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Lawmakers must not be lawbreakers

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The 2015 Budget debate is currently taking place in the highest official body of the land, the House of Assembly, the Parliament of St Vincent and the Grenadines. During this exercise, parliamentarians will make their respective contributions to the debate on the Appropriations Bill for this year.{{more}}

The Budget debate is the high point of the parliamentary year and thus attracts the most attention by the public and is given the most attention. It permits Members of Parliament (MPs) to exercise their rights as legislators in not only rendering their opinions on the Budget, but also to fulfil their responsibilities in approving the measures of revenue earning and spending for the conduct of the collective business of the people of our country.

While the focus of attention will be on the Budgetary provisions themselves, especially in view of the fact that this is most likely the last Budget before the next general elections are held, it is nevertheless quite in order to reflect on another aspect of Parliament – the responsibilities and conduct of the Parliamentarians themselves.

This is very appropriate, given the turmoil that we have witnessed from time to time in the hallowed House itself and the degree to which some MPs have allowed their conduct to deteriorate during heated exchanges. But it is not just their conduct in Parliament which ought to be of concern.

Parliamentarians occupy a privileged place in our society. In turn, much is expected of them. They must be more than just ordinary citizens, for they are our leaders, persons to whom we should accord maximum respect. They ought to be role models for us, setting examples of good conduct and scrupulously upholding the laws of the land. That is why misbehaviour in public office is a criminal offence. Parliamentarians are makers of the law and in that role shapers of our society.

Over the years, even though we can have genuine reason to be concerned about the intellectual quality of the contributions in Parliament, generally speaking, our MPs have been largely law-abiding. From time to time though, one or other Parliamentarian, on either side of the House, have fallen short and run afoul of the law. Some have been lucky to avoid prosecution for alleged misdemeanours.

Not just in St Vincent and the Grenadines, mind you. A former Prime Minister of Trinidad and Tobago ended up before the court on serious charges. Earlier this month, the Speaker of the Barbados Parliament, a lawyer, had to step down temporarily, after a Court order for him to return some money owed to a client of his.

So, Parliamentarians are always under intense scrutiny to conduct themselves in an exemplary fashion. When, as in recent times, they tend to err in relation to the observance of the laws, then there is grave cause for public concern. I refer to the cases of two MPs, one on each side of the House, found to be not observing the laws pertaining to driving licences and the licensing of motor vehicles.

While these apparent errors do not in themselves constitute anything as grave as tantamount to “misbehaviour in public office,” they nevertheless reflect badly on persons who are charged with the responsibility for making the laws. What do we expect of ordinary citizens if those in the highest body of the land do not observe their legal responsibilities?

To be fair, the leaders of both parties to which the offenders belong, Prime Minister Gonsalves and Opposition Leader Eustace, have publicly rebuked their errant MPs. Eustace himself has put South Leeward MP Nigel Stephenson before a disciplinary committee of his party and the findings of this body are yet to be revealed. On the other hand, PM Gonsalves is quoted as saying that his offender, Senator Luke Browne, is “unlikely” to face any internal disciplinary proceedings. This is in line with his tendency to be forgiving to offenders from his party.

It, however, raises the question, should such offenders face Parliamentary censure? While we must be forgiving, we must equally be demanding of the highest standards for those who lead our nation. Those who make the law must uphold it.

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