Marlon Morgan, guest columnist
All things considered, we have much to be proud of as a country in the 50th year of its birth as an independent nation. We have made incontrovertible strides in relation to our democratic system of governance, institutional capacity, judicial independence, social infrastructure, press freedom, athletic prowess, and our culture, our music being one of our more valued exports.
We have not done so well, however, in relation to how we treat each other. This is underscored by our litany of social ills, including the more than 16,000 Jamaicans murdered since the start of the millennium.
It is no wonder, then, that the conduct of our national leaders - those 63 men and women elected to represent us - has been called into question and remains the subject of much discussion and commentary. The crass exchange that brought the July 2 sitting of the House of Representatives into disrepute was most despicable, reprehensible and unfortunate.
Two Tuesdays ago, an arguably contrite Parliament sought to repair the breach, apologies and all, amid calls from the leaders on both sides, Prime Minister Portia Simpson Miller and Opposition Leader Andrew Holness, for an end to incivility and the vulgar exchanges that often characterise behaviour in Parliament.
The opposition leader went a step further by calling for workable solutions to remedy the breakdown of order in the Lower House. He advocated a code of conduct which, he contends, would help raise the bar by holding parliamentarians to a higher standard of behaviour. This higher standard would complement existing provisions and usher in more acceptable behaviour in Parliament, as well as public conduct that is worth emulating.
Incidentally, some observers dismissed the suggestion as ridiculous, duplicitous and ill-conceived. They argue, inter alia, that having such a code would be superfluous and impractical, since Parliament is already guided by Standing Orders and has sufficient provisions in place to regulate its affairs, as well as the conduct of members.
I beg to differ. In fact, I humbly reject those assertions as I invite you to embark on a journey that would take us back in time and around the world as we explore the merits of developing a code of conduct, notwithstanding the existence of Standing Orders.
We are all agreed that Parliament is a place for intense, robust and probing debate. The very nature of our democratic system of governance and the inherent competition between the two tribes lends itself to a clash of ideas, conflicting perspectives and intellectual divergence from time to time. That divergence is good for democracy. Indeed, the cut and thrust of Parliament is given to competitive posturing, resulting, every so often, in heckling, cross-talk, voice elevation and verbal sparring.
Whereas Parliament is no Sunday school, and since nobody really expects his elected representative to sit passively and adopt the posture of an altar boy, we know and anticipate that there will be heated exchanges.
We expect parliamentarians, however, to demonstrate the capacity to moderate their behaviour, maintain a modicum of civility, and resolve to disagree in an agreeable manner when consensus eludes them. Needless to say, offensive gesticulation, bigotry and hostile confrontation are undesirable and unacceptable.
Like us, societies around the world have had to grapple with the very thing that reached a crescendo in Gordon House recently: an egregious breakdown of conduct. In fact, many jurisdictions are still grappling with behaviour that is not just shocking to the conscience but utterly embarrassing and bordering on criminal. The recent case involving a parliamentarian in Jordan, who pulled a gun at his political opponent during a live television interview, is an unforgettable case in point.
As far as the Jamaican Parliament is concerned, there is no denying that the Standing Orders are quite clear and copious. They have served Parliament well and remain instrumental in guiding parliamentary conduct, as well as rulings by the speaker of the House.
The Standing Orders are, however, 'minimum' standards. Appropriately, they were strongly conditioned by Erskine May's Parliamentary Practice, a publication that is widely regarded as the bible for parliamentary behaviour and procedures. As a matter of fact, where the Standing Orders are silent on a matter and fail to adequately settle a dispute, May's work is usually consulted and referenced as precedent, if you will.
I describe the Standing Orders as minimum standards because they are not the be-all and end-all in terms of parliamentary conduct and decorum. There is conduct that we would readily condemn and deem offensive and unacceptable, but is not necessarily prohibited by an application of the Standing Orders.
I give you an example: snide remarks are often levelled at a prominent member of the House in relation to his hearing impairment, and although those remarks may not necessarily be frowned upon by the Standing Orders, they may be injurious. I am sure onlooking members of the disabled community take offence at those snide remarks.
Standing Orders are a minimum guide as to appropriate and acceptable parliamentary behaviour. It is to be seen, therefore, as a necessary but insufficient condition in the modern era to effectively leverage parliamentary behaviour and promote conduct befitting players in public life. After all, the public expects that much more of them and from them.
In other words, what the public expects and demands of parliamentarians is over and above that which is set out and provided for in the Standing Orders, warranting a code of conduct that will not only complement the existing Standing Orders, but will be more reflective of, and more closely in line with, public expectations.
I accept that the powers reposed in the speaker of the House are enormous. And while the incumbent speaker, following the recent incident, has telegraphed that he will be giving less latitude to parliamentarians, I am not convinced that such manoeuvres can be relied upon to secure improved standards and effect that much-needed game change in the behaviour of our parliamentarians.
The establishment of a code of conduct, to which members would voluntarily subscribe, in conjunction with the Standing Orders and the tightening of the leash by the speaker, would go a far way in achieving just that. It would improve behaviour among parliamentarians, give Gordon House a new lease on life, and, most significantly, increase public approval.
By nature, humans are more likely to make a conscientious effort at complying with something to which they have voluntarily subscribed. A political code of conduct would derive its legitimacy not just from the fact that the collective have approved it, but by virtue of the import and paternity individual members would attach to it.
Adherence to that code, would, over time, cement desirable conduct and establish behaviours so firmly that they become the norm. Who to tell? That new norm may eventually serve as a basis for amending the existing regulations, bringing the Standing Orders in line with the elevated standards.
It is instructive to note that the British Parliament, having suffered similar challenges as a result of unbecoming parliamentary behaviour, developed a code of conduct that would guide its parliamentarians. They certainly didn't see it as duplicitous, redundant or inappropriate so to do. In light of the extremely similar circumstances, why shouldn't we give serious consideration to a similar move?
The British Code of Conduct says, in part: "The obligations set out in this code are complementary to those which apply to all members by virtue of the procedural and other rules of the House and the rulings of the chair."
On Sunday, May 13, 2012, the Indian Parliament, in response to frequent ruckus in the House, moved a resolution at a joint sitting commemorating the 60th anniversary of India's Independence. Having condemned previous adjournments caused by disruptions and pandemonium in the House, Indian members resolved to uphold the dignity, sanctity and solemnity of their Parliament.
In Gordon House, members on both sides have a duty, indeed, an obligation, to conduct themselves above and beyond the parameters of the Standing Orders. It is then, and only then, that we will accomplish our collective desire: to see our Parliament functioning as a mature and responsible legislature.
Marlon Morgan is a vice-president of G2K and aide to Opposition Leader Andrew Holness. Email feedback to firstname.lastname@example.org.
PLEASE SEE conduct, f10