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Is Parliament fulfilling its role?

T&T Parliamentary Chamber. Source:

By Leela Ramdeen, Chair, CCSJ & Director, CREDI

A democratic parliament is one that is representative, open and transparent, accessible, accountable and effective (Inter-Parliamentary Union)

On Sunday, June 30 the world observes the International Day of Parliamentarism—celebrating parliaments and “the ways in which parliamentary systems of government improve the day-to-day lives of people the world over.

It is also an opportunity for parliaments to take stock, identify challenges, and ways to address them effectively…Strong parliaments are a cornerstone of democracy. They represent the voice of the people, pass laws, allocate funds to implement laws and policies, and hold governments to account.

They work to make sure that policies benefit all people, especially the most vulnerable…Parliaments also link international and national agendas, ensuring that governments implement international treaties and agreements that they sign up to” (UN).

How effective is Trinidad and Tobago’s Parliament? Do you know your MP? According to Catholic Social Teaching “the state has a positive moral function as an instrument to promote human dignity, protect human rights, and build the common good. Its purpose is to assist citizens in fulfilling their responsibility to others in society…Citizens need the help of government to fulfil these responsibilities and promote the common good.”

T&T Parliament’s website explains that parliament “also known as the legislature, is the arm of state entrusted with the responsibility of making laws for good governance, and providing oversight of the Government or Executive.”

T&T “follows the Westminster System of government, in that Members of the Executive are also members of Parliament and thus attend sittings of the legislature”.

According to Section 39 of our Constitution “Parliament consists of the President of the Republic, the Senate, and the House of Representatives.”

A report on our parliament

Reflect on the following extracts from a report by Prof Fredrick Stapenhurst, Institute for the Study of International Development at McGill University, Canada, entitled: Report on Oversight to the Parliament of Trinidad and Tobago. It “examines parliamentary oversight in Trinidad and Tobago and questions why it appears not to be working as well as in other countries around the world…”

It continues: “Over the past decade a substantial amount of research has shown that parliaments matter. It is now fully recognized that effective parliaments are a critical element of good governance, and perform the essential functions of enacting legislation, representing citizens and governments to account. The latter function, holding governments to account, is conducted through oversight. Also over the past decade, there have been several studies to determine exactly what oversight is and, more especially, what makes it effective…

“Researchers have used the reduced corruption as an indicator of effective oversight. Trinidad & Tobago both scores poorly in Transparency International’s Corruption Perceptions Index and its score has declined over the past decade…It is among the poorest performing countries in the English-speaking Caribbean…

“Research shows that there is a strong correlation between oversight potential (as measured by the oversight tools available to a parliament, such as questions, question period, oversight committees, interpellations, and ombudsman office) and levels of corruption. Yet the Parliament of Trinidad & Tobago has adopted the full of oversight tools, so clearly Parliament has the potential. The question becomes: why is Trinidad & Tobago not using this potential?…

“It is with regard to reports that T&T committees do particularly poorly, writing far fewer that the global average. This is particularly important, as research shows that the number of reports prepared by oversight committees directly impacts levels of corruption. Only two reasons are thought to account for this poor level of activity by Trinidadian committees – lack of political will by legislators to undertake effective oversight or lack of time to fully undertake their oversight responsibilities.

“The report concludes that it is likely the latter, especially as Trinidadian legislators’ only work part- time, in contrast to almost all countries of the world. It is recommended that the Trinidadian Parliament moves to a full-time institution, to bring it into line with other parliaments globally…

“Effective oversight depends not only on the availability of oversight tools, but also on additional conditions, often referred to as contextual factors, or facilitating conditions. These include such variables as the electoral system, political parties, the level of democracy, public trust in parliament as well as the supporting factors of parliamentary research capacity and information.”

The report highlights the relatively low levels of public trust in T&T parliament. 

Consider also the principle of “subsidiarity”. The rising tide should lift all boats. Sadly, many in T&T don’t even have a boat. Let’s build the common good and promote inclusivity.