The new Parliament offers a very exciting projection for the future with a delicate balance of intellectual depth and cultural diversity, gender, youth, and experience.For example, the Senate provides a very good example of the blend of members that are required for the level of independent thought and professional oversight that it needs. There certainly should be a higher level of expertise available on economic and fiscal issues than before, while the legal and scholastic environment has been bolstered and blended with some youthful vitality and seductive charm. This will certainly lift the level of debate in the Senate and quite likely give it a much better chance of becoming “the best Senate since Independence”, as the new president, Tom Tavares Finson, alluded to in his initial statement on Thursday.
A lot of focus will be on the new speaker of the House of Representatives, Pearnel Charles, on how he handles the Lower House, considering the balance of seats and the temptations to embarrass and deny the new Government. Charles has been insisting that he will focus on discipline and parliamentary behaviour, which is certainly the basis for doing any work of Parliament. However, like the president of the Senate, he will have to do a review of the Standing Orders and try to make them more meaningful and effective in the Parliament. The only thing that the current Standing Orders of the Senate seems to do is to give the presidents the power to interpret them as he/she is pleased often denying the rights of members, primarily because of the majority the presidents enjoy in the Senate.
It is good that Senator Tavares-Finson has raised the issue of how questions are handled in the Senate, as well as access into Gordon House for physically disabled people. In the last Senate, the ambiguity of many of the standing orders was made evident, especially through abuse of the power which they inadvertently offered to the president. The result was that the Senate descended into an embarrassment to the parliamentary system, coining phrases like “flexirape” and igniting arguments as to whether members had been to the lunch room or the bathroom. While he is looking at the issue of how questions should be handled in the Senate, the president would be well advised to review all the standing orders of the Senate for relevancy, clarity and effectiveness, instead of leaving them at the mercy of the chair.
The same is needed in the House of Representatives because, if truth be told, the main challenge facing the speakers in recent years has been a set of standing orders which are as difficult for them to comprehend, as they are for the clerks to explain them. Were it not for members such as Everald Warmington (South West St Catherine), and parliamentary leaders on both sides, things would certainly have been worse than they actually were. However, we have to accept that while a lot more is expected of the Senate, Jamaica’s House of Representatives is no different from the average parliament globally, and will never be the perfect meeting place for opposition parties as some people expect.Charles has the level of experience, cojones and respect in Parliament to become a good Speaker, despite the severe challenges of the current Parliament and the lack of historical precedence. He will benefit from the fact that Leader of the House Derrick Smith and Leader of Opposition Business Phillip Paulwell, have merely switched seats and, over the past four years, have developed a very good positive system of cooperating and communicating.
This is much unlike Tavares-Finson, who assumes leadership of an Upper House which is not only loaded with new members, but has two new leaders in Senator Kamina Johnson Smith (leader of government business) and Senator Mark Golding (leader of opposition business). Both leaders, however, hold very high standards and respect for Parliament and its procedures, which should lead to an improved political climate, unlike the previous situation in the Senate which made it seem more like the centre for rabble rousing than the House. The past Senate was obviously lacking in the independent thinking which the Court suggested was the nature of an Upper House. Hopefully, with Senator Tavares Finson’s guidance, and the support of the leaders on either side, it will be able to recover some of the gloss that rubbed off during the past four years. Charles will have second- time Member of Parliament for South Eastern St Elizabeth, Franklyn Witter, as his deputy. Tavares-Finson’s deputy is newcomer Aubyn Hill, a banker who also heads the ruling Jamaica Labour Party’s (JLP) Economic Advisory Council.It is interesting that in selecting the new Government senators Prime Minister Andrew Holness was able to balance a number of things, including gender, age and expertise.
No doubt, it should be exciting following debates on economic and fiscal issues involving the likes of Hill and Don Wehby, the latter who has previous parliamentary experience from the last JLP Administration for the Government and Golding and Noel Sloley for the Opposition. With former Senator Marlene Malahoo Forte now in the House, and with the decision of former leader of Government Business, AJ Nicholson, deciding he has had enough after his tumultuous 2015/16, the debate on social issues will now focus on Senator Golding and KD Knight (the deputy leader of Opposition Business), and Ruel Reid, Ransford Braham, who was attorney general at stage of the Bruce Golding Administration — Kamina Johnson Smith and Kavan Gayle for the Government. It is interesting that while Bruce Golding appointed Braham as attorney general in 2010, in what was considered to be a move to make that appointment more independent of Government, Holness has chosen to appoint Government MP Marlene Malahoo Forte as Attorney General, but has also appointed Braham to the Senate, apparently to fill the legal gap left by the absence of Malahoo Forte.
Incidentally, it is interesting that while the Opposition has reappointed its eight senators from those who served in the previous Senate, the Government has opted for a number of new faces, including the president of its young professional wing, Generation 2000 (G2K), Matthew Samuda; Kerensia Morrison, the latecomer who lost in North Central St Catherine in the recent general election; and consultant psychiatrist and former Miss Jamaica Universe, Saphire Longmore, who lost in North Eastern St Elizabeth in the recent general election. On Thursday, of the 63 elected parliamentarians for the House of Representatives, two — Dr Omar Davies and Derrick Kellier — were absent and, therefore, were not sworn in. In the Senate, two members were also absent from the swearing-in, in Don Wehby (Government) and Noel Sloley (Opposition).
Sloley’s re appointment came somewhat as a surprise, as it was generally felt that he was not interested in returning to the Senate. Dr Davies took ill shortly after the general election and is not fully recovered, while Kellier is involved in a magisterial recount in St James. There has been no explanation for Wehby’s absence. There are a number of legislative issues left over from the last Parliament, most of which are extremely important developments, including: the Integrity Commission Bill, which seeks to set up a single anti-corruption agency; the three Bills seeking to transform Local Government; the report of a joint select committee, which reviewed the INDECOM Act; the new Road Traffic Act; and the Sexual Harassment Bill. It is very unlikely that Parliament will be able to complete the debates on these issues before the end of 2015/16, as the focus will have to be on the delayed 2016/17 budget. However, a way has to be found to deal with these Bills as soon as possible.