Does Parliament have a conscience?Friday, April 23, 2021
The ongoing George Wright “bangarang” has also brought into sharp focus how Parliament should deal with matters of ethics and conduct. Now that House Speaker Marisa Dalrymple-Philibert has relented and allowed the Opposition to table a motion calling for the embattled Westmoreland Central Member of Parliament's suspension it has become even more apparent that narrow, partisan bigotry is likely to come to the fore, which means that any decision relating to Wright's future status will end up as an exercise in futility. Or will it?
Can the people of Jamaica expect some level of probity and transparency in this matter bereft of the usual Jamaica Labour Party (JLP) versus People's National Party (PNP) cock fight? Don't hold your breath.
Some time ago, then Opposition and JLP leader Andrew Michael Holness had required senators appointed by him to sign an undated letter of resignation. Needless to say that the court nullified that practice. But that incident again presented the uncomfortable reality that our so-called Westminster parliamentary system seemingly abhors independence of thought. Indeed, most cynics have maintained, and perhaps with good reason, that the Jamaican Parliament is just a rubber stamp affair when it comes to matters of national import.
The bitter irony is that constituents vote for a candidate who is expected to go to Parliament and faithfully represent their interests. However, in real terms, when that Member of Parliament enters Gordon House, he or she is expected to toe the party line. Hence, there is the parliamentary whip on both sides of the House who is assigned the duty of keeping members in line with respect to their respective party's positions.
In this scenario, whenever a Bill is debated and is to be passed, it is expected that Members of Parliament will follow the respective House Leaders' direction and guidance. To fall out of line is a serious sin for which a Member of Parliament or senator can be chastised, ostracised, and marginalised. Readers will recall that former PNP president and Prime Minister Portia Simpson Miller earned the wrath of some of her colleagues on her side of the House for abstaining during a vote to do with the fire service. Not so nice words were uttered in her ears, which cannot be repeated here. However, Simpson Miller, a former minister of labour and social security, must have felt constrained and so opted to let her conscience dictate, rather than the party's position.
During my sojourn in the House of Parliament a number of PNP backbenchers — I was one of them — either abstained or voted nay with respect to a private member's motion on reparation brought by then Opposition Member of Parliament Mike Henry. Needless to say, we were herded into a room and read 'the Riot Act' after the sitting. Of course, there is the view that Members of Parliament do not go into Gordon House unaware of the fact that they have to adhere to the principle of collective responsibility, and that the fact that they were elected on a particular party ticket, then it is expected that they will be blindly loyal. In the extreme case, where an Member of Parliament cannot follow that convention, then the appropriate thing to do is to resign, cross the floor, or become an Independent, much to his or her peril!
The potent question, therefore, is whether or not conscience votes should be accommodated, particularly in cases where the Member of Parliament or senator is not flaunting an executive or Cabinet position, or should it be totally shunned?
According to Wikipedia, a conscience or free vote is a type of vote in a legislative body in which legislators are allowed to vote according to their own personal conscience, rather than according to an official line set down by their political party: “In many liberal democracies, particularly those that follow the parliamentary system of government, the elected members of the legislature who belong to a political party are usually required by that party to vote in accordance with the party line on significant legislation, on pain of censure or expulsion from the party. Sometimes, a particular party member, known as the whip, is responsible for maintaining this party discipline. However, in the case of a conscience vote, a party declines to dictate an official party line to follow and members may vote as they please. In countries where party discipline is less important and voting against one's party is more common; conscience votes are generally less important.”
Finally, it is argued that, “Conscience votes are usually quite rare [as is the case in Jamaica] and are often about issues which are very contentious, or a matter on which members of any single party differ in their opinions, thus making it difficult for parties to formulate official policies.” In this vein, such controversial issues as the buggery law and capital punishment come to mind.
And so we come to the curious case of George Wright. Will any dissenting Members of Parliament be allowed to vote by virtue of their conscience or will they be whipped in line to follow the party's stance? Do we dare to think that there is emerging in our Parliament a new breed of politician that feels that there should be room for dissent, especially if this is in the best interest of the country or their constituents?
It must be noted, too, that the same “follow the leader, leader” mantra applies to members of the Senate, although it had been anticipated that there would be some room for independence of thought in that august body.
As the Wright saga unravels, let me hope that it will spark a meaningful debate on this critical issue. People, because of the advances in technology (social media), are becoming more aware and are therefore demanding more of their politicians. For example, the view that there should be room for independent senators is a very valid one which I personally support. The cut and thrust of our parliamentary democracy would become more vibrant and 'customer-friendly' (the voter being the customer in this case). And if Parliament is not to become moribund and irrelevant then there must be some amount of accommodation for dissension in order to allow for the process of thesis, followed by anti-thesis and then synthesis to take place in the best interest of the electorate.
Interestingly, according to Wikipedia, “In the United States, parties exercise comparatively little control over the votes of individual legislators, who are almost always free to vote as they wish. Accordingly, most legislative votes in the United States can be considered free votes, although in rare circumstances a legislator may be disciplined by his or her party for a renegade vote. Such discipline usually occurs only on votes regarding procedural matters on which party unity is expected as a matter of course, rather than substantive matters. For example, Democrat James Traficant was stripped of his seniority and committee assignments in 2001 when he voted for a Republican, Dennis Hastert, to be Speaker of the United States House of Representatives. Because free votes are the norm in the United States, the terms 'free vote' and 'conscience vote' are generally unused and unknown there.” Yuck!
The bottom line is that Jamaicans should demand more accountability and transparency from their elected representatives and, in this regard, Parliament must post-haste enact laws relating to impeachment and recall in order to safeguard our democratic way of life. Enough said!
Lloyd B Smith has been involved full-time in Jamaican media for the past 44 years. He has also served as a Member of Parliament and Deputy Speaker of the House of Representatives. He hails from western Jamaica, where he is popularly known as the Governor. Send comments to the Jamaica Observer or email@example.com.
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