Nov 05, 2017  Features / ColumnistsPeeping Tom

The ruckus which broke out in parliament on Thursday was an accident waiting to happen. The decline in standards in the National Assembly has been long in the making.
The ruckus which the PPPC created was merely reflective of a process of ongoing decline in the debates, and in the general conduct of the assembly. The public, as a result, is becoming disgusted and disinterested in what is taking place within parliament.
The persistent and disruptive heckling, the noise-making and desk-thumping, the unceremonious conduct of some parliamentarians and the creation of social media videos within the assembly, are sources of great concern.
The PPPC last Thursday began what appeared to be a silent protest within the chambers. When the President began to speak, the PPPC side of the House, silently raised their pickets in protest. The silence did not last too long. There was a sudden retort from the other side. “Y’all get out of here!’
That was the cue which the PPPC was waiting for, the heckling and the chanting erupted, enough to make the casual observer believe that he was witnessing a sitting of the British parliament. It was disgraceful.
Both sides are guilty of creating a ruckus in the assembly. No side can claim the moral high ground. Both sides have fallen short.
Parliament is not a place for pickets. Parliament should be about prose.
It was the PNCR which first began this nonsense under another parliament of having pickets in parliament. When the National Assembly used to meet at the Ocean View Convention Centre, some PNCR parliamentarians turned up on one occasion with pickets pasted on to overalls.
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The same tactic of creating a din to drown out what some speaker had to say was employed before. When APNU did not want to hear what a member on the other side wanted to say, they simply drowned that person’s presentation out with noise-making.
Heckling has always been a feature of our parliament but, in the distant past. It was infected with humour and best described as repartee. Today, heckling makes liberal use of taunts. It has become disruptive.
This column, five years ago, condemned the decline in standards of parliamentary debates and decorum. Five years ago, this column argued that parliamentary democracy would be brought into disrepute, because of what was taking place during debates.
It noted that the conduct of members would eventually bring our democracy into disrespect. This column was critical of the constant mean-spirited heckling and cross chatting which had become raucous.
It said then that: “Parliament should be a place of civilized discourse. It should be the House where manners and civility resound. It should be a place where parliamentary norms, conventions and practices should be scrupulously observed.”
Speakers have been having a hard time controlling the sittings. Basic rules are being breached. For example, when the Speaker is on the floor, that is when he is speaking, everyone should be sitting and be silent. The Speaker, however, often finds himself, as was the case last Thursday, where he could hardly hear himself.
Members are talking among themselves when other members are on the floor. Some members have been videoed sleeping during sittings.
The backchat is uncharitable. But do not let that fool you. Most of the members get along very well with their colleagues on the other side of the House, at a personal level. And if they can do that, they can damn well behave properly and with dignity during sittings.
The Budget debates are coming up and it is most likely that the same sort of behaviour to which the public was treated will reveal itself during those debates. APNU+AFC will come prepared for a counter attack. This will create further ruckus. Public disinterest in the work of parliament will increase.
It is time for a truce. The Speaker should call the respective Chief Whips and broker such a deal. If this fails, the Speaker should be ingenious. For every unnecessary taunt thrown by one side, the member speaking on the other side should receive an additional minute to speak. For chanting in the House, the session will be extended by an additional two hours. That should put an end to unruly sittings.