Parliamentary illiteracy

Sitting in the Parliament gallery over the past two weeks, during Senate passage of the marriage amendment bill, I got called out twice, the first day by Minister Clarence Rambaharat speaking from the floor during his contribution to the debate, then by Yvonne Baboolal in these pages, covering the final day’s vote.

I was there to be seen.

Otherwise, I’d have been home watching things on television or from the office on my phone. Is there anything cooler than Parlview (parlview.ttparliament.org)? A Youtube channel provides a video livestream and an archive of each sitting of the House, Senate, and Parliamentary committees. It is one of a suite of modernisations to our parliamentary practice that make lawmaking more accountable, efficient and transparent.

Parliamentarians get iPads. Though it doesn’t cut down on the volume of paper (and envelopes) they are burdened with at every sitting. The Parliament’s website (ttparliament.org) is the most functional and current of any state entity. Though that’s not saying much. But you’ll find PDFs of bills, order papers, committee reports, dates of sittings, biographies and photographs for Parliamentarians.

Three years ago, we also passed new standing orders in both houses, the first time since before Independence. They created a monthly period for questions during sittings to the Prime Minister, curtailed wasteful speaking times during debates, and introduced a slew of new oversight committees. Some argue, though, that there are far too many committees—and hearings by them—for the part-time Opposition and Independent legislators, something that is tied to salaries, which the public seems to have no appetite for increasing. And I’ve led those criticising the current government for appointing its Cabinet ministers to oversee their colleagues’ work as chairs of a few of the thematic committees.

It has been a while since I’ve exercised the right—or loss of rights—to sit in the Parliament. And there’s a reason.

The one thing that seems to have been thoroughly forgotten in recent Parliamentary reforms is ye olde publick galerie. It’s a crying shame, as attending a live sitting in the chamber ought to be a requirement for every schoolchild; and it’s an awesome exercise in civics for any adult who hasn’t experienced it yet.

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© Parliament of Trinidad & Tobago

But what human indignity it requires. Rules for the gallery seem contemporaneous with the first marriage act, passed a century ago.

Some mirror outdated rituals other institutions enforce to remind users of our powerlessness: Women’s shoes must have a heel. Men’s shirts must be inside their pants.

Some are folkloric. While cited with certainty, they appear nowhere on the long list of Don’ts posted in the entrance lobby, or the longer, 17-item list on the website. “Sitting backward” appears twelfth on that list. Officers at the police post, asked to explain the rules’ rationale, struggled, then broke down, saying it was their job to enforce them, not explain them.

Some of them are a matter of judgment: talk back to the officer the first day, and your car keys are a weapon requiring checking. Smile, grin and chat the next, and your keys are harmless, keep them. A woman’s wallet gets in depending on how large it’s seen to be.

But three rules, more than any other, defy modern commonsense.

I mentioned being called out; but the real callings out that happened to me and the women, who had fought so hard for so many years for the rights of girls to girlhood, whom I sat with in the freezing gallery’s uncomfortable chairs over the eight hours or more of each debate, weren’t the ones we repeatedly received from the legislators. What our incredible forbearance and good behaviour perhaps masked from the Senators, who came over during the tea break and at the end of the session to chat with us like normal people, was the several times the dress-uniformed female police officers guarding the chamber would come over to discipline one of us to correct our “posture” or uncross our legs. Officers who looked completely unprepared, and untrained for any actual breach of security. And manifestly bored by the lack of such.

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A second bizarre rule is that in the chamber, when the presiding officer is “on her legs,” all Parliamentarians must sit (and hush), as a show of respect. In the gallery, this respect is to be shown by not walking. Or moving. So if you’re standing in the gallery and you go to sit down because the Speaker just stood up, you’ll find a police officer gesticulating wildly at you to stop.

It’s not only the police officers who are deeply invested in enforcing these meaningless rules. As I politely asked one officer if I could sit in the media gallery as I write for this newspaper, but don’t carry media credentials, a photographer for another paper, entering without showing any, shouted over his shoulder at the officer, “No. He is CAISO.”

Why had I asked in the first place? Because no writing implements are allowed in the gallery. In our Parliament—for the public at least—illiteracy is required.

If I’d whipped out a pen and paper, I wonder, would they have thrown me out again?

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