Editorial: Hallowed halls of Parliament.

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Parliament. If ever there was a word that evokes different meanings to different people, then parliament is that word.  To some, it is a revered house of assembly where manners matter and everyone is honourable. To others, it is nothing more than a rowdy detention hall where unruly kids assemble to cuss each other under the supervision of a teacher who is often ignored.
The reality is, Parliament is the most important institution of our land. The attendees change from time to time but this is where the people are represented. As long as the people, the true holders of power in any democracy, decide who they want to represent them, that person gets a seat. Even if a politician falls out of grace with their political party, they still maintain a seat in Parliament as the representative for their constituents. Meaning, only the people can remove a sitting member of Parliament via the process of a democratic vote.
Of course, we are talking about the lower house of parliament because this is where elected members take their seat to represent the people who elected them. The public does not vote for senators and the public does not vote for any ministerial position, including the Prime Minister. These are important aspects to keep in mind because very often it appears that parliament is the place where politics goes to party. And when we say “party” we mean political party because the norm is for politicians to fight for their political party rather than their constituents. 
Rarely do you hear a politician referencing what their constituents have to say on a matter; probably because they do not know. The public is of the perception that politicians only care about votes and only care about those votes around election time.
“Every election is the same thing,” people suck their teeth and exclaim: “dem better not come knock pon meh door!” That bit of disdain is usually followed by a universal chorus of “because dem only know we alive when dem want arwe vote”.
A good politician is always in campaign mode – pressing the flesh, asking for opinion and keeping contact with the pulse of those in his or her community. They do this so that, when it is time to represent their interests in Parliament, they are well informed of what the people want. The problem is that we have very few people-politicians in our bit of paradise. Our politicians are party-politicians.  They ride on the coattails of the political institutions that they represent and hope that their party is currently favoured by the majority of the public.
The reason that they do this is because we, the people, have allowed it. We do not demand community representation because we do not vote with our community in mind. The political tribalism has divided us to such an extent that we do not look around us and determine which candidate has our best interest at heart. Instead, we decide on a party, even if that party’s policies will be detrimental to our community’s interests. It is a mindset that plays into the hands of the politician and it is not unique to Antigua & Barbuda. 
One need only look at our neighbours to the North, the United States, and we get a 24-hour reality TV series on political tribalism – Republicans versus Democrats. The most recent moves to repeal Obama’s Affordable Care Act came down to a party line vote with just three senators breaking from party lines.  That is literally just three per cent.  One of those three, Senator John McCain, delivered his pivotal and surprising “no” vote in a near surreal live broadcast.  Not to bore you with US politics, but McCain was never a lover of the party vote, especially when there was no concrete replacement to the act. He said, “We must now return to the correct way of legislating and send the bill back to committee, hold hearings, receive input from both sides of aisle, heed the recommendations of the nation’s governors, and produce a bill that finally delivers affordable health care for the American people.”  It was one of the only bits of sanity in what everyone thought was an insane process.
Coming back to Antigua & Barbuda, all is not gloom and doom. Our sometimes detention-hall-like Parliament has shown some signs of maturity … ok, one. And interestingly, the topic invokes a very personal response – tobacco.  In a demonstration of what Parliament is good for, law makers and stakeholders recently met for some in-depth consultations on the proposed Tobacco Control Bill 2017. This was a good example of how government and the people are supposed to interact. When a bill is proposed, consultations take place with stakeholders and experts in a transparent way and debates on a best fit resolution take centre stage. Much better than the current practice of side-stepping the standing orders and having first, second and third readings in one go.
While we have our own thoughts on why these consultations are taking place, they do not take away from the fact that they are happening.  We would love to see this become the norm and it is up to us to influence our representatives to make sure that it does become the norm.  Demand better representation from your member of parliament, even if you did not vote for him or her.  Show them who the boss really is!

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