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Blowing in the wind

Lance Neita

Sunday, January 14, 2018

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The Parliament of Jamaica is the legislative branch of the Government of Jamaica. It is composed of an appointed Senate and an elected House of Representatives. The Senate, which is the Upper House, has 21 senators appointed by the Governor-General. The House of Representatives, which is considered the Lower House, has 63 Members of Parliament.

The Parliament meets at Gordon House at 81 Duke Street, Kingston. Gordon House was opened on October 26, 1960 and named in memory of National Hero George William Gordon. It replaced the former parliament building Headquarters House, which is beside Gordon House.

Gordon House must be a very robust building to house 84 people who love to talk so much. A friend of mine said in jest that if you were to put a windmill on top of Gordon House it would produce enough electricity to light up half of Kingston. There goes a possible solution to our energy problem. Perhaps we should put up two.

The longest official speech ever made in Jamaica came from W A Bustamante, who completed a three-day marathon speech in Headquarters House. It occurred during the 1949-50 Budget Debate. The Gleaner reported that, “The party leader hit out at critics of the Government, both in and out of the House.” That must have been quite a lambasting.

I should be careful how I erect windmills at Gordon House. The late and fearless journalist and commentator Morris Cargill ignited a scorcher in the 1970s when he called then Prime Minister Michael Manley a windbag. This was after one of Manley's marathon speeches in Parliament.

All hell broke loose in the party ranks as the talk shows and the media were inundated with calls and letters accusing Cargill of rudeness, 'facetiness', and some even elevating him to 'enemy of the state'. The protests and outrage continued for days, but this only added fuel to the fire.

“I called him a windbag because he is a windbag,” insisted Cargill in a further column. Argument done! This did not go down well with the Comrades of the day. But the country was greatly amused.

Oddly enough, Bustamante is also credited with the shortest speech in the House. This lasted only three minutes. Unfortunately I cannot find the reference.

We are getting ready for another parliamentary session which begins this week after a long Christmas break. Gordon House keeps droning on every week with a succession of boring speeches by ministers with and without portfolios, and Members of Parliament who, with one or two exceptions, show why they have been given no portfolio at all.

The prime minister will be cranking up his own windmill as he will have lots to say about the many issues that are confronting the Government so early in the year. What with the public service wage talks, the crime situation, the recent flooding and its effect on the economy, the Palisadoes road debacle, 2018 has not been treating the Government and the Jamaica Labour Party (JLP) nicely at all.

Try as he might, the prime minister will not be able to keep any of these matters out of Parliament, as the Opposition People's National Party (PNP) is getting ready to pounce on what they had almost given up as a lost cause. Indeed, the Opposition may find that their lethargic approach to national issues may yet work for them during this session, as they have a clean plate with almost nothing on it, while the Government has more than they can chew on theirs.

It's amazing how a day in politics can be like a year. The Government has had an easy ride up until now based upon Prime Minister Andrew Holness's popularity, youthfulness, and engaging style. Ministers Edmund Bartlett, Mike Henry, Audley Shaw, Christopher Tufton, Ruel Reid, and Andrew Wheatley, are more than the PNP seems able to handle. The Cabinet has performed, with the exception of the national security portfolio, but cracks are beginning to show. Where Ministers falter or take their feet off the pedal, the people are expecting Holness to take up the slack. Working, working, working, and not talking, like a former prime minister, will not cut it.

Going into the announced Cabinet retreat I anticipate the Government will take a holistic view of things as they are and not what they would want it to be. Those very issues I mentioned earlier — crime, Palisadoes, the wage talks — are going to bog down the Government, the party, and the country if they can't convince us that they are serious about attending to problems that are now everyday matters of concern to all levels of the society.

I regret the public spat between the security minister and the commissioner of police. Both are respected, capable, and admired individuals. The unpleasant cass-cass must be providing food for the criminals. We need the police force now, more than ever. If they lose, we lose. I am told that one of the secrets about good policing in England is that the uniform is respected. You may 'mek joke' and even belittle an officer outside of his uniform, but the institution of law and order, represented in the traditional black trousers, blue or white shirt and tunic and peaked helmet, is regarded as untouchable. I recall years ago when an officer was killed on duty, the entire country, ports and airports and all,were locked down to enable the search and contain the criminal.

Back to Gordon House: Member of Parliament Ronnie Thwaites tells us repeatedly that nothing much is being done in there. He should know. I presume this means that in the forthcoming sessions a lot of hot air will be blown,and, who knows, the windmill may yet turn.

Watch carefully as front bench hopefuls jostle with each other to position themselves behind the speaker of the day to ensure that they will be caught on camera. They make a candid picture, as some have been caught chewing gum, reading comics, having animated conversations, and exchanging jokes.

I don't blame them. The trouble is that Parliament has become boring. The Budget Debate is not a debate. The sectoral debate is not a debate. A real debate calls for instant exchange, cut and thrust, point vs point.

Question Time in Parliament should be where questions are asked and answered promptly across the floor, where members have to think on their feet, without reference to notes or time out for a three-week period to answer.

The sectoral debate should focus on particular subjects of relevance to the economy with members allowed speaking time on matters relevant to the topic under consideration, and enjoined to engage in a question-and-answer session immediately following the presentation.

Instead, we are made to endure the long, drawn-out speeches with carefully prepared papers and points timed to elicit applause from one side and stony silence from the other. Case in point, the finance minister declares no new taxes, pauses for effect, adjusts his face to ensure that the camera has his best side, and repeats his statement, rubbing it in on the Opposition. His side then pound their desks for all its worth. Once again, my friends looking on at the TV remind me that this pounding on the desk is more appropriately described as knocking on wood.

Maybe we should send our parliamentarians back to Headquarters House. Nothing can compare to the rough and tumble of those days when Bustamante, Allan “Father” Coombs, Iris King, Wills Isaacs, Edwin Allen, Rose Leon, Gideon Gallimore, Florizel Glasspole, Norman Manley, Isaac Barrant, Rose Leon, Clement Aitcheson, Alan Douglas, or Lynden Newland, stood up and vigorously challenged each other across the floor to prove a point.

Bustamante was not your run-of the-mill politician. He came at you straight and direct and was known to take off his jacket, roll up his sleeves, and invite his opponent to step outside the House to settle any argument. He was a flamboyant personality. Well-known at Kingston's nightclubs, he was the life of any party. He entertained lavishly at Glass Bucket, Rainbow Club, Myrtle Bank, and South Camp Road hotels, the Metropolis in downtown Kingston, the J Wray & Nephew Bar at North Parade, Mac's Midway Casino at Stony Hill, Arlington House where he hosted lunch and long conversations, and Springfield on the Sea in eastern Kingston where he waltzed on the light fantastic toe to The Tennessee waltz — the rage in the late 40s. He would spend the evening on the dance floor showing off what he claimed were the steps he learnt from his sojourns in Cuba and Spain, doing a most extravagant mambo, samba and cha cha cha which had everyone moving hastily out of his way.

Bustamante took his lifestyle into Parliament without any apologies, was known for his quick wit and repartee, and made short shrift of any long and boring speeches by interrupting or taking on the member to defend his arguments on the spot. Today's parliamentary sessions could well do with a little bit of the famous and impromptu Bustamante cut and thrust.

Lance Neita is a writer and public relations consultant. Send comments to the Observer or lanceneita@hotmail.com.

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