PARLIAMENTARIANS met in the House of Assembly on Tuesday to debate a number of bills and pick a few sporadic cat fights. Several matters were down for debate but only two were during the four-hour session, a clear indication that in life more talk often gets less real business done.
The first matter debated was the National Honours and Awards (Amendment) which essentially seeks to honour many more Saint Lucians, especially while they’re still breathing and can appreciate the honour. A contentious issue, though, was the proposal that a Saint Lucian equivalent of the knighthoods given out by Buckingham Palace to Saint Lucians be created here.
Questions were raised as to whether the knighthoods would have a common value, that neither would supersede the other. It was tough going for a few minutes when one Opposition MP suggested that the knighthood given out by Her Majesty was indeed prized above the, well, local one.
Sitting in the House gallery, I couldn’t help but strangle my laughter at the mere thought of politicians who often go to great lengths to prove that they are of deep grassroots standing actually insinuating that a national award pales in comparison to a similar award given out by a foreign country, a former colonial babysitter. That train of thought led me straight to the laughable conclusion that maybe we’re to blame when we let questionable foreign universities and colleges run amok here instead of making the right investment in ours.
The other bill, the Motor Vehicles and Road Traffic (Amendment), saw many MPs on both sides rear-ending each other. Many gave crash courses and pep talks either for or against the recent increase in vehicle licence fees. It was a difficult road to travel just hearing the blame game between the two sides hit pothole after pothole without having the licence to laugh out loudly in Parliament.
For instance, the classification of vehicles in terms of weight got misconstrued at times for brands of vehicles. The debate took twists, turns and reversals down one-way streets with MPs battling it out over the change of the term “gross weight” of vehicles to “curb weight”. Some MPs were castigated for quoting regional figures only when that suited them best while others got ran over for what were termed their “illogical” contributions to a serious attempt to rehabilitating our roads by having motorists pay their due.
I presently do not own a motor vehicle – and probably never will – but I can understand the frustration and ambivalence of motorists fighting against the system when they’re asked to pay a hefty hike in motor vehicle license fees. The government’s raison d’etre for the fee hike is that the nation’s roads are in a deplorable state and motorists need to pay their fair share for their upkeep.
In a year’s time, the increased fee hike is expected to bring in over $3.2 million. Compare that with the estimated $1.4 million it costs to maintain a mile of road in pristine order and we see the gravity of the situation. Add the fact that even with the new fee hike motorists might not see much of the real change they expect in the road condition for many years to come. The worse-case scenario, however, is that should government be forced to borrow form external sources to fix our roads, the financial headache can result in slashing the spare tyres in our Treasury’s coffers.
I found Tuesday’s rollercoaster a few miles per hour faster than normal in terms of election rhetoric rather than a way of getting grown folks to agree that this country can only get better if we all think and act better. To be fair, though, there were a few gems that came out in the process.
Take, for example, Phillip J. Pierre, the Minister for Transport’s analogy that it costs a street-side vendor more annually to ply her wares than it would cost a driver having to pay his motor vehicle licence for his goods delivery van. [I can already see people’s reaction that the comparison is weak given the fact that a goods delivery van has more inherent costs, such as gas, spare parts, and so on].
Or consider another one: that since Saint Lucia is only afforded one knighthood every five years from Buckingham Palace, the new National Honours and Awards (Amendment) proposes that we – Saint Lucians, that is – decide on how many Saint Lucian-minted knighthoods can be bestowed during a particular period. If you asked me, though, the fewer we give out, the better. We definitely don’t want to have every undeserving Tom, Dick and Harry boasting a knighthood.
Here’s another bright gem that came up: that if we’re going the way of conferring prestigious titles on and positions to people, that we raise the standards when it comes to just what purpose a Justice of the Peace serves. The Castries North MP had serious concerns with JPs seemingly setting up shop signing photos and forms testifying that they know people for umpteen years who they were probably seeing for the first time in their lives. According to Stephenson King, something needs to be done to address that noble undertaking that has turned into a money-making machine.
Parliamentarians will meet again in the House on September 22 to discuss and nit-pick the remaining papers to be laid, including a resolution of Parliament authorizing the Minister for Finance to guarantee borrowing by the St. Lucia Development Bank.
Obviously, lawmakers here have their work cut out for them, a grim reminder of their confessions when they met in mid-August to debate the Constitution Reform Commission’s report. At that August 18 sitting, they concurred that Parliament needs to meet at least bi-weekly in order to really reform and/or introduce measures that stand a chance of bettering Saint Lucia’s current situation.
But bills, bills and more bills cannot solve our economic, social and political messes. No way, Jose. Actually, enforcing the many pieces of legislation often proves too burdensome on the State’s often-quoted limited finances, so laws not enforced just become printed pages to be bragged about by administrations that could later claim they were responsible for crafting them. For example, who really enforces the legislation that speaks to motorists speeding on our streets that often lead to senseless hit-and-run accidents?
If anything, even the best of arguments associated with the legislative process fall on indifferent shoulders of many Saint Lucians who think that successive governments have politicked themselves out of the people’s hearts and minds. To many Saint Lucians, most of the laws being debated in Parliament these days lean more on the side of protecting the interests of politicians and foreign business interests than they do the average Saint Lucian. That’s an unfortunate and untenable position for local politicians to shake off, but they sure seem to be trying really hard these days, especially with general elections approaching.
If you asked me, sovereignty comes at a price. Many of us might be tempted to look back now and say that going the independence route nearly 37 years ago was regrettable, that Britain might have done a better job of this island. The real truth is that we don’t know that for certain. With independence comes the challenge of financing your own needs and setting your own standards. Many children who run away from their parents’ homes thinking the pasture is greener often find themselves sheepishly returning home when they realize that life is no bed of roses when you’re on your own.
This country needs to be a better place to live, work and prosper. Not just for some of us, but for all of us. And those who really do pay their dues need to be respected and recognized. Bills cannot change that – progressive thinking and objectivity do.