Address: Opening of the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association Conference

Opening Address by The Rt. Hon Perry G. Christie  Prime Minister and Minister Of Finance at The 41st Regional Commonwealth Parliamentary Association (CPA) The Caribbean, Americas And Atlantic Region July 22-30, 2016:

I extend a warm welcome to all of the delegations that have come to our capital city, Nassau, for this 41st Regional Conference of the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association, the Caribbean, Americas, and the Atlantic Region.

I would like, particularly, to welcome Speakers and Presiding Officers from our sister Parliaments across the Region. I know that for some of you this might be your first time visiting our country. We trust that it will be both an enjoyable and enlightening experience for you and that you will visit us again in the near future.

I am reminded that The Bahamas last hosted this Conference in 2000. Since then, however, there have been several notable CPA or CPA-affiliated events that have taken place here.

In this connection, I especially recall that in 2014 there was an important seminar held in The Bahamas under the theme, “Deepening Democracy through Parliament”. On that occasion we were honoured by the presence of the late Dr. William Shija, then the Secretary General of the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association. I wish to record our regret over the passing of this distinguished Parliamentarian of the Commonwealth; a gentlemen who served the CPA with distinction.

Today, however, it gives me great pleasure to extend a special welcome to Mr. Akbar Khan, the new Secretary General.

Secretary General Khan: we are delighted to have you in The Bahamas on this occasion. You are most welcome!

I also recall that in 2015, the Bahamas Branch of the Commonwealth Women Parliamentarians had the honour of hosting the Commonwealth Women Parliamentarians from the Caribbean, the Americas and the Atlantic Region, under the Chairmanship of my Cabinet colleague, the Hon. Glenys Hanna Martin, the Chair of the Bahamas Branch of the Commonwealth Women Parliamentarians.

And so, this conference is yet another convocation in a series of important CPA gatherings that we, in The Bahamas, have had the honour of hosting over the years. We therefore wish each and every one of you, the delegates to this conference, the best and warmest of Bahamian welcomes.

This opening session affords me an opportunity to touch on a range of topics that will be discussed at this conference. I note that these topics range from such topical gender issues as “Strategies for Women’s Leadership in the Caribbean Political Space” to “Perceptions of the Role of Women in Society and their effect on Women’s Political Leadership within the CAA Region”.

Beginning this morning, the conference topics will also address some of the more pressing operational issues that bear on the modernization of our various parliaments.

All of these matters are, of course, critical to the “Deepening of Democracy”, the overarching theme of this conference.

The issue of gender equality in the halls of parliament is rightly accorded prominence in your discussions about deepening democracy. While meetings of this kind are reminders of how far women have come in securing membership in legislative assemblies around the world, they are also reminders of how much ground still remains to be covered in securing gender equality.

There is no mistaking the reality in this regard: the math tells the story. Women continue to lag significantly behind their male counterparts in numerical representation in the halls of parliament, particularly in our elective assemblies.

I hasten to add, however, that this imbalance is not entirely the result of misogynistic prejudices and male-supremacist traditions. On the contrary, there is a powerful case to be made, especially here in The Bahamas and elsewhere in the region , that many women who are otherwise ideal candidates for elective office simply decide to stay out of the political arena because they are too repelled by the nastiness that has come to characterize so much of political life nowadays.

A successful woman who has already achieved a place of honour in her country, whether in the practice of her profession or in business or in the public sector, and who has a husband and children, and who has a reputation to protect, really has to think long and hard about putting all that at risk in order to stand for elective office.

And let’s not beat around the bush here: women, in small traditional societies of the kind that are so prevalent in our region, are especially vulnerable to character-assassination once they step into the political arena. It affects all of us, of course, but the toll it takes on women tends to be more injurious and hurtful in its effects.

That is something that we need to be ever conscious of as we continue our common quest in our respective jurisdictions for the increased participation of women in our parliaments.

Distinguished Delegates, Ladies & Gentlemen:

I would be remiss if I were not to touch briefly on the question of modernization in relation to the Independence of Parliament and Deepening of Democracy.

Many of the countries represented here have had a form of parliamentary democracy going back to the 18th century, even if it was circumscribed by British colonial practices of the day and some inherent electoral discriminatory practices based not only on race but on property qualifications as well.

The Bahamas, for example, has had a Parliament since the early 18th century. Indeed a prototype for a legislative system in The Bahamas can be traced back to 1648 with the arrival of the Eleutheran Adventurers whose Articles called for a 100 man elected Senate.

1729, however, is generally accepted as the date when the present parliament was formally established. It has operated continuously ever since except for brief dissolutions preparatory to the holding of General Elections for a new Assembly. And so, this year, 2016, we are actually celebrating 287 years of continuous parliamentary democracy in our country. I believe that only Barbados and Bermuda can boast of having a parliament of greater antiquity in this region.

There has, of course, been some modernization of our ancient parliament but it has been slow and, in any event, not nearly sufficient to meet the rapid changes in the way governments work and the need for greater systematic accountability to the electorate.

While there are many instructive examples to guide us from within the Commonwealth in our individual and collective quest for modernization, we should not confine our attention to the Commonwealth alone. We must look at other parliaments and law making institutions across the spectrum of democratic institutions around the world so that we can develop a composite model that can be adapted to our own circumstances, having regard to our indigenous customs and conventions, cultural peculiarities and unique historical experiences.

Modernization must also include, of course, attention to physical infrastructure. For The Bahamas – and this might not hold true for those from other jurisdictions – one of the critical requirements in this regard is the need for a new parliamentary complex to house the two legislative branches, the Senate and House of Assembly.

The existing building housing the House of Assembly was built in 1806. However impressive a relic of Loyalist architecture it may be, it simply does not meet modern-day requirements such as a large enough chamber and offices for members and staff. There is a particular need for more committee rooms and, of course, a much needed parliamentary library. The basic amenities, moreover, are woefully insufficient.

This is something which the Government of the Bahamas must address in a thoughtful and practical way having regard, however, to shifting budgetary priorities.

The business process and machinery of parliament must also be improved upon. Here are some of what I would like to see happen.

I envision the following elements as integral elements of the reform process aimed at enhancing and deepening Democracy through Parliament:

· Firstly, I think the time has come for a further review of the parliamentary Rules and Standing Orders in line with the changing nature of our society and how it is being impacted and shaped by social media, mass communications and technology;

· Secondly, more emphasis needs to be placed on our system of Select Committees. I would like us to consider more closely whether the time has come for permanent Select Committees covering areas such as:- Foreign Affairs and Trade, Law and Justice; Business and Commerce, Education and Science, the Environment and Government Administration, to name some of the more important subject areas which should be subject to greater and more systematic parliamentary oversight. In some instances, these permanent committees might even be joint House and Senate Committees, as is the practice in some jurisdictions. This would affirm the vital role that the Senate can and should play in the parliamentary affairs of our nations. These committees could provide meaningful work for members while at the same time involving the public more in the evolution of public policy through the organs of Parliament.

· Thirdly, frequent exchanges and visitations with fellow parliamentarians around the world is something that needs to be encouraged. There is a lot going on in terms of evolving parliamentary practices and standards. There needs to be an enhanced cross-fertilization of ideas throughout the Commonwealth in this regard and this can be greatly facilitated by exchange programmes. The CPA has been a leader in this type of learning experience and I would therefore encourage the Secretary General to make this a subject of renewed and expanded focus during his term in office. It is something from which we all stand to benefit.

· Fourthly, in this age of openness and transparency, we need to make the inner workings of our parliamentary systems more accessible to the ordinary citizen. We are already broadcasting live proceedings but I can also envision an interactive website where legislation, committee reports and other business of parliament can be more readily accessed. Through such a website one would also be able to contact one’s Member of Parliament; make a submission to any of the proposed Standing Committees as well as establishing other forms of contact with one’s elected representatives.

I commend these suggestions to you for your consideration.

Distinguished Delegates :

There is just one other point I would wish to touch on before I close and it is this: we really do need to “up our game”, as they say, in the way that political business is transacted in our assemblies. Our presiding officers do an excellent job in endeavouring to maintain decorum and civility in our legislative assemblies but they can only do so much. Our assemblies, after all, are not nurseries for toddlers, nor are they barrooms for brawlers. Instead they are supposed to be shining examples of civilized discourse in which the virtues of basic decency and respect for the dignity of the person are observed even while we espouse our causes and ventilate our arguments with all the intensity and passion that we can muster.

I have been in parliament now for more than 40 years and it saddens me to see how little we have advanced over the years in the way we speak about each other and about others, especially those who are not even members and cannot defend themselves from the attacks of members.

I hasten to say that this is not a case of self-righteous finger-pointing on my part. Rather, I issue my admonition as much to myself as I do to others. At one time or another we have all fallen afoul of the high standards that are expected of us as servants of the people in the legislature. So, it is good that we not only remind others about the need for temperance and moderation in our parliamentary speech-making but that we remind ourselves about the need for personal adherence to this admonition as well.

When we deviate from the high standards expected of us in this regard, we set a poor example, especially at a time when the inability to resolve conflicts peacefully in the broader society has become a problem of the first magnitude.

We really do need to change this. We really do need to set the bar of personal decorum in Parliament much higher. We really do need to strive more conscientiously and consistently to set an example in the way we transact parliamentary business across the partisan divide and in the way we may be encouraging others, however unwittingly, to emulate us as well.

Recent tragic events both in the UK and elsewhere remind us of just how vulnerable members of parliament and political figures generally are nowadays. While we, who are frontline combatants across the political divide, can well absorb the slings and arrows of harsh and over-the-top rhetoric, we have to be aware that there are many out there in our respective national communities who may simply lack the mental equilibrium and self-control to take these rhetorical excesses in stride. Words are powerful weapons and mind-shapers that can sometimes move individuals of unsound or unbalanced mind to take matters a step further and to inflict carnage in a way too horrible to contemplate.

Let us therefore commit to exercising special care both in the way we speak in and outside Parliament and in the way that we communicate with each other over social media. We ignore this advice at our peril.

Distinguished Delegates, Ladies and Gentlemen:

I close by wishing this 41st Regional Conference every success in its deliberations. I trust that you will be frank and forthcoming in your exchanges and that your recommendations will prove beneficial to the continued advancement and deepening of parliamentary democracy in your respective countries.

Again, I welcome you one and all, and wish you every success in your deliberations here in The Bahamas.

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