There is no excuse for the undignified, low-brow exchange that took place in and outside of the House of Assembly this week.
We elect Members of Parliament with great deliberation. We expect a certain standard of behaviour, if not some attempt at greatness, from them. At the least, we have a right to expect them to exercise restraint under stress and exhibit a sense of decency and dignity. They are the leaders charged with making critical decisions which govern our future; they hold what happens to us in their hands and when they behave like schoolchildren who need to be punished, we lose faith in their judgment and what they say in the days and months that follow. Their behaviour affects our trust.
Leadership is a tall responsibility, not for the timid, thin-skinned or those whose feelings bruise easily and whose responses are like those of an angry child who does not know better. The House of Assembly should be a hall of dignity, of ideas, decision, legislation, budget management and innovation to move a nation forward. Instead, what unfolded on Wednesday left the nation speechless. Several of those members we chose so carefully behaved like a bunch of hot-tempered longshoremen in a verbal barroom brawl. The only difference between what we witnessed in the House and what we would expect to see in that bar room after a few too many beers is that our representatives were sober and highly articulate, but the mean-spiritedness of what they said made the blasphemy just as raw, cruel, hurtful and slanderous.
We could dissect what happened moment by moment, insult by insult, but the conclusion would be the same. Both sides acted poorly and both were at fault.
The behaviour was so egregious and embarrassing that if children had behaved that way, we would have sent them to their bed until they came to their senses and apologised. One apology did come of it. MICAL MP Miriam Emmanuel apologised for words that no one could believe she uttered when she seemed to endorse violence against women. Her words were shocking and might have actually momentarily united the two warring sides if they had been decent enough to look each other in the eye and profess disgust together. “If you as a woman want to come up in your husband face and behave like you are a man, my father said that you will get manhandled,” the MP from MICAL said. Just a few hours later she apologised. “On Wednesday, February 7, I made certain statements in the House of Assembly in support of respect for authority which were taken totally out of context and misunderstood…I want the record to reflect that I, Miriam Reckly Emmanuel, MP for MICAL, do not condone domestic violence or any type of violence in any way, shape or form.”
Even the apology drew criticism. Critics called it stiff, prepared and not delivered with the depth of emotional honesty as her earlier “manhandle” comments in the House: “If there ever comes a time when you have to come back to this house and say to me as your father that your husband shook or give you a slap or punch you in your mouth, I will analyze the consequences that would have caused your husband to probably shake you, slap you or punch you in your mouth.”
Do we need to remind the MP for MICAL that no one ever deserves violence as a response to an action? There is always an opportunity to walk away. Ironically, her contribution intended to show support for the Speaker of the House who some felt was being too tough on MP for Englerston Glenys Hanna-Martin backfired. Hanna-Martin, you will recall, was suspended from the House the week before by the Speaker and claimed she was being “targeted”.
As for the Speaker’s bizarre diatribe hurling insults left, right and centre – sparking similarly offensive responses – it is no exaggeration to say we have never seen such behaviour from a man holding this office. As respected politicians have said in today’s Tribune, the Speaker must stand above the cut and thrust of the political engagements in the House. He is the referee, the umpire who every side must see as a fair player.
The Speaker seems to have recognised – to a degree – he has undermined his position which could have been avoided with a fulsome apology. Alas, as so often in life, sorry seems to be the hardest word.
There was a touch of irony to this week’s events. Despite the total lack of dignity and obtuse behaviour, some manners are so ingrained that as the furious PLP MPs stormed out of the House, they stopped and bowed to the Speaker out of respect for his office.
If only such courtesy had extended in the debates from all involved then the House of Assembly would not have become a laughing stock for all to mock.