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Fiery Friday in the House

Sunday, December 5, 2010

The Member of Parliament for Diego Martin Central, Dr Amery Browne, found himself on the hotseat, or under the spotlight, depending on which side of the house one happened to be sitting (or supporting), on Friday evening in the House. After repeated cautions by Speaker of the House, Wade Mark, and objections by the Prime Minister and the Chief Whip Roodal Moonilal, the Speaker took the largely unprecedented step of silencing Browne through a motion of irrelevance.

The surprising action came after several warnings in a heated exchange, which saw, at one point, the Speaker of the House, Mr Browne and the Prime Minister all on their feet at the same time, prompting sharp words from the House Speaker on that point of parliamentary protocol. Eventually, the Government’s Chief Whip moved a motion on the Standing Orders of the House, specifically citing paragraph 43b-2 as justification that Browne should no longer be heard during the sitting.

That order reads: “Any member may, after the Speaker or the Chairman, as the case may be, has under paragraph (1) of this Standing Order once called the attention of the House or Committee to the conduct of a Member who persists in irrelevance or tedious repetition of his own arguments or of the arguments used by other members in debate, move that the Member be no longer heard and such Motion shall be put forthwith without amendment or debate.”

The Government side of the house has an automatic majority on such a vote unless there are absentees or dissension and there was clearly none of that on Friday. The Opposition, diminished by the absence of Opposition Leader Keith Rowley for medical reasons as well as San Fernando East MP Patrick Manning, proved sufficiently stung by both the severity of the action and their powerlessness in the circumstances that they walked out of the House at that point.

Even that proved largely ineffectual, with five members departing and three members, Opposition Chief Whip Marlene McDonald, Diego Martin East MP Colm Imbert and Laventille East/Morvant MP Donna Cox choosing to remain in the House after what appeared to be a strategic consultation.It was a startling turn of events in the Lower House and one that stands out as a low point in the traditions of Parliament in Trinidad and Tobago.

A key element in parliamentary traditions is unfettered freedom of speech, and it’s a cornerstone of the process as it was developed in the Westminster system of government throughout the Commonwealth and beyond. The influence of that core element of the process of governance has gone on to influence every democratic society’s approach to managing its affairs.

Free speech in Parliament is protected by Parliamentary Privilege, automatic protections that while subject to review, are largely absolute. Under the rules and traditions of Parliament, members of the House should be free to speak without being concerned about the heavy hand of undue censorship coming down to silence them.

Doubly surprising is the source of this action. When he sat on the Opposition benches in the Senate, the current Speaker of the House, Wade Mark, made a fine art of sometimes arguing at some distance from the topic at hand, often making only tangential reference to the relevant bill before launching forth on extended statements.

That he was cut considerable slack in his prior verbal meanderings is now a matter of public record and the Speaker should have been more mindful of that history when he dealt with the Member for Diego Martin Central. It was, to be clear, a tempestuous sitting. Browne’s tart response to the gaffe of Stacy Roopnarine, Parliamentary Secretary in the Ministry of Sport, was wholly uncalled for and his attitude in attempting to go beyond where the Speaker was prepared to allow him worthy of rebuke.

But such behaviour is part and parcel of the cut and thrust, give and take of Parliament and when Mr Moonilal and Mr Mark review and reflect on Friday’s sitting, they may well conclude that muzzling an MP in the circumstances may have been an over-reaction to a matter that could have been handled differently.


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