What's happening in Parliament?

What's happening in Parliament?


Thursday, December 31, 2020

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How many of us follow the happenings of our Parliament? Is it even important to do so?

A few weeks ago on Twitter there was a post by a young person who stated definitively that Jamaica's Parliament needed to be dragged across the proverbial coals for not doing enough work.

I sat and read through what became a thread on the laziness and corrupt practices of myself and my colleagues. It saddened me to see many of the comments, but I also saw a small ray of hope in that thread, which was also quite happy. That ray of hope and happiness stemmed from the fact that the young person who started the post cared about what was taking place in our country's law-making body.

Since then I have been asking random friends and people I come across if they know how the Parliament works and understand how the work it does impacts their individual lives, communities, and the wider society.

Sadly, I am at a rate of 28.4 per cent of those asked having even a basic understanding of how Parliament works, and an approximately 9.5 per cent recognising the impact of the work being done by parliamentarians.

This lack of interest and knowledge is a problem; a big problem for governance and for democracy.

First, a people who do not take an active part in their democratic processes are but lambs to the slaughter who must rely on the goodwill of those who lead. Secondly, those of us who occupy seats in the Upper and Lower Chambers of the Parliament are left to do as we think, versus what may be best desired by the people we seek to serve — a lack of enough checks and balances outside of ourselves. Thirdly, a loud and charismatic enough voice can lead a group astray, as they listen to the charm versus having knowledge of their nation's business for themselves.

During any given week in which the Parliament sits there is much work that is undertaken. A Bill, which is a draft law is brought, usually, to the Lower House, which is where the Members of Parliament sit. The minister with responsibility for the Bill stands before his or her colleagues and outlines the tenets of the Bill along with the rationale and expected impact of said Bill. Members of Parliament from both the Government and the Opposition benches then debate or further discuss the Bill and any other issues surrounding its substantive area. At times, members use the opportunity to tie other pertinent issues into the debate.

Once passed, the Bill is then sent to the Upper House, which is the Senate. In the Senate, another debate begins, and what is expected is that any errors or overlooked issue within the Bill be sorted, which would lead to amendments. If amendments are made then the Bill is then sent back to the Lower House for the members therein to examine and either pass or send back to the Senate with further changes.

If Jamaicans took a real interest in the governance of our country the process would be lengthier, but even more meaningful. There are provisions that allow for a citizen of the country to submit comments on Bills. That is, both individual citizens as well as organisations can choose to submit comments on certain Bills before the Parliament. For example, I sat in the hairdressing salon and heard the most ignorant comments on the national identification system (NIDS) Bill, which is currently before a committee of Parliament. The ignorance was not seemingly coming from a place of mischief, but instead was polarised because there was a court ruling against the previous NIDS Bill and from titbits of conspiracy theories and a lack of information.

If, as a people, we were more involved in these processes, the galleries of Gordon House would have been filled to capacity when the Bill had been tabled. Not only that, but the staff of the Parliament would have been inundated with requests for copies of the Bill and all Members of Parliament and senators, from both sides, would be overwhelmed with calls for information and explanations.

How many of us have read the NIDS Bill? How many of us will wait until we hear the opinions of those aligned to our churches, political parties, and radio talk shows before we form our own opinions? How many of us will read the Bill and provide feedback as is now being encouraged?

There is the joint select committee of Parliament examining whether Portmore should be a parish. Who amongst us will provide comments to the committee instead of merely echoing what we hear others say?

We live in an age of information and access to same; this allows for greater ease to participate and to understand. Have you ever called your Member of Parliament or written to him or her to provide comments on a Bill or issue before the House? Do you know the television channel number for the Public Broadcasting Corporation of Jamaica (PBCJ) which airs the live sittings of both the Senate and the Lower House of Parliament?

It is a new year with new possibilities, and our country is in the midst of building back stronger. Let us do it together and be a part of that change and process that you want for Jamaica. Check to see if your Member of Parliament is actually participating in the governance process or merely warming a seat or adding to the banging on a desk. Give your feedback on matters and visit a sitting in the House of Representatives.

Personally, I will be happy to look up and see citizens eager to understand and to be a part of the governance of this wonderful place we call home.

Natalie Campbell-Rodriques is a senator and development consultant with a focus on political inclusion, governance, gender, and Diaspora affairs. Send comments to the Jamaica Observer or ncampbellrodriq@gmail.com.

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