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Meetings of Parliament at Conference Centre another teachable moment

Wednesday, October 14, 2020

As old as Dr Thomas Fuller's 1723 saying “A stitch in time, saves nine” is, it's a lesson we find so hard to learn, despite proving its immense value over and over down through the years.

The latest example at the national level is brought out in the need to have meetings of the House of Representatives at the Jamaica Conference Centre in downtown Kingston, which began with the new session of Parliament.

To be clear, we are not taking issue with the holding of the meetings of the House at the conference centre per se. The reason given for that decision is justifiable and, in the circumstances, could hardly be avoided.

We are told that the Gordon House building, where the parliamentary sessions were held usually on Tuesday, at Duke Street, Kingston, is not large enough to allow for social distancing among the 63 Members of Parliament and House staff, as occasioned by the novel coronavirus pandemic.

That building, which is situated just north of Headquarters House, was built in 1960 and contains one chamber for both the House and the Senate. Its offices are tiny and journalists tumble over each other in what is a poor excuse for a press gallery.

The Senate and the parliamentary committees continue to meet at Gordon House because the numbers of senators – 21 – and the handful of committee members are smaller and there is no problem social distancing.

In any event, the Jamaica Conference Centre has been woefully underutilised since its grand opening by Queen Elizabeth II on February 15, 1983. The centre was originally intended to house regular meetings of the United Nations International Seabed Authority, but those meetings were scaled back because of complaints from some member countries about the associated costs.

This is a great pity, because the Jamaica Conference Centre, located on 220,000 square feet of land, is a highly sophisticated, ultra-modern meeting place, offering comprehensive facilities and services to meet the most stringent requirements of conference planners, local and international.

Its five conference rooms are equipped for simultaneous interpretation of six languages; its main conference room, where plenary sessions are held, accommodates 1,200 people; and there is parking on property, with additional parking in the adjoining multi-storey facility. But we digress.

Our point is that we have ended up with the Parliament meeting at the conference centre because, not for the first time, we have dawdled and disputed over the need to construct a new purpose-built parliament building, while stroking political egos and playing one-upmanship.

A new parliament building was set to begin in the first quarter of 2021, following a successful design competition. It is planned to house, among other things, a public gallery, Senate, House, conference rooms, offices, a media room, a library, a museum, and a café, in the stetting of a 52-acre park at National Heroes Circle.

The fate of this new parliament building hangs in the balance, thanks to COVID-19, as the additional cost due to the delay is likely to be horrendous.

But we are inclined to think it is not COVID-19 as much as it the failure to learn the lesson that a stitch in time, saves nine.