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Where are we heading?

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The House of Assembly is due to meet again on Tuesday, April 5. It will be the first meeting of our Parliament since the fiasco of March 3 which ended in the worst display of ill-discipline ever displayed by Parliamentarians in our country.{{more}} A lot of uncertainty and concern surrounds any subsequent meetings of the House, not because of the protests being mounted by the Opposition, but because of the chaotic nature of those protests. Where are we heading?

The root of all this disturbance lies in the badly-timed move by the government to pilot two bills through Parliament to amend the Criminal Procedures Act and the Representation of the People Act. Whatever the merits or demerits of the Government’s case, these amendments clearly came at a wrong time. We had just emerged from a highly- contentious election in which the narrow victory of the governing ULP seemed to be not only a very bitter pill for the opposition NDP to swallow, but a very big one at that. But the electorate had spoken and its expressed will must be respected.

There followed the usual accusations of improper conduct and the by now, familiar resort to challenges in the Court. Some of these have been deemed by a magistrate to be “frivolous and vexatious”, but the Opposition was exercising its rights under the laws by which our country is governed. It began to border on the ridiculous, but in an atmosphere where the NDP had high-jacked the propaganda highway, legal corrective action, either to prevent abuse of the legal system or to correct obvious flaws in the laws, needed public understanding and support.

To its credit, the ULP has been exemplary thus far in terms of publishing proposed legislation before its passage through Parliament, thus providing for public feedback. We, the citizens of St.Vincent and the Grenadines, have not always lived up to our responsibility, in that most times, there has been little comment. It is as if we only respond on the promptings of politicians, from whatever side of the House. It reflects how far we have to go in understanding our rights and responsibilities as citizens. Why this course was not followed by the Government, trying to win support for its move, is a mystery to most of us. In an atmosphere where the Opposition had failed repeatedly to unseat the Government, neither through the law courts, nor by public mobilisation, nor most of all at the polls, the proposed pieces of legislation were seized upon by the NDP with even greater tenacity than a drowning man clutching at a straw.

As had happened in the Referendum, all sorts of twists and spins were put on the Government’s move. Strangely, I have seen no reasoned position in the press by the NDP on the two amendments put before the House. It was more like a call to arms, or putting the proverbial red rag, excuse the pun, before the raging bull (in a china shop?). The propaganda and mobilisation was stepped up, the reasoning seeming to be that the full toss offered up by the Government had to be hit for six. Was this the straw to break the camel’s back?

Thirty years ago, many of my generation had a titanic struggle against two proposed bits of legislation. The Opposition appeared to be wanting to ride on that tide by invoking memories of the “Dread Bills,” as we had dubbed those in 1981, and to rehash the slogan “Kill the Bills”. But the Bills of 1981 were far, far different in character to those of 2011. The struggle against them was also of a different character, led by the trade union movement and encompassing the entire spectrum of civil society, the church, the legal profession and the private sector also participating, in one form or another. Today’s self-professed “champions of democracy” are notorious for their constant attacks on and hostility to organised civil society. It stands to reason that they were always going to have difficulty forging such a broad front, unless the Government hands them the opportunity on a platter.

Another important difference is the quality of the mobilisation. The National Committee in Defence of Democracy never got into any confrontation with the police, nor perpetrated any acts of violence, and those were the days of the dreaded “King Arthur and Graffie” (then Attorney General Arthur Williams and his ministerial sidekick Grafton Isaacs). The citizens of this country were mobilised to struggle for their rights, with respect for the law and human dignity. A repeal of proposed legislation, considered anti-democratic and repressive, was pursued, bringing thousands on to the streets without confrontation. The objective was achieved by winning hearts and minds for a just cause.

When one mobilises citizens for protest and professed “civil disobedience”, the leaders have a grave responsibility. You cannot hype people up, lead them on the streets, without any clear strategy. No matter how strongly we feel, order and discipline are key to the success of any mass movement. To what end was the defiance of Parliament’s rules? Now, the focus has shifted to the Speaker of the House, with calls for his resignation. Strangely some of the shortcomings of the Speaker during that fateful House meeting are not even mentioned. For instance, on more than one occasion, the MP for Central Kingstown Hon. Major St. Claire Leacock, had to correct the Speaker’s reference to him as “Senator”. Then there was the faux pas when the Speaker tried to discipline the Leader of the Opposition, but had to be corrected by Major Leacock for the wrong application of the rules. Indeed, the Speaker at times appeared rattled by the tactics of the Opposition.

These are valid criticisms of his performance that day; but I can only ask those bawling for his head, “What would you have done in the circumstances?” What does a schoolteacher do if a pupil refuses to obey instructions like taking his seat? The Opposition Leader is on record as saying that he could have adjourned the meeting. Would this not have played into the hands of the Opposition, who would be tempted to do the same whenever next the House resumed its sitting? How can one condemn the Speaker, but make no reference to the disgraceful behaviour of some MPs?

The most worrying thing about the entire episode is that there is no indication that standards are going to be lifted next time, nor any way out of the impasse sought. Where, in Heaven’s name are we heading?

Renwick Rose is a community activist and social commentator.

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