Published On: Mon, Oct 9th, 2017

Helpless Parliamentarians

Hurricane Irma has exposed the truth about our parliamentary system. Our parliamentarians, for whom we voted directly, have no say. It has been more than a month, since the passing of the most devastating hurricane ever to hit Sint Maarten, and Parliament has not yet been fully briefed on the post-hurricane disaster management situation and on the recovery plans ensuing Irma.

It is sad, when the highest legislative and supervisory body in the country is still unable to get clarity on what transpired in the wake of Irma. Likewise, it is unacceptable that this body has not yet been apprised by Government concerning the financial, economic and social plans to get Sint Maarten back on its feet. According to the looks of it, the agenda is set by the Prime Minister and not by Parliament. Therefore, Parliament must wait until the Prime Minister’s agenda is clear and until he has been able to get around to preparing the answers to the questions posed in Parliament. Meanwhile, Parliament, our highest supervisory institution, simply waits and does nothing!

Listening to the two sessions of the Central Committee of Parliament held thus far, one could sense the frustration and dissatisfaction among several Members of Parliament. MP Perry Geerlings has taken his frustration to the media via a letter to the editor.  MP Tamara Leonard has directed her letter, posing several questions, to the Prime Minister. And MP Sarah Wescott-Williams expressed her dissatisfaction in a draft motion that was presented to the Central Committee. The motion has received sufficient support to be discussed in the next meeting and hopefully thereafter it will obtain a majority of votes in a meeting of Parliament. Given the manner in which the Irma situation has been handled thus far, it can take weeks before this motion can be passed in Parliament. Then, if it is passed, its execution will depend on whether the Prime Minister and the Council of Ministers are willing to give it priority. Up to now, with the exception of a motion of non-confidence, Government does not take motions, passed in Parliament, very seriously.

If Parliament passes this motion, will the Government accept the instructions and agree to execute them in a timely manner? Will the Prime Minister agree to update Parliament in a weekly question-and-answer period? Will he agree to open and strengthen the line of communication with the Kingdom? Will the Government follow up immediately with draft legislation to empower the community councils? These and other instructions in the motion, presented by MP Wescot-Williams, are noble but the execution thereof will depend on how seriously Government views the supervisory role of Parliament. Ignoring motions or delaying their execution are common practice for Government and apparently, there is nothing that parliament can do about it. Parliament is helpless and dependent on the good will of the Prime Minister and the other Ministers. Currently, Parliamentarians are going through the motion of attending meetings and giving a semblance of working, but in reality, it is accomplishing nothing.

For example, if the Prime Minister informs Parliament that he needs a week or a month to prepare the answers to parliament’s questions then Parliament just has to wait. Also, if the Minister informs Parliament that Government needs a year or more to prepare the legislation on the empowerment of the community councils, then Parliament has no other choice than to wait. If the Minister does not care to give further clarity on the issue of the closing of the borders then Parliament can let it slide or it can request a parliamentary investigation. These are but a few examples to indicate how difficult it is for Parliament to move forward if it does not have the support, cooperation and goodwill of the Government.

Parliament has allowed itself to believe that it is totally dependent on Government in the situation of the aftermath of Irma. However, instead of going along with the schedule and timetable of the Prime Minister, Parliament could have convened emergency meetings outside its normal schedule. What is wrong with calling urgent or emergency meetings during the evening hours or in the weekends? Just last Saturday the Parliament of Dominica convened an emergency meeting. If legislation is needed then Parliament can also commission the drafting of the ordinance instead of waiting for Government to do so. Given the state of recovery of Sint Maarten, Parliament should be proactive. Parliament should start working on draft laws that it deems necessary to move the country forward. For example, several MPs have voiced their concern regarding tax relief for the business sector. In this case, Parliament need not wait for Government but should commission the drafting of relevant tax amendments and present them to Government.

We often hear the phrase “a lame-duck government”. But hurricane Irma has clearly exposed our “lame-duck” Parliament. Irma has revealed that our Parliamentarians, who we voted for directly, have very little supervisory authority as it relates to the functioning of Government. Our Parliamentarians seem to be helpless and the legislative and supervisory roles of Parliament leave much to be desired.

Parliament, our people need to see how well you are able to represent them, especially in times of crisis. Do not let us down!

Wycliffe Smith
Leader of the Sint Maarten Christian Party