Theatre in Parliament

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It was a wonderful opportunity that went a-begging.  This Administration which preens and poses as being progressive (See the decriminalisation of cannabis in 2018 that provided for the possession of a maximum of 15 grams for personal use), showed itself to be anything but. They killed movement on a Private Member Bill that called for our members of Parliament, the Governor General, the Prime Minister, the Ombudsman, Cabinet members, the Speaker of the House and the President of the Senate, to pledge allegiance to the Constitution  and people of Antigua and Barbuda, rather than to King Charles III, his heirs and his successors.

Of course, the proposed measure transcended political parties and narrow parochial interests. This was a historic step to rid ourselves of an odious and indefensible pledge. After all, why would a people who are masters of their own destiny, continue pledging allegiance to the British monarchy? Why would we not seek to further complete the circle of our Independence? Why would we not be proud and self-assured enough to instil further belief and confidence in ourselves by ridding ourselves of that disgraceful pledge? Remember, one of the vestiges of our enslavement is self-doubt, inferiority complexes, self-loathing and rejection of our own in favour of foreign imports. We saw this ugly and crippling mindset during the debates on whether we should accede to the Caribbean Court of Justice (CCJ) as our apex court, or continue clinging to His Majesty’s Privy Council. Sadly, we chose the latter. It was a dark day in Antigua and Barbuda, and one that will long live in infamy. Our ancestors shuddered. Here we were, fatuously pledging allegiance to the monarchy – the people who once enslaved them.

In his rambling and unfocused offering against the Bill, our good Attorney General, The Honourable Steadroy Benjamin, left many onlookers with the distinct impression that he has lost more than a step or two. He is a learned attorney who has distinguished himself as a charismatic and clear-eyed thinker, one whom Parliament watchers could always rely on for great erudition and articulation on the issues of the day. Of course, we seldom agreed with him, but we admired his ability to weave a tale and make an argument. Unfortunately for us, he went off on a nonsensical tangent, blabbering, hither thither and yon. Said he, in what was arguably his worst Parliamentary performance yet:  “Mr Speaker … my friend from Barbuda has put forward something of some merit, but the timing Mr Speaker is not quite right.  We are still very much a Constitutional Monarchy.  We still have the King as the head of this country.  In addition to that, there are many other things we ought properly to do, and what is required in Antigua is Constitutional Reform, and I am very much for the reform of the Constitution.  For example, Mr Speaker, we have a lower house and upper house that is based on the British model.  But it has been proven over the years by scholars that in the Caribbean in particular, the Senate is merely a rubber stamp.  It has been proven, they say, and I agree that members of the Senate are appointed from persons who ran before and lost and came back in that persons are put in the senate by what they have contributed to a Party.  Is it really necessary?  These are things we must do for reform.  In Dominica, for example, instead of having this bicameral system, of the lower house and the upper house, they have a unicameral – a one-chamber situation that is a matter for us to address as well.  To go further Mr Speaker, there are some persons who agree – I agree with that oppose the notion that a Minister of Religion ought not to take part in politics.  The argument of some of them is that a Minister of Religion has a “ready-made” congregation and persons may wish to vote for him or for her because they believe he has given them the way of spiritual health in the life hereafter, and they ought probably to give him their support in politics, but there are writers who indicate that the state and religion are separate. You are here today with things of religion and the life hereafter, and the secular about the public life ought not to be mixed… that’s correct. So, Sir, that is not a problem, but most importantly I believe is the whole move of getting this lovely little country to become a republic.  We start from there.  And even that too, is a holistic situation.  Mr Speaker, I want to make this point pellucid.  And repeating the words of Justice Hyatali from Trinidad – he said “[i]t is an affront to our countries, to our sovereignty of these small countries, that our final court of appeal should be in a foreign jurisdiction… we are not a true democracy except we control the judiciary, executive, and legislature.  Three pillars… Mr Speaker, I shall talk about it in great detail next time around.  Good… you’re correct.  That is why your party should support the Caribbean Court of Justice, and put all this nonsense aside about politics and so on.  We are developing a Caribbean man.  That’s what we fought for.  That’s what you fought for.  That’s what he wants.  What we all want.  Caribbean.  Antigua.  True Democracy.  So Mr Speaker, thank you very much.” Sigh!

Manifestly, our good Attorney General is befuddled. For example, in his disjointed discourse, he begins by saying, “What is required in Antigua is Constitutional reform, and I am very much for the reform of the Constitution . . . but the timing Mr Speaker is not quite right . . .” Say what? What doth hinder us from taking this small incremental step towards seizing more of our complete sovereignty? There is no time like the present, and we wonder to ourselves, “If not now, when?” Mind you, this small step can be accomplished by a simple act of Parliament. It does not require a referendum with a two-thirds majority, as in the case of the CCJ effort, which failed miserably on November 6, 2018.

So he goes on a meandering polemic (see above), citing a number of examples of things that have absolutely nothing to do with the matter at hand. Of course, his lame point that the time is not right reminds us of the late Sir Lester Bird who inveighed against our plan to move towards Independence under George Walter and the Progressive Labour Movement (PLM), if it was returned to office in the 1976 general elections, by coining the silly slogan that our proposed move towards Independence in the late 1970’s was not “the right psychological moment.” Sadly, the people listened to his fear-mongering and negativity, they bought into the notion that we are incapable of handling all of our own affairs, and the Antigua Labour Party was voted into office. Seemed, Marcus Garvey and Bob Marley knew what they were talking about when they urged that we “Emancipate ourselves from mental slavery.”

And he was not finished with his nonsense. Said he, “What is needed is Constitutional reform . . .,”  but is the changing of the pledge not Constitutional reform? While the matter of the wording of the pledge of allegiance is not an entrenched item in the Constitution, it is huge in terms of its positive effect on our psyche, our national pride and consciousness, our self-esteem and self-confidence. That undeniable fact seems to be lost on the members of this administration. Talk about reactionary! What a crippling traditionalist conservative perspective to social change!

Interestingly, in his aimless digression, the good Attorney General mentioned the CCJ with a cheap, partisan swipe at the United Progressive Party (UPP). We will ignore it, because it is really not worthy of a response. Instead, we will focus on how this AG was front and centre of the thrust to move to the CCJ as our apex court. He was a major player on the platform at the Multi-Purpose Centre, back in 2018, appearing alongside the Honourable Justice Adrian Saunders of the CCJ, and giving a grandiose endorsement to the move. He was involved in other activities, appearing on various media. He seemed quite progressive, and he spoke encouragingly and with conviction and passion. Alas! It now appears that he no longer cares about owning our own institutions and having confidence in ourselves and severing ties to the foreign entity that once enslaved us. He has had a change of heart.

But how can one so easily have a change of heart on these core principles? These things that speak to who we are, and where we want to be. These things that will help us fulfil the dream of our ancestors. Maybe he was pretending, much like all those Antigua Barbuda Labour Party (ABLP) Members of Parliament who voted no to the proposed measure to change the wording of our oath of allegiance. Will the real ABLP Parliamentarians please stand up! Ooops! They can’t. They have no spine.

The Bard, William Shakespeare, often used court jesters to provide some comic relief to the audience during the staging of his plays in the Elizabethan theatres. They often made their entrances unexpectedly, without rhyme or reason, and they would spew idle, meaningless, chatter, alongside exaggerated antics and semantics. Their appearances always made for much hilarity and relief from the tension that was brewing in the play.

Clearly, we had some comic relief in Parliament. Sigh! The sad thing is that it was not funny.

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