The Long, Tortured History of Absentee Parliamentarians
One hundred and ninety-five years ago, in the venerable House of Lords, the Earl of Shaftesbury “laid on the table the report of the committee appointed to inquire into the precedents relative to the enforcement of the attendance of peers during great and solemn occasions.” The noble peers apparently played hooky a little too often for the Honourable Earl’s liking.
On 25 July 1820, the House of Lords passed a resolution that stated:
1. That no lord do absent himself, on pain of incurring a fine of £100 for each day’s absence pending the first three days of such proceedings and of £50 for each subsequent day’s absence from the same; and in default of payment of any and every such fine, of being taken into custody
2. That no excuses be admitted, save disability from age, viz., being of the age of 70 years and upwards, or from sickness, or having been out of the realm in foreign parts. . .; or out of Great Britain on his majesty’s service, or on account of the death of a parent, wife, or child.
And so began the long tradition of using fines, or the threat of custody, to get absentee parliamentarians to drag their behinds to work.
Fast-forward another 168 years and 3500+ miles to Washington D.C., for the exiting story of 46 Republicans who boycotted the US Senate in an effort to block campaign finance laws. The frustrated Democratic Majority Leader said that “Senators are supposed to be grown-ups, not kids. They’re supposed to come to the Senate floor to vote.” He moved a motion to compel the attendance of the Republicans.
And so, in the wee hours of 25 February 1988, the Senate’s sergeant-at-arms used the power of 46 arrest warrants to round up, one by one, the obstructionist Republicans. One distinguhed Senator “fled down a hallway and escaped arrest.” Another, Senator Bob Packwood, hid in his office and tried to force the door closed. According to the Los Angeles Times:
Packwood tried to shove the door closed, but Giugni and two of his assistants pushed it open. The senator, who hurt his left arm in an accident two weeks ago and has been wearing a cast since then, tried to use his left hand to keep the door shut, bruising his knuckles in the process.
And so, dramatically, “Packwood was carried feet-first into the Senate chamber by three plainclothes officers,” marring the decorum of the Senate of the world’s greatest democracy. It harkened back to the year 1941, when similar arrests by the Deputy Sergeant at Arms dragged Tennessee Senator Kenneth McKellar from his own apartment to the Capitol to participate in a vote on controversial civil rights legislation.
As recently as 2011, 14 Wisconsin State Senators fled the state entirely and camped out across state lines in Illinois in order to avoid possible arrest. Their crime? The 14 Democrats were boycotting parliament in an attempt to block passage of the Republican Governor’s budget. It wasn’t clear whether they could be arrested for their absenteeism, so they made a run for the border.
Who said that the life of a parliamentarian was easy?
Of course, arrest warrants and $30,000 fines (£100 in 1820 would be worth as much as EC$30,787.18 today) are extreme responses to an age-old problem: How do you get parliamentarians – who are paid to participate in debates, committees and votes on legislation – to actually show up and do their job?
It is a question of current particular importance these days in Saint Vincent and the Grenadines. Seventeen months ago, St. Clair Leacock announced that “from here on, with a one-seat majority, the New Democratic Party is not cooperating with you on anything, save and except the next general elections.” That “non cooperation” included parliamentary boycotts, failure to attend select committees, and refusal to participate in “Question Time” when they actually did sit in the House of Assembly. Of course, once the elections came and went, the Opposition still found itself on the outside, looking in. But, instead of accepting the will of the people, the NDP doubled-down on its pre-election rhetoric of parliamentary absenteeism and obstructionism:
- First, they insisted that they wouldn’t take their seats in Parliament.
- Second, they acquiesced to being sworn into Parliament for “strictly technical reasons.”
- Third, after being sworn in, the Opposition parliamentarians, promptly walked out.
- Fourth, they refused to name members to the Constitutionally-mandated Public Accounts Committee.
- Fifth, they said that they would only attend Parliament for five minutes to be marked “present”
- Sixth, they failed to attend the Finance Committee to go over the draft Estimates of revenue and expenditure.
- And then, Seventh, they boycotted the Parliamentary debate on the budget Estimates.
From a strictly political perspective, it’s all a bit of silly theater. You may find it praiseworthy or you may find it pathetic, depending on your own particular political persuasion. But the theatrics have far more grave consequences from the perspective of our young democracy, of building and respecting the institutions of governance, or, simply, from the question of whether you can ethically accept money for work you refuse to do.
These questions have troubled me for a while. I’ve blogged about it. I’ve mused about it on Facebook. I’ve raised it as an issue in the Parliament. For my troubles, apparently, the Leader of the Opposition thinks that I “need to kneel down and beg God pardon.” St. Clair Leacock, the Baddest Parliamentarian on the Planet, suggested that I shouldn’t talk about the sergeant-at-arms compelling attendance, I should instead come and try get him myself.
Well, then. I’m glad we’re all ready to have such a mature conversation on the issue.
All Around the World, the Same Song
Truth is, the issue of what do with absentee Parliamentarians is not a Vincy issue or an issue relegated to history books. Take a peek at headlines and editorial pages around the world and you’ll see, for example:
- Trouble for Truant MPs (South Africa)
- Dock MPs pay for absenteeism (Jamaica)
- Absent MPs fined for not showing up (France)
- Absent MPs to have pay deducted (New Zealand)
- No allowances for legislators who dodge sessions (Uganda)
- Armenian Parliament to be fined for Truancy (Armenia)
- Layton vows stiff fines for MPs who skip votes (Canada)
- Fines for truant MPs in Germany (Germany)
- Proposal to Fine Absent M.P.s: Alleged Waste of Time in Parliament (Australia)
- Call to Slash Truant MPs’ Pay (Kenya)
- Parliament recognizes fine of 500,000 dinars to each absent MP (Iraq)
- MP assembly first to propose “no work, so salary” rule (India)
- No show, no pay: Salaries of PTI’s absent lawmakers stopped (Pakistan)
- Sulik will cut pay of ‘truant’ MPs (Slovakia)
- Truant MPs Should Go Penniless, Bulgaria’s Govt Says (Bulgaria)
I could go on, but you get the point: Unlike Ju-C, parliamentary absenteeism is not a Vincy Thing. It’s a worldwide thing. Similarly, the idea of applying legal sanction to absentee parliamentarians does not usually require God’s pardon or necessitate pissing contests with rostrum ruffians and wannabe bad men. Normally, a little legislative action is enough.
I’ve blogged back in 2014 about the NDP’s “White Flag of Non-Cooperation” and the importance of parliamentary presence and debate. I said then that “It is clear that the occasional parliamentary boycott has its place in the political bag of tricks that an opposition has at its disposal. There is nothing wrong with the selective use of boycotts to make a point.” I stand by that. There is no opposition worth its salt that hasn’t dramatically walked out of parliament to make a point from time to time. But if your plan is to completely abdicate your parliamentary responsibilities, then you must know that there will be consequences.
In “real life,” if you never come to work, you’ll lose your job. The SVG Standing Orders contemplate firing MPs for long stretches of absenteeism by vacating their seat (more on that later). But, also, as any employee can attest, if you skip work one day and it’s neither a vacation day nor a sick day, you won’t get paid. If you try to accept pay for work you didn’t do, you are, at best, unethical. At worst, you’re a plain old garden-variety thief. In a country with limited resources, it is doubly unethical to brag about your intention to skip Parliament, then show up on payday expecting your full salary.
It don’t work so.
I Fought the Law, and the Law Won
The links to the headlines above hint that there are rules and laws linking parliamentary presence to parliamentary pay. It may be useful to take a glance at some of those laws before thinking about whether any similar law is needed or feasible in SVG.
Author Marc Van der Hulst wrote a useful book called The Parliamentary Mandate: A Global Comparative Study (pdf). In it, Van der Hulst examines, among other things, parliamentary rules around the world that deal with attendance of members. He starts off by saying that “[m]ost parliaments impose some formal rule of attendance, both at plenary sittings and committee meetings,” but that the observance of that rule is oftentimes little more than “a ‘moral’ obligation.” However, many Parliaments buttress this moral obligation with financial penalties. According to Van der Hulst:
Forfeiture of part of a member’s salary (or supplementary allowances) is undoubtedly the most common penalty for absence without a valid reason. It is imposed in a large number of countries (Costa Rica, Cyprus, France, Gabon, Germany, Guatemala, Hungary, Jordan, Luxembourg, Paraguay, Poland, Republic of Korea, Spain, Uruguay).
Financial penalties are usually proportionate to the length of a member’s absence or the number of meetings that a member fails to attend.
What constitutes “absence” also varies. Some parliaments penalize you for not marking your name in a register of attendance. Some link it to participation in committee meetings. Others calculate attendance based on how often you are present to vote on bills. Others still offer some combination of all of these criteria. Let’s take a quick glance at some of these tools, shall we?
Section 55 of the Parliament of Canada Act provides a “sessional allowance” of $40,200 per year. According to section 57 of the Act, if you’re absent without an excuse while Parliament is in session, you’re liable to a fine of $120 (EC$230) per day:
Deductions for non-attendance
57 (1) A deduction at the rate of $120 per day shall be made from the sessional allowance of a member of either House of Parliament for every day beyond 21 on which the member does not attend a sitting of that House if it sits on that day.
Interestingly, section 59 of the Act also allows the Parliament to set even stricter penalties for non-attendance:
Stricter provisions by regulation of either House
59 The Senate or the House of Commons may make regulations, by rule or by order, rendering more stringent on its own members the provisions of this Act that relate to the attendance of members or to the deductions to be made from sessional allowances.
It seems that the Canadian Parliament has indeed agreed to stricter penalties, since the news media is reporting that the penalty is now $250 (EC$480) per day.
The German Parliament is called the Bundestag. In the Members of the Bundestag Act (pdf), their attendance policy is enforced through Section 14 – “Reduction of the expense allowance.” In the Bundestag, members of Parliament must sign an attendance register when they show up for work. According to the Act:
If a Member of the Bundestag does not enter his or her name in the register, 100 euros [EC$294] shall be deducted from his or her expense allowance. The amount of the reduction shall be increased to 200 euros [EC$588] if a Member who has not been granted leave of absence fails to enter his or her name in the attendance register on the day of a plenary sitting.
But there is also a penalty for not voting on legislation. The same section of the Bundestag Act says:
A Member of the Bundestag who fails to cast a vote by voting card or roll-call shall have 100 euros [EC$294] deducted from his or her monthly expense allowance. This shall not apply if the President has granted the Member leave of absence.
The bastion of liberty views participation in Parliament as a duty to the republic. The Rules of Procedure of the National Assembly (pdf) penalize failure to show up for votes and failure to attend committee meetings:
. . . an M.P. who has taken part, in the course of a session, in less than two thirds of public ballots held . . . shall forfeit one third of the parliamentary allowance for a period equal to the duration of the session; if the same M.P. has taken part in less than half of the ballots this forfeit shall be doubled.
(1) Attendance of committee members at committee meetings is obligatory.
. . .
(3) If a member is absent more than twice in a month, taking into account meetings of the committee which are held whilst the House is sitting and/or the presence of the M.P. at another standing committee, each subsequent absence of a committee member at a meeting of the committee convened, . . ., shall be liable to a deduction of 25% in his monthly working allowance.
In February 2014, the Parliamentary leaders of South Africa agreed to an extraordinary “Policy for the Attendance of Members of Parliament During Plenary and Meetings of Parliamentary Committees and Forums.” The Policy aimed to deal with chronic absenteeism of members. Since the Parliament is dominated by the ruling African National Congress, most of the worst truants were actually members of the Government. The 10-page policy, and its long history, is worth a blog posting in and of itself. But for the purposes of this posting, Section 9, “Sanctions in Respect of Absences,” is the most critical:
(1) If a Member is absent for 15 or more consecutive sitting days of the Assembly or the Council, without the leave of the House, the Member loses his/her seat.
(2) If a Member is absent from 3 consecutive meetings of a committee to which he/she is appointed as a full Member, outside of a sanctioned absence agreed to by the Member’s political party, a sanction may be applied to the Member by either the Assembly or the Council to the effect of a fine of R1000 [EC$167] for each day of absence.
The ANC itself has recently added an additional internal fine for its own members to R2000 [EC$334], and subjects its parliamentarians to internal disciplinary hearings for chronic absenteeism.
In New Zealand, the Speaker and Parliament were embarrassed when they realized that their antiquated law capped the penalty for MPs’ absences at $10 per day. Member of Parliament Chris Carter was apparently chronically absent from Parliament, but the Speaker was legally constrained as to how much he could punish Carter’s truancy (Carter apparently claimed to be ill, but was seen at the gym and participating in radio call-in programmes). According to the New Zealand Herald:
[The Speaker] said it was important that MPs were seen to attend the House.
“Their first duty is to the House,” [the Speaker] said.
“I recognise that that the penalty is small, but this does not mean that I do not take the attendance of members seriously. While members draw a parliamentary salary they should attend sittings of the House.”
In response to the public outcry of the $10/day maximum, the New Zealand Law Commission upped the daily fine to $270 (EC$477).
Again, I could go on and on, but you see where I’m going: There are laws and rules around the world, in established Parliaments and respected democracies, that impose financial penalties on truant MPs. Some of these fines are daily penalties, usually on the order of EC$150 – $600. Some are based on a percentage of overall salary or allowances, usually 25% – 60%, though in some Eastern European parliaments you can theoretically lose your entire salary if you stay away long enough. Some link absence to voting, some to committee meetings, and some to just showing up each day. It varies.
Every Posse Must Work
So having completed my world parliamentary tour, the natural questions are “would it work in SVG?” Indeed, “should it work in SVG?” My answers are Yes, and, unfortunately, Yes again.
Let’s get a three points out of the way up front:
I. The first point is that parliamentary absences are already deeply offensive to Vincentian law. Ours is one of the few Parliaments that can actually kick you straight out of your duly-elected constituency if you are absent. Our Constitution says:
(29)(3) A member shall also vacate his seat in the House-
(a) if he is absent from the sittings of the House for such period and in such circumstances as may be prescribed in the rules of procedure of the House;
And the Standing Orders of the House of Assembly say:
74(2) If any Senator or Elected Member is absent from the House for more than three consecutive meetings without leave of the Speaker obtained in writing before the expiration of that period, the Clerk shall, immediately after the third shuch meeting direct the attention of the Member concerned to the provisions of this Order. If the Member continues to be absent for the next three meetings, then, unless before the expiration of the last of those meetings the Member has obtained the leave of the Speaker in writing or unless the House upon motion made without notice has granted him leave of absence, he shall vacate his seat under section 29(3)(a) of the Constitution.
So our rules and laws already contemplate firing truant parliamentarians. There is no greater sanction that outright dismissal. Clearly, our founding fathers thought that skipping Parliament was a big deal, that should be discouraged in the strongest possible manner. All I’m suggesting is an intermediate step between your first absence and your ultimate dismissal.
Parliamentarians in SVG don’t get paid much relative to their Caribbean colleagues, but it adds up. This year, we’re going to spend a couple million dollars on the salaries and allowances of parliamentarians. Given that the Government has only one more MP and two more Senators than the Opposition side, almost half of that money is going to the absent NDP members.
It’s not right.
II. The second point that’s important to note is that all of the examples that I listed of global parliaments involved “full-time” legislatures. That is, in Germany, France, Canada, etc., Parliament sits every single day. In SVG, outside of the annual budget debate, Parliament meets maybe once or twice per month. Select Committees take up another day or two per month. Being required to sit in the House of Assembly a couple days per month is not onerous. Most opposition Parliamentarians and most Senators have second jobs. Indeed, based on salary alone, you’d be fair to consider Parliamentarian as their second job, because many earn more money in their “main” occupation.
Why does the occasional nature of the Vincy Parliament matter? It matters because it all but eliminates the excuse that MPs had “other” or “more important” things to do on the days that Parliament actually sits. An Elected MP should have a constituency office. He or she will be expected to meet people, visit areas in his or her constituency, advocate, negotiate and act on behalf of citizens in a whole variety of ways. All of these things are important, and definitely part of the job of an elected MP. But since Parliament sits relatively infrequently in SVG, almost all of those things can be scheduled around Parliamentary sittings. Your “other” responsibilities are not generally valid excuses for Parliamentary absences.
Also, because Parliament is only going to meet about 12-25 times per year, the presence of members in the SVG House of Assembly is far more important than those in assemblies that meet every day. Every meeting of our House involves question time, a debate on legislation, and voting. Many, if not most, bills go through all of their readings in a single sitting. So MPs’ presence is vital. Similarly, MPs’ absence should be more harshly penalized than those parliaments that meet every day.
III. The third point is that no parliamentary rule that I’ve seen would excuse a mass boycott or political protest as a legitimate grounds to avoid penalties. From that first 1820 resolution that I quoted way back at the beginning of this posting, you’ll see that the excuses for absences have always been personal to an individual member – illness, death in the family, travel on state business, etc. In other words, none of these laws and rules even contemplate the possibility that an entire opposition could legitimately absent itself from parliament. In any parliament that penalizes absentee MPs, there is absolutely no doubt that the NDP’s current behaviour would attract fines.
Put Your Money Where Your Mouth Is
So how would a “No Work, No Pay” rule look in SVG? If it were up to me (and it’s not), I’d make sure that the following elements were involved:
Showing up for five minutes is not “presence” in Parliament: Given the occasional nature of our Parliamentary sittings, and the Opposition’s (legally incorrect) view that just showing up for the first five minutes inoculates them against penalties, any new rule should precisely define what action or inaction will draw a penalty. Me? I’d require that parliamentarians be present for some minimum designated portion of the hours of sitting. And, like many other parliamentary rules, I’d say that if you miss a vote, you’re absent.
Skipping committees? OK, skip your pay: The current opposition is notorious for avoiding committee meetings, even before their current boycott strategy. It’s embarrassing, and it indicates a contempt for the critical lawmaking function that they’re supposed to hold. In my book, skipping any portion of a committee meeting would constitute an absence, unless excused by the Speaker.
Don’t want to name committee members? OK, the Speaker will name them for you: There are parliamentary committees that do important work in our nation’s governance. For example, there is a Public Accounts Committee, mandated by our Constitution. There is a Finance Committee, which considers the Estimates. There are Select Committees on bills, and according to the Standing Orders, those Select Committees “shall be so constituted as to ensure so far as is possible, that the balance of parties in the House is reflected in the Committee.”
Traditionally, the Prime Minister and the Leader of the Opposition are invited to name members to these various committees. The problem is that the Leader of the Opposition routinely refuses to name any members, so the committees often proceed as one-sided all-government affairs – in possible violation of the rules and the law.
Nothing in the law says that the Prime Minister and Leader of the Opposition are the only ones who can choose committee members. If they refuse to name members, the Speaker should step up and select members on his own authority. If those Speaker-selected members fail to show up for committee meetings, fine them.
Six absences are too many before you lose your seat: The current Standing Orders say that if you miss six sittings of Parliament, you lose your seat. After three absences, you get a warning from the Clerk of the House. After three more absences, you lose your seat. The problem with the six-absence rule in our Vincy context is that, given the infrequency of our house meetings, a truant parliamentarian could skip six to eight months of meetings before this penalty kicked in. I’d reduce the six absences to four (two before the Clerk’s warning, and two after). This would tighten the rules and make them more in keeping with our parliamentary realities.
How much is too much?
After these basic principles, you get down to the question of how much money should be levied as a penalty? Should it be a fixed fine, or a portion of ones salary? There are arguments both ways, and I really don’t have a preference. All I’ll suggest is that the fines be stiff enough to act as a deterrent, and that they should escalate with each successive unexcused absence. Also, I’d make unelected Senators pay a stiffer penalty, proportionally, since their main function is to sit in Parliament, unlike elected MPs who have constituency matters to tend to (more on that below).
A word on Senators:
Back in October 2013, when I first became a Senator, I said this in my first address to the House of Assembly:
[The Senate] was created to deliver a more sober and thorough reflection on legislative processes than MPs; who have representational demands and political points to score that are far more immediate than those in the Senatorial ranks. Unfortunately, Senators have been very often indistinguishable from MPs on the Parliamentary floor in both their style and the substance of their contributions. And that is unfortunate, because it begs the question of why are we here? We the Senators. Because if we do not add value to this discussion; if we do not add perspective; then we are superfluous. And we are an unnecessary drain on the public purse.
Seeing Mr. Parnell Campbell, QC in the room, that deficit is one that the defeated constitutional amendment tried to address, with what I believe was called the Council of Elders. But the failure of that Constitutional Amendment creates greater pressures on us, within our existing system, to live up to the original meaning and intent of the word “senator.”
Now we cant pretend that we are in a separate deliberative body. We can’t pretend that we are aloof. We have to be sensitive to our own Caribbean context, the smallness of our Parliament, and the rest of it. But we cannot also view the Senatorship as simply a political graveyard or a political launching pad; where hasbeens or wannnabees go after this or that electoral event. It has to have value in and of itself, and we as Senators have to give it that value, to add to the deliberations of this Parliament.
Since then, I’ve consistently held the view that, in our system, Senators are entirely parliamentary creatures, unless they also hold ministerial portfolios (under our Constitution, only two of the six senators in parliament can be named as ministers). My longstanding view on the special nature and special responsibilities of Senators as mature contributors to parliamentary debate led me to question Eustace’s decision to nominate senators to a House that he then instructed them to boycott. I also called out Senators Barnwell and Ferdinand for accepting taxpayers money for performing zero work – not because I have any animosity towards them (I’m quite fond of them both) but because I believe that, as Senators, they are being paid solely for their parliamentary contributions. Like I said back in 2013, if Senators aren’t contributing in parliament, they are a “superfluous. . . [and] unnecessary drain on the public purse.” Obviously, if I were setting fines, it would reflect my view on this matter. I would have no qualms about returning a senator’s entire salary to the consolidated fund each month they refuse to show up to Parliament.
A word on arrests
The Leader of the Opposition and St. Clair Leacock seem to have gotten their knickers in a twist because I mentioned incidents when the “call of the house” was enforced by the sergeant-at-arms or arrest warrants. If you can remember all the way back to the start of this blog, you’ll see that I mentioned a couple US examples of that practice here. Historically, these actions have also occurred in other commonwealth parliaments.
Anyway, my mention of these incidents has spurred Eustace to encourage me to take it to the Lord in prayer; and prompted Leacock to again burnish his imaginary bad man credentials, which are only slightly more fanciful than his self-proclaimed military rank.
There has also been a suggestion that I was calling for the arrest of the boycotting parliamentarians. I was not. Arresting Eustace et al would only add fuel to the dying embers of their ill-fated protest action. My mention of the powers of arrest and the call of the house was simply to highlight the seriousness with which some parliaments treat absences and boycotts.
In any event, the power of arrest is linked to the “Call of the House” and the call of the House only occurs when the Parliament doesn’t have a quorum. Under our current parliamentary configuration, a boycotting opposition does not deprive the House of quorum, so the “call of the House” could not be invoked. Further, under our Standing Orders (Rule 10), the Vincy version of the call of the House is pretty tame. Essentially, the Speaker can “direct Members to be summoned” to the House. But if they don’t show up within two minutes, all he can do is adjourn/suspend Parliament ’til some other time.
Even if I did advocate a law allowing the Speaker to arrest truant MPs, how could it practically work in a Vincy context? Would we all sit in Parliament for 10 hours while an officer took the ferry down to Union Island to grab Terrance Olliviere and then bring him back the next day? Or would we deploy a dragnet across Central Kingstown, only to be thwarted by the Major’s superior tactical training and guerrilla warfare experience?
So calm down, Messrs. Eustace and Leacock. That straw man won’t even stand up long enough for you to knock it down.
A word on institutions
“The things you do a beat we bad/but still you manage to keep you job.” – Kabaka Pyramid
Some of my favourite songs in the world burn a hot fire on politicians. I’ve been suspicious of them ever since I heard Bob Marley warn me as a little boy to “never make a politician grant you a favour/they will always want to control you forever.” In the years after I’ve particularly enjoyed Barry Brown, Buju Banton, Capleton, Stephen Marley, Mighty Gabby, and Kabaka Pyramid’s own disdainful takes on these creatures called politicians.
Self hate? Not quite.
The root of people’s mistrust/dislike for politicians lies in the chasm between expectation and reality. People expect us to work on their behalf because we promise that that’s what we’ll do. Politicians often overpromise and underdeliver, and the greater the distance between promise and delivery, the greater the mistrust of the political class.
But, over the years, disillusionment with individual politicians morphs into disillusionment with the entire “Babylon System.” The frustration with politician after politician leads people to get “fed up” that “the system sheg up” and believe that “the system set” against them. And, to a greater or lesser extent, the people are correct.
But when disillusionment with individuals becomes disillusionment with the system, frustration with the very institutional underpinnings of our democracy soon follow. Politicians have a special responsibility, as the partial architects of some of this disillusionment, to try to build trust and confidence in governance and institutions. By all means advocate change – even radical change – to existing institutions. But don’t just undermine institutions in the pursuit of power, or without offering alternative institutions. That’s dangerous.
We are in a political era where the Opposition is actively attempting to undermine the very institution that it seeks to control. By its absences and its utterances, it is saying that Parliament is unimportant and insignificant. Yet if they were ever to be elected, it is that same unimportant, insignificant parliament that they will occupy and try to utilize in national governance.
If you attack the legitimacy of a body for 15 years, do you think it suddenly becomes legitimate if you win an election? No. It doesn’t work that way.
So attack individuals. Attack parties. Attack policies. All fair game.
But don’t undermine the institution that is the Parliament of SVG, unless you have an alternative mechanism of governance to suggest.
Institutions in young democracies are important. Trust in the legitimacy and importance of those institutions is even more important. So, if rules have to be devised to protect the legitimacy of those institutions against unfounded and self-serving attacks, then I’m all for ‘em.
It’s interesting that the Standing Orders of the SVG House of Assembly have a bunch of penalties that involve forcing people out of Parliament for a host of infractions. But the Standing Orders have no rules for forcing people in. That’s because the founding fathers assumed that people who offer themselves to serve the people would be honoured by an opportunity to serve them. They assumed that people would be competing to come into parliament, not devising schemes to stay out.
Under our existing rules, the ultimate sanction is to kick someone out of Parliament and not let them back in. But under our current reality, that’s exactly what opposition lawmakers are trying to do – stay out of parliament for as long as possible.
It shouldn’t have to come to this. SVG has managed 36 years of independent parliamentary practice without having to fine MPs for truancy. Service in Parliament should be an honour for which we clamour, not something to be quickly sacrificed on the altar of political expediency. But when the world is topsy turvy, and the thirst for power creates short term goals that are incompatible with long term development, sometimes you need a few simple truths to put things back in perspective.
“No work, no pay” is one of those simple truths.