Fighting in Parliament

  FORGET crying over spilt milk. Try one broken tea cup.


The fuss over one small article of chinaware, shattered in an otherwise inconsequential interaction between two Members of Parliament, started last week when the fractured crockery made it all the way to the cover of Thursday's Daily Express, as allegations of a TV room tussle between two politicians snowballed into headline news.


When Opposition MP Chandresh Sharma claimed that he was slapped by Housing Minister Keith Rowley in the Tea Room (more specifically, the television room) of the Parliament, Rowley, in turn, contended that he had not assaulted Sharma. He added that if he had assaulted Sharma, there would be no doubt about it.


The Trinidadian Parliament, aptly located in the Red House, is not the only place in the world where politicians have seen red and come to blows. In fact, we in the Caribbean have been pretty well-behaved, given what pertains globally. However, when parliamentary debate overheats, it is not always a sign of antagonism between Government and Opposition. In Italy's lower house, for example, when a dispute broke out between two members of the same party, it is reported that one of the men slammed his elbow into the face of a colleague before hurrying out of the hall.


For the passionate Italians, sometimes the stakes are so high that the overflow of emotions is almost justified. In a separate instance, a 400 million euro loan which had been approved by cabinet was the subject of a heated debate led by the Northern League (LN), one of the four parties in Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi's fractious four-party Forza Italia coalition. After a verbal attack on the Socialist party by a LN deputy, the inevitable brawl developed.


The fiery Mediterraneans are not the only ones with blood so close to their skin. In June, reports from Sri Lanka revealed that two Buddhist monk legislators were hospitalised after they were beaten up by government legislators in an unprecedented brawl in Sri Lanka's parliament. As for Sharma, the opposition MP spent Wednesday night being treated for high blood pressure at the Port of Spain General Hospital.


Those who feel pity for Sharma would perhaps be moved to tears over the Jordanian Lower House speaker Abdul Hadi Majali, whose ear was partly bitten off in 2001, during a Parliament brawl between two deputies, according to a report by Tareq Ayyoub in the Jordan Times. Following the incident, the House lifted the immunity previously enjoyed by politicians, thereby paving the way for the deputies' trial in a court of law.


Sharma, too, is seeking redress. Having first proceeded to file a complaint against Rowley at the Central Police Station, he has penned a letter to House Speaker Barry Sinanan, requesting that the matter between himself and Rowley be forwarded to the Committee of Privileges of the House of Representatives, and arguing that "there are valid reasons to inquire into and punish the Member for Diego Martin West for having committed a breach of privilege and/or contempt of the House of Representatives."


Sharma's letter cited Eskine May's Parliamentary Practice, widely regarded as the international authority on parliamentary protocol: "It is a contempt to molest a member of either House while attending the house, or coming to or going from it...Members and others have been punished for such molestation occurring within the precincts of the House, whether by assault or insulting or abusive language."


Indeed. When a fist-fight broke out in the Tongan Parliament on July 28th, between two Members 'Etuate Lavulavu and 'Akilisi Pohiva, they received a three-day and a one and a half day suspension respectively, effective from the lunchtime of the very day on which the brawl erupted.


Independent political analyst John La Guerre identified some of the possible penalties facing Rowley and/or Sharma, "Both members may be suspended, reprimanded or censured."


Rowley may have good reason to fear the long, swift arm of the law, although he has continued to insist that he did not assault Sharma. La Guerre would not comment about which of the two is more likely to be penalised. The contradictory positions assumed by the MPs pit the nation's two major political parties against in each other in a battle of credibility. As political analyst Kirk Meighoo points out, "As it stands now both parties are saying different things and you either believe Sharma or Rowley. All we know is that at least one person is lying."


La Guerre added that onlookers should await the outcome of the hearing before the Parliamentary Committee, "One has to be very careful, in dealing with politicians, about their versions of the facts. Until such time as these facts are revealed, I would suspend judgment."


Apparently, dishonesty is already embedded in the national psyche as a stereotypical trait of the politician, but physical violence in Parliament is certainly a new addition to the political landscape. Meighoo was not alarmed, however, "It's just another issue that distracts from anything fundamental. It's a bit ironic that it happened just one week after President Max Richards' inspiring address on harmony."


Delivering an address at the ceremonial opening of Parliament at the Red House on September 10th, President George Maxwell Richards complained that the public consciousness was being bombarded with negative perspectives on race affairs, although racial relationships in the country were generally harmonious.


"The so-called major groups are adopting positions of confrontation...", said Richards, unwittingly forecasting the physical altercation between the PNM and UNC representative less than one week later.


But how do we explain the more general trend in other nations? La Guerre suggested it is the very nature of the Parliamentary context that facilitates violent outbursts, "Some tempers may become frayed as a result of charges being levelled against one another. One has to understand why language gets out of bounds. Parliament is exempted from laws of libel. Perhaps it is because of this unlimited freedom of speech that people say things that can lead to frayed tempers. One can understand the need to remove the laws of libel in the Parliament. At the same time, one would hope that people would remain within the limits of good sense and propriety."


So where do we turn for answers? Maybe the answer comes from Scotland. Benedict Greening reports in Scotland's Evening News that, "The Scottish Parliament should become a major venue for next year's Edinburgh International Festival and Fringe, according to arts impresario Richard Demarco," adding that Scottish officials were looking at opening up the building's spaces to cultural events which "fit into the theme of parliamentary business". The article noted, "The building has also been touted as a suitable location for rock concerts and stand-up comedy."