An absolute privilege?
We do not know how House Speaker Wade Mark weighed his decision to allow the Member for Chaguanas West to make statements accusing private citizens of plotting to destabilise the nation. After all, this very serious allegation had been presented on the basis of a report which, according to MP Warner, had been dropped in his mailbox by persons unknown.
Having allowed Warner’s statement, however, the speaker might have given favourable consideration to Vernon De Lima’s request to be allowed the right to reply. The speaker has instead declined the request, leaving Warner’s statement to stand unchallenged in the Hansard record.
De Lima is not the first citizen to feel aggrieved by a politician’s statement delivered under the cloak of parliamentary privilege; but his experience has come at a time when citizens might be able to do something about it.
Holding power to account and making it responsible are among the public’s highest expectations from the current constitutional reform exercise. How power is exercised within the hallowed walls of parliament is as important as how it is exercised in government.
With so much public disquiet on so many matters of governance, this is the moment for citizens to consider how the constitution and its supporting pillars may be shaped and reshaped to support the development of more relevant, fair, transparent and democratic practices.
It has been almost 170 years since British constitutional theorist and Clerk of the House of Commons, Thomas Erskine May, published the book on parliamentary practice that continues, in large measure, to govern the parliaments of countries like ours which adopted the Westminster system.
May could hardly have foreseen how aspects of the code, such as parliamentary privilege, would come to be used against the very ends they were meant to serve.
Designed to unencumber members of parliament in expressing their opinion and bringing information to the people’s representatives, parliamentary privilege is increasingly being used in an unequal war between the politicians inside parliament and the people outside.
Modern democracy demands a more accountable process for managing such a powerful privilege. Without this, public confidence in parliament, summed up years ago as a place of “kicksin'”, will continue to be eroded.
In an era when the integrity of our public institutions is under threat, we need to give serious thought to the ways it could be strengthened.
As it stands now, the country is none the wiser about Warner’s allegation of a plot to destabilise the country. If there were any truth to it, Warner has blown the chance of an investigation; if there was no truth, then he has merely besmirched the reputation of citizens with no recourse.
It has been suggested that De Lima may have grounds, based on Warner’s post-debate assertions outside of parliament, so there may yet be a sequel to this matter. In the meantime, we hope that incidents like this will resonate in the hearings of the constitution reforms committee.