Speaking from the heart
BARBADOS HAS RETAINED the Westminster system of government for over three centuries, and the longest serving Speaker since Independence considers the island “very fortunate” to have had Speakers “who understood their role.”
Ishmael Roett speaks from experience when he says the Speaker “has a very important role as the presiding officer to ensure that there is fairness in Parliament in terms of recognising the rules of Parliament; making sure those rules are obeyed; fairness in terms of not taking sides in any way, not giving advantage to any one side.”
As a Member of Parliament in a Barbados Labour Party (BLP) Government for three consecutive terms, he was elected Speaker of the House, unopposed on each occasion, without objection from the Democratic Labour Party Opposition.
Barbados is celebrating the 375th anniversary of its Parliament and when Roett was asked about a Speaker’s ability to maintain impartiality and to resist any temptation to favour his own party, he replied: “I think we have been very fortunate over the years to have had Speakers who understood their role and that membership of the ruling party did not impinge on their decisions.”
He added: “I believe that as Speaker – and I speak for myself – and also a member of the party, my first business was to isolate myself from decisions of the party. For instance, I did not attend any of the caucus meetings of the party. I was never privy to any of the discussions about legislative matters and I believe that most of the other Speakers have been this way also.”
Roett contended: “I did not allow myself to be influenced. I kept away for all those years and that helped me a lot because when the matter was discussed in Parliament I was hearing about the details for the first time and I took these details as they appeared.”
He expressed a preference for the process of election over appointment to the Speaker’s position, espousing the view that being an elected Speaker “gives the Speaker a certain amount of independence”.
“I would be the last one to talk about bias or prejudice of the Speaker because placed in that chair, you are supposed to very often make those on-the-spot decisions based on the rules of the House and that is what I tried to do.”
He expressed the view that a nominated Speaker would be “at the whims and fancies of the ruling party because it is a job that he has got and therefore he must do what they want”.
Still, he suggested: “I would have loved to see even more independence on the part of the Speaker.”
Roett commended parliamentarians in Barbados for the camaraderie he often witnessed outside the chamber after fierce debate. “I think one of the most outstanding features of our Parliament is never mind how severe this cut and thrust of debate might be and what you hear in Parliament, we all go down to lunch and sit at the lunch table where so many jokes are cracked and everybody is so friendly towards each other, you would never believe that these people were just going at each other’s throats in Parliament. We all sit – not ‘D’ on one side and ‘B’ on one side – we all sit together. This is unheard of in parliaments in the West Indies.”
It is a feature which particularly impressed him in the early years as Speaker when he recalled once hearing “the harsh tones of Parliament from members on each side, and then when lunch came, as the members passed on their way to lunch, one member from the Opposition speaking to another member, laughing and joking and saying, “I had you in a corner there.”
That experience remains “a very important fact of life which I wish that more Bajans could understand – that you can have a difference of opinion on many matters but you could still be friends”.
“I looked forward to Parliament days because I loved presiding over the debates,” said the septuagenarian who went on to cite the no-confidence debates over which he presided, “where the real cut and thrust of debate was more evident than any other time”.
He was Speaker when no-confidence motions were filed against BLP Ministers Mia Mottley and Liz Thompson, as well as during the very contentious motion against Minister Clyde Mascoll.
Roett also reflected on that period when late Prime Minister David Thompson and present Minister of Housing Denis Kellman formed the Opposition and the way they managed the role of Opposition in the circumstances of a 26-2 member advantage of the ruling Barbados Labour Party and gave the two a thumbs up.
“I think they handled themselves quite well and they seemed never daunted by the occasion, against the overwhelming odds, and I think that that was an outstanding time in our parliamentary democracy . . .”
For Roett, his job as Speaker was a full-time job, seeing him spend a lot of time in the Speaker’s office located in the Parliament building, dealing with local parliamentary matters, as well as responding to requests for advice from other parliaments in the region and sometimes hosting visiting parliamentarians.
“I was not the kind of Speaker to drop in every now and then.” Instead he rose early in the morning to go to his parliamentary job and after almost a whole day there, headed to the O Level Institute, the educational institution he founded over 30 years ago, to teach.
“All the years I have worked as a Government servant I had the O Level Institute. It meant therefore getting up early, leaving home very early. Most days, whether we had Parliament or not, by 8:45 a.m. or 9 a.m. I arrived at work and I spent almost the whole day there. Then I would go to the institute in the evenings.”
Through all his other obligations, he maintained a continued relationship with the O Level Institute which, according to him, “never affected my constituency” (St Michael South Central).
Because of the scholarships he often granted to constituents, he today claims some credit for laying the foundation which enabled many of them to find work in the Public Service as teachers, police officers and in other capacities.
It is against this background that he expressed concern for the future of many of the island’s youth, whom he has observed resorting to the block after finishing school and immersing themselves in block activities. It is a situation that troubles him deeply and he wants to see more being done to harness the potential of school leavers.
“I wonder if politicians really see what is happening out there in terms of some of these young people,” he said.
He still teaches at the O Level Institute, thankful to God that he is still physically and mentally able to do so, especially after the severe medical challenges he managed to overcome.
While serving as Speaker, he survived triple bypass surgery, underwent brain surgery, going near death on each occasion. “It is only by the grace of God that I am still here. There was a lot of praying for me” said the born-again Christian who added, “I believe I am still here only because of prayer.”
Roett became the 75th Speaker of Barbados’ Parliament at age 50 and though he admits having some reservations about the Westminster system because of some negative trends he has seen developing, he said: “I believe that our system still is the best system – one man, one vote – and that to me is what democracy is all about.”