Is the Throne Speech losing its relevance?

Sunday, April 07, 2013

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LEADER of the House of Representatives, Phillip Paulwell, suggested last May, after the governor general delivered the Throne Speech, that it would be the last time the traditional event marking the opening of the new parliamentary session would go by that name.


This was only a couple of weeks after first-time MP and Government backbencher Raymond Pryce had suggested that, as a prelude to the Government's plans to create a republican system of government, Parliament rename the Throne Speech the 'People's Speech'.


These comments by Paulwell — a veteran and House Leader — and Pryce, a rookie from the Government's youth wing, came on the heels of Prime Minister Portia Simpson Miller's statement at her swearing in that the time had come do away with the relics of the Westminster past, including The Queen.


"I love The Queen. She is a beautiful lady and, apart from being a beautiful lady, she is a wise lady and a wonderful lady, but I think time come," the prime minister said to loud cheers from the audience at the swearing-in ceremony at King's House.


But, approximately one year later, it seems that Jamaicans are quite content to keep this relic of our colonial parliamentary history, at least for the time being.


Incidentally, Pryce did what he had to do by tabling a motion asking that "this Honourable House take the necessary steps to rename the Throne Speech to the 'People's Speech', as a timely and lasting acknowledgement that the priorities, projects, policies and programmes contained therein are designed — in good faith — by the Government elected by the very people of Jamaica and is intended to honour and give thorough meaning to the primary responsibility of all governments, which is to work unswervingly and tirelessly to ensure the happiness and well-being of the people who elected the Government in the first place."


He even suggested that "as a tangible development in our jubilee year (2012)" the resolution be immediately considered, "so that this amendment may be approved prior to and in time for the opening of the 2012/2013 legislative year".


He opened the debate on his motion, showing disapproval for the origins of the event and its relevance to Jamaicans. But, an obvious lack of support from his colleagues left it stranded on the Order Paper in 2012/13.


So last Thursday, Governor General Sir Patrick Allen read the traditional Throne Speech with no alterations, and there were no complaints from critics about the issues it addressed or the tone of the presentation.


However, it is clear that all is not well with the Throne Speech, as the attendance at Gordon House was disappointing and the enthusiasm outside the building was damp.


It might well become the author of its own demise; not because Jamaicans want a change in the name to be more reflective of our nationhood, but because it is becoming irrelevant. Irrelevant because too many of the important timelines are being left unfulfilled at year-end, making it more of a public relations tool for Government going into the budget debate mode.


The governor general said that last year the Government brought 33 bills to Parliament and passed 25, in a shortened legislative year. But even while he may be right that it was higher than average, that was probably so because the most important bills are still waiting to be tabled.


Among those awaiting passage from last year are: An Act to establish the Caribbean Court of Justice as Jamaica's final court of appeal; critical crime-fighting bills like the Anti-Gang legislation to target criminal gangs blamed for 70 per cent of the island's crimes; a Bill to facilitate the use of DNA evidence in the criminal justice system; a Bill to rationalise institutional arrangements for fighting corruption, by consolidating them under a single anti-corruption agency with strong powers; and a Bill to establish Jamaica as a republic within the Commonwealth of Nations.


In addition, there were a number of other critical promises to which very little attention was paid, including Jamaica playing a more critical role in "revitalising Caricom" and "building" the Caricom Single Market (CSME), as evidenced by the fact that Jamaica ended the year owing Caricom and its agencies some $400 million in unpaid dues.


After failing to fulfil a promise to have electricity rates reduced in 2012, the issue arises again in the 2012/13 Throne Speech proposal for the construction of the long-promised 360 megawatts of electricity capacity to replace the existing old and inefficient 292 megawatts Old Harbour plant. According to the Speech, this will commence during the calendar year.


He listed among the items to be brought to Parliament during this legislative year: Amendments to the Road Traffic Act and Transport Authority Act; an Omnibus Tax Incentive Bill to establish a transparent and coherent regime to govern all tax incentives; a Public Sector Procurement Bill to provide the framework for a Public Sector Procurement System and legally separate the National Contracts Commission from the Office of the Contractor General; a Charities Bill to facilitate the proper supervision of entities carrying out charitable activities; and legislation to provide for Collective Investment Schemes.


It is interesting that there was no mention of how we would approach the substantive issues raised by the prime minister during her campaign and at her inauguration, including the issue of republicanism, the Caribbean Court of Justice, or even the promised amendment to the Buggery Law.


Let us hope that when we tune in to the next Throne Speech we will have heard that some of these very important bills, which were the subject of election promises or highlights of election manifestos, are given priority because they are what the people voted for.


At that time, we should be in a position to consider whether or not the Throne Speech is simply that or deserves to be renamed the People's Speech.



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