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Tuesday 18 September 2018
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Parliamentary privilege unfettered right

It is the height of irony that Government Senator Hazel Manning should be calling for parliamentary privilege to be reviewed. After all, it was her husband, Prime Minister Patrick Manning, who committed a most flagrant abuse of parliamentary privilege last week.

Mrs Manning made her call in the context of refuting allegations made by Opposition Senator Wade Mark that she had received a travelling allowance while employed at the Airports Authority even though she did not have a car. But there was also the wider context of several more allegations being made by members on both sides of the House and the Senate. If anything, however, it is the Government MPs who more abused their privilege of making allegations that, outside the Parliament chamber, would almost surely draw legal action.

Health Minister Jerry Narace, for example, raised an issue against Dr Tim Gopeesingh which had already been dismissed in Dr Gopeesingh’s favour by the courts. The Prime Minister made allegations against Siparia MP Kamla Persad-Bissessar which, if true, meant that Mr Manning himself had broken the law by not reporting the matter to the police. Mr Manning also made an allegation against Diego Martin West MP Keith Rowley, based on information supplied by the Housing Ministry. Yet, when questioned by reporters about the matter, Housing Minister Emily Dick-Forde played coy, saying she was not getting involved in the issue. Yet, by acceding to what could only have been a request to troll for information about Dr Rowley’s ministerial management, the Housing Minister cannot follow Pontius Pilate and appear to wash her hands on this matter.

The Opposition MPs, of course, have their own political agenda in raising allegations of improper conduct in public office, and Senator Mark, in particular, has a long record of being more often wrong than right in his allegations. But at least every allegation made by the Opposition can be refuted on the basis of proper documentation. Unfortunately for the Government, its own conduct has made the provision of such documentation even more onerous. Mrs Manning, for instance, produced a letter from the AATT confirming that she had received no travel allowance as alleged by Senator Mark. Will citizens be comfortable with such reassurances, without detailed documentary support, when the body responsible for overseeing politicians in office, the Integrity Commission, has itself been cast under a shadow by MPs on both sides of the Parliament? Will anyone believe a Government which continues to hide public information, ranging from scholarship awardees to dengue deaths?

These questions alone show why parliamentary privilege should not be tampered with. Free speech always carries with it the possibility of abuse, but the virtues always outweigh this drawback. While it is unfortunately true that certain parliamentarians will abuse their privileges, unfettered speech in the Parliament helps constrain the abuses by Government of citizens’ rights, particularly in the area of corrupt activities. Perhaps, however, the Speaker and the Senate President might insist that MPs back up their allegations with documentary evidence (although such an approach would necessarily require that public bodies provide documents efficiently and transparently – which doesn’t happen now). But there can be no doubt that parliamentary privilege must remain an unfettered right if Trinidad and Tobago is to preserve its democracy.

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