Sunday 25th February , 2007

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A Parliamentarian should resign when...

Two resignations in the last two weeks involving Members of Parliament in different Caricom countries have brought to the fore the question of when it is desirable that an MP resigns, especially if his reputation is in some way tarnished.

Naturally such a question can only be answered by considering (1) what tarnished the reputation and (2) to what degree. In that regard let us look at the two recent cases and compare them with instances where MPs conduct was called into question.

The first matter involved a minister in Bahamas, the minister under whose portfolio the Immigration Department falls. It appears that he had approved the granting of residency status to the infamous Anna Nicole Smith sometime before her death. Subsequent investigations by a Bahamas daily newspaper revealed not only that the approval had come before the actual application but also that the minister and Smith enjoyed what appeared to be a cosy relationship.

After days of denying that he had done anything wrong the minister finally resigned his post in the interest of the party, according to him. Apparently it was felt that the allegations were too damaging to be swept aside.

The other matter pertains to a Grenadian Opposition MP, Mr Kenny Fullerton.

Inflict violence

Recently, reports flourished in Grenada that he had inflicted violence on his wife—in short that he was guilty of domestic violence. My sources informed me that the incident was sparked when another woman either dropped him off or picked him up at his home. His wife understandably became incensed and damaged the car. From there things escalated and violence was used on the wife.

Following a swirl of rumours about the incident the MP issued a statement last week. In it he said he did not condone violence against women but admitted that he had “behaved in a manner unbecoming of a parliamentarian.” Stating that his actions have “brought the party into disrepute” the MP decided that he had no choice but to step down.

The MP however only stepped down as a member of his party’s executive and other committees of the party.

He did not resign as an MP even though his acknowledgement that he had behaved in a manner unbecoming of a parliamentarian seemed to foreshadow this. His concern appeared to be more focussed on the disgrace to his party, which had campaigned on morality in public and private life.

Still one must give Mr Fullerton credit for taking the bull by the horns and actually admitting that he had behaved in an unbecoming manner as a “parliamentarian, a husband and a man.” Not many Caribbean politicians would have done that possibly seeing such an admission as political suicide.

At home in T&T we have had few instances where Parliamentarians leave the office by choice. MPs who cross the floor never do, although the Constitution says that an MP having been elected a candidate of a party “resigns from or is expelled by that party” vacates his seat. Although issues have arisen as to whether that provision can be enforced (in the absence of any Standing Orders identifying and recognising the leader in the House of every party) one would have thought that an MP who swears to “uphold the Constitution” would have complied with its specific intent and vacated his seat if he crossed the floor or joined another party. In T&T where people are not elected on the basis of individuality, to act otherwise cannot be right.

We have also had many examples of people who have been accused of unbecoming conduct not even acknowledging it or acting “wrong and strong.”

Mouthing obscenities

Consider the conduct of Larry Achong who during a public debate on the smelter not only demonstrated an aggressive demeanour but shouted out, “Shut up.”

People who attended the debate and viewers of the televised proceedings indicate that he also mouthed obscenities.

Mr Achong was defiant that he was not resigning and has not apologised for his crude (to say the least) behaviour. One may contrast this to Minister Ken Valley who in 1994-1995 in the face of recalcitrance by then Speaker Occah Speaker burst out as she was leaving the Chamber, “Yuh could run but you can’t hide.”

As I recall at the next sitting Minister Valley humbly apologised.

Ministers have been charged with criminal offences while they were in office. Both Eric Williams and Franklyn Khan are before the Courts on corruption charges. Khan resigned as Minister of Works and Williams as Minister of Energy, but not as MPs. Should they have resigned as MPs?

If this were England then we might say yes but in T&T where we have had a prime minister before the courts (on a charge before he came to office) this might be too much to expect. I guess what is sauce for the goose is sauce for the gander and one may recall that Dhanraj Singh when a minister accused of slapping a senior policeman and breaching the traffic laws, did no such thing.

The recent happenings in the Bahamas and Grenada should be a wake-up call for Caribbean politicians that political behaviour of the past is no longer acceptable and will not be tolerated. I am of course not speaking to the unbecoming conduct or the criminal charges themselves—I am referring to the politician’s response to it.

Matters of impropriety will no longer be swept under the carpet in the hope that they will be forgotten. The Grenadian MP who admitted that he acted unbecomingly will have a longer political life than a Larry Achong. A party that causes a minister to resign where he has been shown to be involved in giving political favours will continue in power longer.

Politicians of this country should take heed.

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