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OPINION: How does the quality of Guyana’s parliamentary debate stack up?

by GHK Lall

From time to time, I have shared thoughts on the terrible state to which the local National Assembly has deteriorated.  Is it really this bad today? How does parliament here stack up against other equivalent bodies elsewhere?

I remember Dr. Cheddi Jagan waxing poker face about a King, a Jack, and a pack of jokers.  He was playing upon the names of then government ministers and then made fun of the whole crew.  I like that. I didn’t like when he descended the alphabet to utter that familiar Guyanese expletive beginning with an “r.”  Butt or behind or the French of derriere would have made the point; but I suspect that mounting frustrations pulsed into pungency and the profane.  R it would have to be as when there was the mischievous removal of the ceremonial parliamentary mace. And that was that. Meanwhile, the PNC government, firmly entrenched with its commanding majority, could smirk and sword-fence and pirouette to its heart’s content.  Let the guys from the other side sweat and do the heavy lifting and cursing. That was a time of piercing wit, droll humor, soaring rhetoric and exquisite language that made lifelong English Language disciples of some of us. Thrust and parry, pause and summon the angels of anaphora to pulverize the puny into unrecognizable tatters.  Government and opposition gave as good as they got in one spellbinding flourish after another. And all without the prop of notes from men of refinement and culture.

How does today compare to what graced yesterday’s local parliamentary shores?  Today, parliament is a sickly place occupied by the linguistically feeble, the oratorically anemic, and the syntactically incoherent.  To a significant degree, it is a hysterical place peopled by the pedestrian and the stuttering limited. Soaring flights of verbal grandiloquence have been replaced by snarling fusillades from the foaming mouths of those who manifest a striking genius for the distasteful.  To digress, there are quite a few legal practitioners in that now barren legislative house; I must wonder as to the quality of representation and delivery before the bar; it must be a dull, numbing habitat, that realm of jurisprudence, if parliament is used as a measuring rod.  I pity those in the docks. I would have thought that the lubrication and boost of much-patronized bars may have removed inhibitions and provoked electrifying bursts of the sublime; or at least the spiraling bracing. But even the accelerant of alcohol fails to rouse recent bunches of benchwarmers to stand and deliver something of substance, anything that passes acceptance.  It has been much of nothing, save for the burlesque. Except for the drumming, the cursing, and the outpouring of bad upbringing, poorer training, and the absolute worst in the dumbing down of the premier institution in the land. Most ought to be institutionalized; perhaps, they already are: right there.

Now how does the Guyanese body stack up against foreign ones and history?  There was one British parliament that killed, of all people, a king. Think Charles I.  It was a torrid Cromwellian house, that one. Guyana’s parliamentary members have not officially sanctioned the death of any one, whether king or commoner.  At least not openly. In the US Congress during the turbulent, fiery debates over slavery, members went about armed in chambers, with matters coming perilously close to the drawing of weapons as tempers frayed and self-control diminished.  One of the more notorious instances where matters fell to an all-time low ebb was when Representative Preston Brooks of South Carolina attacked from behind and savagely caned Senator Charles Sumner of Massachusetts into unconsciousness. The dispute was over slavery; and a matter involving personal honor.  It was said in some circles that this caning incident was one of the straws that broke the back of restraint and triggered the American Civil War.

It should be a matter of pride that, to this point, local members have managed to hold themselves in check from such uncontrolled exuberance.  Still, I think they should be made to check their firearms, too, when they pass through the portals into the hallowed confines. When one considers the free-for-alls that have graced some legislative assemblies, some will argue that Guyana’s parliament is not so uncivilized after all.  Sri Lanka comes to mind with championship pugnacity; and some time before that, there was South Korea with the mother of all brawls. Men did get carried away and carried on most disgracefully. I would insist that the point not be missed: Guyana’s MPs should not be in the running for which national group could be considered the worst of the worst.  Instead, the local legislative house and its honorable members must take pride (excessive is allowed) in being numbered among the crème de la crème where conduct and standards and excellence are concerned. This is what I expect. It is what the nation should demand; what it is due.

Okay, I can lower some expectations.  Bright bulbs may not abound; but all cannot be drab and dreary; most must not look bewildered and blue, as well as lost while delivering fluff and puffery.  Earn pay, take pride, set example. Surely, this can’t be so hard…. I will lower another standard: not everyone can be a gifted, mesmerizing speaker. But don’t be so dull as to appear to be a walking talking telephone book.  Like I said: better can be done. Starts with effort, continues with self-respect. Go on! Do it! Show us.