Some query President’s criticism of MPs

The content originally appeared on: Trinidad and Tobago Newsday

HOPE SPEECH: President Paula-Mae Weekes speaks in the House of Representatives chamber during a joint sitting of both houses on Monday. PHOTO BY ROGER JACOB –

SEVERAL voices in the public space on Tuesday queried President Paula-Mae Weekes’ upbraid of MPs in her address at the ceremonial opening of Parliament on Monday.

Opposition Senator Jayanti Lutchmedial strongly disagreed with President’s remarks, veteran journalist Andy Johnson queried Weekes’ stance, House of Representatives Leader Camille Robinson-Regis cited the Prime Minister’s spirited response, and academic Prof Bishnu Ragoonath reckoned the comments were fair.

Amid her calls for cross-bench collaboration, Weekes had claimed most people saw sittings of parliament as opportunities for finger pointing, ‘gallerying’ and ‘kicksing’, not forums to make laws to improve people’s lives.

“Parliament, and its members, have long been objects of public derision,” Her Excellency argued.

“People look on at these proceedings with resignation, despair, or worse, contempt.

“The respect, trust and confidence that once characterised the relationship between parliamentarian and John Q Public have been squandered and whittled away, leaving little but disregard, suspicion and doubt…”

Robinson-Regis told Newsday, “What the Prime Minister said reflected what we thought.” She said she had nothing to add.

On Monday, Newsday had asked if MPs struck the right balance between decorum and the cut-and-thrust of political debate.

Dr Rowley had replied, “All I’ll say to that is that people who are familiar with Commonwealth parliaments, see Trinidad and Tobago as one of the milder ones.”

Ragoonath told Newsday he was abroad and had not read the speech.

When read part of the above extracts, he remarked,”I think the comments are fair comments. The question is how will the politicians accept it.”

Johnson said the comments were consistent with Weekes having previously taken “high-sounding kinds of positions,” although these were countered by both Dr Rowley and his predecessor Patrick Manning.

“It might be that the President is trying to perform as how she understands a head of state is expected to perform. From day one, her speech at the opening of Parliament she addressed was that sort of thing – trying to bring people to some sort of hallowed place that parliamentary debate should be conducted as such.

“But it didn’t stand the test of time.

“It nicely collides with what the Prime Minister said in his response, that our conduct here is tame in comparison to elsewhere.”

Johnson said the PM’s remarks had come even against the backdrop of some criticism of the Opposition’s conduct last October in an unruly sitting they had held to try to fire Weekes.

“In that sense to me it is heartening to see the Prime Minister say we don’t behave badly or worse than anybody else. Mr Manning had the habit of saying, ‘This is not a tea party when you come here, and that kind of thing’.

“I think she (Weekes) is doing what she feels is necessary to be done, but really the conduct of Parliament in any democracy should be as robust as ours is.”

Lutchmedial told Newsday the Opposition’s clear role was to hold the Government to account, as she alleged Weekes had made a lot of sweeping statements about bipartisanship. “We can air the views of people, and not be yes-men and yes-women.”

She added that the Opposition had supported a lot of government legislation, even as the Opposition’s role is to require improvements and oppose where necessary.

Asked about the President’s quotes disparaging MPs and Parliament, she said, “I think that’s a lot of rhetoric.”

“To say ‘people looking on’, who people? Which people?

“It’s a very broad brush statement. Some 308,000 people voted for the UNC. So I don’t think that’s a fair statement to make at all, to say ‘all the people.’

“There may be some and they are entitled to their views, as we are entitled to ours and others are entitled to theirs.”

On Weekes likening bipartisanship with patriotism, Lutchmedial said, “I think there’s a misconception as to what is an opposition’s role and what is partisanship and bipartisanship. There’s a time and place for that (bipartisanship) but by no means is it unpatriotic to hold a government to account. In fact, sacrificing your time and your career and holding a Government to account is the greatest form of patriotism.”

She said patriotism was not about speaking in hushed tones but fighting for your country.

“That’s what the UNC stands for and what the political leader demands of us, so we consider ourselves to be very patriotic in the UNC.”

Referring to last year’s row over the commissioner of police order of merit list – where the PM met the President as the list headed from the Police Service Commission to President to Parliament – Lutchmedial said, “I endorse the Leader of the Opposition’s (Kamla Persad-Bissessar’s) advice to take your own advice. Practice what you preach.”