PEOPLE are hurting and they feel parliamentarians are not listening.
So said President Paula-Mae Weekes as she delivered a diplomatic bouff to Members of Parliament, namely the Government and Opposition.
Addressing a joint session of Parliament in the House Chamber, on the occasion of the reopening of the Red House in Port of Spain, yesterday, Weekes said: “While Parliament and other leaders in the country are dabbling in semantics about whether we are a failed State or in a crime crisis, our citizens are being murdered at an alarming rate, they lack opportunities for employment or are losing their jobs, food prices are spiralling beyond the reach of many, and more and more of our children are failing into the ‘at-risk’ category.”
Said the President: “Citizens are entitled to look to you for, and demand of you, solutions to alleviate their pain. They want you to work together for their good. Even the most desperate understand the nature of politics and that some degree of toeing the party line, posturing, old talk and picong come with the territory, but at the end of the day, fidelity to the people—our vulnerable women, our defenceless children, our angry young men—must be the primary and paramount concern of parliamentarians.”
Weekes apparently excluded presidential appointees (i.e., the Independent bench) from her criticisms, heaping praise on them and thanking them for their service.
“By their probing, testing and questioning of proposed legislation, they, devoid of partisan interests, bring to the table a necessary, even-handed approach,” she said.
People are hurting
However, for the Government and Opposition, she adopted the “stern auntie-tantie” approach.
She said she received on a daily basis correspondence from members of the public complaining bitterly that existing laws do not address their serious concerns and that some laws appear to benefit narrow sectarian interests rather than the interests of all.
She added she suspected citizens wrote to her in the “mistaken belief” that she had the jurisdiction to take action directly or to issue orders to the powers that be.
“And so I deliver their message— a message which they feel that neither Government nor Opposition is hearing, or if hearing, ignoring. And the message is as simple as it is poignant—they are hurting.”
Weekes also pointed out that Parliament set the tone for the average man in the street.
“If you are seen to treat each other with respect, courtesy and good humour, there can be a trickle-down effect and eventual cascade. But when acrimony, contempt and divisiveness is the example you set, you cannot be surprised when those attitudes and behaviours are replicated on the nation’s roads, in our schools and homes and on social media.”
Weekes stressed that “awesome power” resides in the chambers of Parliament, and citizens were entitled to expect parliamentarians to work together to give them not only their constitutional due but also the blueprint for national conduct.
“Law and order, truth and justice, morality and decency,” are the values which should be associated with the nation’s Parliament, she said.
The President’s address, her first to Parliament, was of less than ten minutes duration.
Crisp, short and delivered in her imitable style.
“A well-established columnist, in an article shortly after my inauguration, commented that I reminded him of a stern, long-time, Creole auntie-tantie. I accept that as a badge of honour since in my experience, auntie-tanties are usually proponents of sober thinking, discipline, good behaviour and deep reflection.”
This was the second time that a President has given such a brief address.
Former president Arthur NR Robinson, the country’s third president, had delivered an even shorter address as a mark of protest at a time of tension between himself and former prime minister Basdeo Panday.
Weekes left the Parliament as soon as she delivered her address and did not stay for the reception in the Rotunda, which was addressed by the Opposition Leader and the Prime Minister.
It was a departure from the programme which had said she would arrive in the Rotunda accompanied by the presiding officers.
Following the addresses by the Prime Minister and Opposition Leader, a toast was given by the Speaker.
Asked to comment on the President’s address, Prime Minister Dr Keith Rowley said: “I am not in a position to comment on the President’s speech. I have to learn, have to listen and I have to do.”
It is not the first time a woman has addressed a joint session of Parliament.
The first occasion occurred when acting president Dr Linda Baboolal was required at the last minute to step in for then-president Robinson, who had suddenly fallen ill.
At yesterday’s function, noticeable absentees were Dr Fuad Khan, who requested leave, and Marlene McDonald.
Among those present were former presiding officers Nizam Mohammed, Barry Sinanan, Michael Jay Williams and Timothy Hamel-Smith; members of the judiciary; former ministers Hazel Manning, Joan Yuille Williams and Overand Padmore; members of the diplomatic corps, T&T’s High Commissioner to London, Orville London; THA Secretary for Finance Joel Jack; Commissioner of Police Gary Griffith, Calypsonian Dr Hollis Liverpool (Mighty Chalkdust); Designer Meiling and former Miss Universe Wendy Fitzwilliam.
• Full text of the President’s