There has been great consternation in the citizenry over the tone, tenor and substance of Budget Debate 2021. As part of the tradition inherited from the English House of Commons, Parliamentary debates are a major plank in the edifice of democratic, representative governance. With the political system driven by the logic of agglomerating majorities, the competing parties invariably adopt positions in opposition to each other, so as to distinguish themselves. As such, it is expected that during debates in Parliament, statements can become pointed.
However, over the centuries, Parliamentary rules have evolved with the aim to encourage debates that positively enlighten the populace on the merits or demerits of the matter being debated – here, the Budget presented by the new PPP Government. What are some of those rules? Firstly, that each side would be given an opportunity to present its position on the subject, starting with the side that had proposed the motion or the Budget, and followed by the Opposition.
As is implied by its name, the “Opposition” is supposed to identify flaws or weaknesses in the Government’s proposals, and propose alternative measures if they so desire. While MPs are speaking, there are several interruptions that are permissible: points of order, point of information, and point of personal privilege. “Points of Order” can be invoked at any time if the speaker on the floor has violated a rule of the House. The objector must state the particular rule alleged to have been violated, after he is acknowledged by the Speaker and asked to do so. The clock is stopped at this juncture. The “point of information” is, as implied, to seek clarification on an assertion being made by a speaker.
The “point of personal privilege” works similarly to the “point of order”, and is used when a Member believes he/she has been misquoted, or personally insulted, or offended by the speaker on the floor. MPs are permitted to heckle, boo, or thump desks to indicate their approval or disapproval of what is being said from either side of the House.
And this is where it is felt that matters were allowed to get out of hand, especially on the first day of the Budget Debate. Heckles, by convention, are supposed to be short, witty and substantive remarks, which are normally ignored or answered by the speaker in a similar manner and spirit. However, during the Budget debate, there were sexist, homophobic, and even scatological insults hurled in very demeaning tones. There could have been two types of responses, neither of which was resorted to. Firstly, the persons being insulted could have responded on “points of personal privilege”, on which the Speaker could then have made a ruling. But even without such objections, since the sexist and homophobic insults violated norms and legal enactments of the State, the Speaker could have pointed this out to the offender.
Additionally, the Speaker could have demanded “order” when the exchanges became too boisterous and violated the norms of acceptable behaviour in the House.
But there is a larger issue in play that must be addressed: that Guyana seems to be part of a global trend where deepening and extreme polarisation of societies now characterises democracies. This trend is reflected in the polarisation of the representative parties which are prepared to violate the age-old norms that have evolved – to encourage party representatives to seek higher ground for the benefit of the country at large – in debates.
Herein lies the danger for Guyana, which, since the 1950s, has already been a deeply divided society and has episodically erupted in violence that has pitted the supporters of the two major parties against each other.
We have just come out of a very contentious elections wherein the PNC blatantly attempted to rig the elections in full view of the world, and yet insist they have won the elections while refusing to release their SOPs.
The society remains tense, and Parliament should calm, rather than intensify, this tension.