times, we all would like to see a reduction in the expenses (including the first class airline seats and generous per diems) associated with that travel, we may end up doing ourselves a disservice by the injudicious curtailing of these overseas trips and possibly lose opportunities to assist in the further development of the country.
So we are left then with a clash of two responsibilities: the duty that devolves on Government Ministers to travel to look after the country’s interests, and the duty to have their voices hard in representation of constituents in the House.
House sittings are now being scheduled around MPs’ travel and not the other way around.
It is a tightrope being walked by this Administration with little margin for error or miscalculation.
A missed flight from North America, Britain or Europe or a forced overnighter for an MP in, say, neighbouring Trinidad and Tobago, could spell disaster in division in the House.
• Albert Brandford is an independent political correspondent.