Thursday 9th October, 2008

 
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Stop abuse of parliamentary privilege

Rather than limit their speech, parliamentarians should be encouraged to police themselves as there is cogent evidence that members of the

public are growing increasingly disenchanted with the mud-slinging and negative characterisation.

In the Senate on Tuesday, several members of the Upper House called for a re-examination of the issue of parliamentary privilege which allows Members of Parliament to speak freely within the legislature without being fettered by the laws of defamation.

The issue was raised by Local Government Minister Hazel Manning in response to accusations which had been levelled against her by Opposition Senator Wade Mark, who is often indiscriminate in the baseless allegations he makes against those within and outside Parliament.

“I pity those who cannot defend themselves from members on the other side and I think it is time for this Parliament to examine the issue of parliamentary privilege,” said Mrs Manning.

Also raising the issue of parliamentary privilege was Independent Senator Ramesh Deosaran, who called on Senator Mark to either provide proof of the allegations he made against Mrs Manning or withdraw them and apologise.

While parliamentary privilege is an important part of T&T’s political system, it is clear that it is open to abuse as MPs can go to the Parliament and make damaging allegations against their political and personal enemies without going through the trouble of attempting to determine whether there is any basis to the allegations. In effect, some parliamentarians have sought to transpose the looseness of the rumshop to the institution which is considered to be the highest court in the land.

In a scenario where unsubstantiated allegations are being broadcast live on both television and radio, it is clear that MPs must be encouraged to research before they besmirch.

In calling on Parliament to re-examine the issue of privilege, Mrs Manning was obviously suggesting that this right should be limited by a decision of the institution. Such a call cannot be justified given the fact that such a limitation may be used to prevent parliamentarians from legitimately exposing acts of corruption or poor delivery of service.

Rather than limit their speech, parliamentarians should be encouraged to police themselves as there is cogent evidence that members of the public are growing increasingly disenchanted with the mud-slinging and negative characterisation.

If parliamentarians do not stop the abuse of the privilege, they run the risk of damaging their own credibility to the point where they are never taken seriously when they unburden themselves of their spurious allegations.

Apart from self-policing, there is need for presiding officers to exercise more vigilance to ensure that there is some basis or foundation for the allegations that are made in Parliament.

As the Vice-President of the Senate proved yesterday when he forced Senator Mark to withdraw allegations he made against rookie Senator Laurel Lezama, the threat of suspension from Parliament is often enough to bring most MPs to their senses. Presiding officers also have the right to order that irresponsible statements be struck from the Hansard records.

Although presiding officers are chosen by the ruling party, they must realise that when they put on the robes of the Speaker or the Senate President, they must be willing to rule without fear or favour, malice or ill will, even if this means penalising government parliamentarians.

While being careful not to infringe on parliamentary privilege, there is no reason why people or institutions who are attacked by parliamentarians should not have the right to respond to clear their names.

In this newspaper yesterday, a prominent law firm was forced to buy an advertisement in which it set the record straight by flatly denying an allegation which had been hurled by Senator Mark on Monday. The law firm said it intended to write the Senate President requesting that the rebuttal be read into the records of the legislature.

Providing aggrieved parties with the automatic right to respond is one way of ensuring that MPs do not get away with abusing parliamentary privilege.

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