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Stay focused in Parliament, please

Monday, November 29, 2010

There can be little doubt that a country’s Parliament is one of its most important institutions—forming an institutional trinity along with the Executive and the judiciary—responsible for ensuring high-quality governance. The primary function of a Parliament lies in its ability to pass, amend and repeal laws, which are meant to reflect the wishes of the majority of the population, who are represented in the law-making body by members of Parliament, who are elected to serve for a prescribed term normally at a general election. On a weekly basis, the members of the Executive branch can be called upon to account for their stewardship by being required to prepare and answer questions from the Opposition, by the requirement to table reports on the performance of their ministries or departments under their purview, and by participating in debates on weighty matters of state or in parliamentary sub-committees.

Parliament, in other words, is a serious institution, whose members should be engaged in the serious matter of ensuring that the people’s interests, in all of its many and varied manifestations, are well represented by the cut and thrust of debate and the give and take of negotiated positions. While all Parliaments should remain focused on their primary responsibilities, it is even more important that this particular Parliament of Trinidad and Tobago should retain a laser-sharp and unwavering awareness of its importance—given the fact that this Executive has enough of a majority to amend most of the Republican Constitution and given the perilous economic times in which we live. This Parliament, we would suggest, has many, many issues of much greater importance that it needs to address than the, as yet, unsubstantiated allegations raised by former Prime Minister Patrick Manning in the august chamber on November 19.

At that sitting, Mr Manning introduced into the debate on the Interception of Communication Bill issues surrounding a private residence in south Trinidad that the Prime Minister and her husband are building. The former Prime Minister made some statements that would have been fairly easy for anyone to verify and shoot down. His claim that the house cost an estimated $150 million is, on reflection, likely to be a gross exaggeration. Mr Manning sought to make certain inferences about the source of the funds used by the Prime Minister’s family to build the residence and to connect those inferences to policy positions taken by the Government. Mr Manning has referred to these inferences at a news conference on November 12, in his statement to Parliament on November 19 and in a news release issued on November 24—three occasions in which he had the opportunity to present cogent and compelling evidence that would have raised his inferences above the realm of gossip and innuendo where they now lie.

That he has opted not to do so—even when his speech would have received parliamentary protection—perhaps tells its own story. Our main concern in this issue is that it has already taken up too much of Parliament’s time, with Prime Minister Persad-Bissessar presenting a full parliamentary response to Mr Manning’s inferences on November 12 and moreso in her own statement on November 24. The matter having been referred to the Privileges Committee, it is hoped that Parliament can limit the amount of future time spent on this, as yet, tiresome and trivial matter. Finally, it would be remiss not to remark on the irony of Mr Manning attempting to cross-question Mrs Persad-Bissessar about her private residence when he is perceived as being quite reticent about making public disclosures about the Prime Minister’s Residence and Diplomatic Centre and other buildings which were constructed using state funds.


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