Current Affairs

Current Affairs




Peart walking a tightrope
New House speaker says he'll maintain order, display balance
EARL MOXAM, Observer writer
Sunday, November 17, 2002



PEART... says he'll have no problem disciplining members from both sides of the House

MICHAEL Peart is quite aware of the fact that when Parliament resumes sitting this week he will begin walking a tightrope. But the new speaker of the House of Representatives says he intends to keep order, basically by being impartial and, if necessary, throwing the book at unruly members, regardless of which side of the chamber they sit.

"I hope I will not have to call on those (disciplinary measures), but if I have to, I will have no problem doing so," he told the Sunday Observer in an interview last week.

NEILSON... served a speaker of the last Parliament

The measures to which Peart spoke are contained in the Standing Orders of the House that prescribe the conduct of members and the sanctions to be applied where they are breached.

"If the speaker cannot maintain order, the situation can very quickly break down and get out of hand and we've seen in other countries that this can happen -- members throwing missiles across the chamber at each other and even fighting! We have a different tradition, and my task is to maintain that tradition," Peart said.

CUNNINGHAM... speaker must display independence of thought and action

Last week, after his election, Peart told the House that he accepted the job "with humility, conscious of the magnitude of the task, and in expectation of the support of members on both sides of the House".

He promised that he would be firm but fair and called on the members to carry out their responsibilities "without malice or rancour".

Traditionally, the speaker is elected from the Government side of the House and Peart, who won the South Manchester seat for the ruling People's National Party (PNP) in last month's general elections, was the likely choice, given that he once served as deputy to the former speaker, Violet Neilson.

That experience, Peart is convinced, prepared him for this job.

"I served as deputy speaker for two years, and that will serve me well, and I believe, based on my relations with members of the Opposition that I'm familiar with, things should not get out of hand," he said.

Derrick Smith, the member from North West St Andrew who has again been appointed Leader of Opposition Business, agreed.

Peart, he affirmed, was someone he respected and liked. Based on his knowledge of the new speaker, Smith said he was confident that he was up to the challenge of leading "the first Parliament so balanced in decades".

The Opposition has 26 seats to the Government's 34, setting the stage for what many expect will be vigorous debates in the House.

Peart's challenge, Smith said, "is to win the confidence of both sides -- the Opposition's expectation that he will be impartial, and the Government side's expectation that he will not be intimidated by a large Opposition".

Headley Cunningham, QC, who served as speaker from 1989 to 1993, identified strength of character as one of the most important qualities for the job. That criterion, he said, was required in order for the speaker to display independence of thought and action.

"Although one is elected to the House as belonging to a particular party and the majority voted for you as speaker, once you sit in that chair you must forget that you are there by virtue of being placed there by one party. That takes strength -- to look at a man from your party and rule him out of order," Cunningham told the Sunday Observer.

In anticipation of the many vigorous debates that are likely to take place in the reconfigured Parliament, Cunningham said Peart would have to be careful to allow members from both sides to speak, if so desired, and not focus mainly on those from the governing party. "He must not wear blinkers, he must look right and left," he counselled.

That piece of advice from a former speaker may be timely, given Smith's promise that his side "will be a fighting Opposition on behalf of Jamaica".

That commitment, Smith explained, would be evident in the vibrant and strong representation that would be given "on the issues we feel strongly about, on which we feel we have the support of the wider Jamaica, and we will not shirk from our responsibility to pursue this through Parliament".

While accepting that vigorous debates were good for parliamentary democracy, Cunningham cautioned that "the dignity and decorum of our Parliament must be preserved; otherwise Parliament will forfeit the respect of the nation and will become meaningless and irrelevant".

At the same time, he advised, "the speaker must have a sense of humour, the House loves that!"

Peart has now become the 13th speaker in the Jamaican legislature elected under universal adult suffrage.

The tradition started on January 1, 1945 with the elevation of Felix Gordon Veitch in that first Parliament elected in the new dispensation.

Down the years Veitch has been succeeded by Clement Aitchison, Clifford Campbell, Burnett Birthwright (BB) Coke, Tacius Golding, Eugene Parkinson, Ripton McPherson, Talbert Forrest, Alva Ross, Cunningham, Carl Marshall, Neilson (the lone female to date) and now, Peart.

Peart comes to the job of Speaker from a family steeped in Jamaican politics and government.

Ernest Peart, his father, first took public office in 1954 as a member of the Manchester Parish Council for the Mile Gully Division. In 1959, he won election to Parliament. The elder Peart went on to serve in the Cabinet as minister of labour, and minister of works before being appointed high commissioner to the United Kingdom in 1978.

Michael Peart's brother, Dean Peart, is currently a Parliamentarian himself, representing the constituency of North West Manchester, and is also minister of land and the environment.

Asked what his father would think of his sons' involvement in politics and his own elevation to the role of speaker, Michael Peart said "he would probably be surprised, but proud".

Elaborating, the Manchester High old boy's own characterisation of himself and his brother during the 1960s and '70s when their father was involved in public life, was that of "anti-politics, anti- establishment radicals who later matured and evolved".

That process of evolution took place as he made the transition from high school to the then College of Arts, Science & Technology (CAST), now the University of Technology (UTech), then to the Cambridgeshire College of Arts and Technology to study electrical engineering, and back home to Manchester where he worked with Alcan from 1972 to 1993, then resigned to become MP for South Manchester.

In 1997, he was elected deputy speaker to Neilson. Two years later, he was appointed minister of state in the Ministry of Finance & Planning, with special responsibility for the Public Service.

Now, with his full elevation to the speaker's chair, he comes to the job with the best wishes of the Opposition's Smith, who, recalling Peart's performance in the past when he deputised for Neilson, said he conducted himself with distinction. "And now that he is the speaker, I believe he will rise to the occasion," Smith said.