Beware entitlements wrapped as gifts!

On November 28, 2011 the Saint Lucia Labour Party was returned to office for a non-consecutive third term. Barely two weeks later the prime minister introduced to parliament his new Cabinet. New, that is, save for Philip J. Pierre who with Kenny Anthony first was elected in 1997.
By all the prime minister said at the December 6 swearing-in ceremony and via the governor general’s throne speech on January 5, 2012 the time had come “to correct the aberrations in our political system” and to end “the unnecessary rancor, pettiness and divisiveness that have characterized our political culture.”
He promised impressively to jumpstart the new dawn with a fresh parliamentary attitude toward the opposition party. Alas, it seems the prime minister’s Disraeli-inspired announcement (“No government can be long secure without formidable opposition”) fell mostly on ears that hear not.  At any rate, judging by Newsspin callers obviously still hell-bent on proving that the more things change, the more they remain the same.
Perhaps supporters of the respective warring parties misinterpreted the prime minister’s intentions. Maybe they believe his olive branch was extended only to the leader of the opposition in the relatively narrow interests of a more cooperative House—not as a signal to the troops to lay down their arms. While admittedly the prime minister had eschewed parliamentary behavior that had long “characterized our political culture,” neither he nor his Government House alter ego had addressed directly the concomitant polarized populace.
Hardly surprising, the leader of the opposition has been under attack for his perceived lack of grace in the face of the prime minister’s generosity. In his own defense, Stephenson King has let it be known that from his informed perspective the prime minister’s olive branch was nothing more than a prickly fake. There was nothing new about the privileges offered as proof of the prime minister’s magnanimous new attitude. Whether or not always honored, said King, they had been in place long before 1997, the year the prime minister first took his seat in parliament.
Nevertheless, the question remains: Can we muster the courage to put the past behind us—whether or not recent, whether or not already redressed? Certainly the future hoped for is worthy of the effort it will take to drain our souls of the noxious self-hate accumulated almost from the advent of adult suffrage.
I, for one, welcome the promised even-handedness when dealing with House issues. Last Thursday, through the governor general, the prime minister acknowledged, if inadvertently, the salutary potential of the opposition benches: “When infractions are committed by a parliamentarian of the ruling party, it is more likely than not that the member will be exonerated, unless the infraction is so blatant that no other conclusion could be reached. If the infraction is committed by a member of the opposition, it is more likely that an adverse finding will ensue. A possible solution is to refer breaches of parliamentary privileges to an independent tribunal of citizens appointed jointly by the government and opposition.”
I cannot resist asking: Was the preceding merely a sniper’s shot at the last House Speaker? As heart-rending as it is to agree that the discrimination here underscored exemplifies the unnatural order of things since the heyday of George Charles, I dare to say the time has passed for citing examples of parliamentary prejudice, however egregious. Let us instead profit from the painful past and also acknowledge that there can be no hope of relief unless we, all of us united, regardless of political stripe, ceaselessly demand the appropriate remedies.
But first, a few related questions: What precisely was the governor general saying when she spoke of “breaches of parliamentary privileges?” Do such breaches extend to what has since the early eighties been normal House behavior, especially during Budget debates? Do they extend to unparliamentary attacks on private citizens? Is the Speaker not already authorized to eject MPs guilty of breaching parliamentary privileges?
As for the suggested independent tribunal, would its creation not conflict with the constitutionally guaranteed authority of the Speaker—including the final word in all House arguments? Or can parliament, without a referendum, impose buffers between the Speaker and MPs? Can MPs by themselves determine the extent of the Speaker’s authority? Was the governor general hinting last week about constitutional reform?
What if it can be proved that a particular MP deliberately misled the House? Might that soon be a matter to be determined by an independent tribunal and not by the Speaker? What to do when MPs sworn to speak only in the people’s best interests prove to be self-seeking expensive liars? Will that too be a matter for a tribunal created by MPs?
Speaking of independent tribunals, let us for a moment consider the conceivably sacrosanct Integrity Commission, established under the Integrity in Public Life Act, in accordance with Section 118 of the Saint Lucia Constitution Order 1978. The commission is appointed by the governor general on the advice of the prime minister—“after due consultation with the leader of the opposition.” Among the commission’s functions, the following: “To receive and investigate complaints regarding non-compliance with or breach of the act; to perform such other functions it is required by the act to perform.”
The commission is by law “not subject to the control or direction of any person or authority in the performance of its functions.” After all, it is supposed to be independent. How then to explain why more than half of those lawfully required to make annual declarations to the Integrity Commission have for several years, and with impunity, stubbornly neglected to do so—despite that non-compliance with the commission’s rules carries fines up to $50,000 and imprisonment not exceeding five years? Why have the persistent lawbreakers, some of them MPs, never been brought to book?
I am reminded at this point that the Integrity Commission relies on the Director of Public Prosecutions to act in its behalf. But what if the DPP is among the persistent defaulters?
The law regards private reward received or solicited for public services rendered—or withheld—as corruption. Specifically, “every person in public life who receives a gift worth more than $500 shall make a report of that fact to the commission, stating the name and address of the donor and the description and approximate value of such gift.”
How does this law apply to government ministers freshly relegated to the opposition benches? Are they abruptly free to accept gifts from constituents grateful for past ministerial services?
Yes, yes, I know some of the infractions touched on here do not fall under the umbrella of parliament. Still, the fact that not a single person in public life has ever faced our courts for contravention of the Integrity in Public Life Act leads me to wonder about other so-called independent tribunals, including the Integrity Commission. Indeed, I cannot help but wonder about the status of the last mentioned body.
Consider the following injunction: “The Integrity Commission shall as soon as possible, but not later than two months after the end of each calendar year, make a report to parliament of its activities in the preceding year, and the report shall be tabled in the House of Assembly and the Senate not later than three months after receiving the report. The report shall not disclose the particulars of any declaration filed with the commission. The first report to parliament must be made not later than one month after the end of its first year of operation and tabled within three months of its submission to parliament.”
And what if the mentioned reports have not been submitted, say, over the last three years? Indeed, it turns out that the last time the present commission tabled in parliament an account of its activities was in 2005. So far as I can tell, there are no sanctions for such dereliction of duty, not to mention flouting of the law. But then, why should the commission be penalized for failing to function according to law when several other similarly guilty government departments, not to say, public officials, go unpunished?
Then again, we did agree from the onset to overlook past wrongs and aberrations in our own future best interests. Hopefully the recently expressed intentions of the prime minister and the governor general will not be put on ice, as
have so many other exciting promises to the people in the afterglow of post-elections euphoria!

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