It is my honour to address you on the occasion of your 37th regional conference, which Jamaica is proud to host in our 50th year of independence.  I am also pleased to extend a warm welcome to each of you visiting our beautiful island, and do not hesitate to return, because I am sure you will be captivated by our warmth.

The Commonwealth Parliamentary Association represents a special community of countries held together by a common, distinctive set of values. This is a group characterised by a deep respect for democracy, civil liberties, human rights, the rule of law and ideological pluralism.

There is nothing natural and inevitable about your special grouping. For millennia, countries were ruled by authoritarian and totalitarian regimes, some even despotic and tyrannical. There was no notion of the mass of the people influencing the course of their lives or contributing meaningfully to society. Indeed, even today there are far too many nations which have yet to catch up with the democratic revolution which has swept the world and which values we have adhered to.

The Freedom in the world Report 2012 put out by “Freedom House” reports that even today, the percentage of the world’s population living in totally free societies is less than 50—in fact it is 45%. Only 87 countries are classified as “totally free” with 60 having the classification of “partly free” and as many as 48 countries earning the designation of “not free”-and that represents 24% of the world’s polities.

We cannot take for granted the values and principles held by the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association because there is nothing either natural or inevitable about them. The ancient democracies of Greece and the Republics of Rome and Venice rose and fell. The evolving liberal political and economic order of the late Nineteenth and early Twentieth centuries collapsed in the 1920 and 1930s.

In the year 1900 there were only a dozen democracies in the world. In 1920 the number of democracies doubled, raising the hopes of many that the world was on a steady roll to democratic advancement. But there was a sudden reversal of this democratic uptick in 1922 when fascist troops took to the streets of Europe and newly born democracies in Lithuania, Poland, Latvia and Estonia fell. This trend continued into the 1930s so that by 1939 the number of democracies had fallen back to what they were in 1900— a dozen.

There is nothing inevitable or irreversible about democracy at all. That is why it is important to nurture and guard it. And that is why it is so important that you come together, to look at the critical issue of “Low Citizen Confidence in Governance: How Can Parliamentarians Build Trust in Caribbean Legislatures?”

If we make trite of the growing disillusionment with Parliamentary democracy and the increasing levels of political alienation among the citizenry of the democratic world, I think we would be taking daredevil risks with our future and that of our children. There is no room for complacency!   If your deliberations lead more Parliamentarians to fashion the mechanisms and modalities to increase citizen trust and engagement in our democracies, we would have strengthened the foundations of democratic politics.

I am happy that this conference was designed to give particular focus to women and our youth.  There is enough empirical work which has been done to establish the peculiar and uniquely important contributions women make to political life and the kinds of attributes and perspectives they bring to the craft. Our politics has sometimes been too muscular, too aggressive, too lacking in compassion, empathy and balance. It has been scientifically confirmed that greater gender balance in politics and greater empowerment of our female Parliamentarians, would work wonders in addressing those deficits.

I am happy that our Youth Parliamentarians will also be actively involved in this conference for it is critical that we bequeath the passion for democratic values to the next generation. Again I emphasize that there is nothing natural, inevitable or irreversible about democracy. To sustain it takes work and eternal vigilance!

Democratic eras have been reversed; before it can happen again we must be on our guard to reinforce and inculcate these values of respect for human rights, individual dignity and the inalienable right of every person to have a voice.  We must open up more and more space for our young people to participate in our democracy; to develop that passion for its values; and to use and refine its mechanisms.

I was very impressed when I read your agenda, which reflects deep sensitivity to the relevant issues of the people.  Issues such as the distribution of scarce benefits; Parliamentarians before the courts; raising integrity levels among Parliamentarian;, the adequacy of Parliamentary sittings; the balancing act between constituency representative, party loyalist and national legislator; enhancing accountability to the people and developing a code of conduct, among others, are all critical matters of relevance to the people and hot-button issues in the media.  And it is crucial in dealing with your overarching theme of low citizen trust in governance to confront those issues.

How do Parliamentarians rebuild trust in Caribbean legislatures?  The first thing which you have to keep in mind, I humbly suggest, is that people no longer are content with the notion that it is enough to  allow  them to vote every few years and then they have discharged their responsibility to facilitate democracy. People are very concerned how you use power every day, every week, every month, every year. For they know how much democracy can be eviscerated by the day-to-day actions of Parliamentarians. People are seeking for real democracy; a participatory democracy.  They relinquished the notion of the Divine Right of Kings and it should not re-emerge in the Parliamentary attitude or activities.

I suggest that we treat this matter of low citizen confidence in governance as an emergency. If people are alienated from Parliamentary democracy, then our system of Government is under threat. Happily, I think there are some things you can do to mitigate this threat to our way of life and set of values.

First, I suggest that as Parliamentarians you view this matter of civility and respectful discourse in Parliament as not just a matter of etiquette.  It is, ladies and gentlemen, a matter of respect for our democratic principles. When you sit in Parliament it is important to think about the fact that it is not only those who sit on your side, but every single person in that hallowed hall, is a representative of the people.  Every single person on the other side was sent there by the people. They have a right to be there. They have a right to be heard— respectfully. Any disrespect to them is disrespect to the people who elected them and disrespect to the system of democracy through which they are there.

So civility in Parliamentary discourse and debates is not a small thing. Our actions do indeed tell on us. The people need to see that as Parliamentarians you take their business and concerns seriously and that is why you will not brow-beat your opponents, even when you disagree sharply and forcefully. It is because of your respect for the people who elected them, in their wisdom, why you accord fellow Parliamentarians the courtesies which they deserve.

Besides, ladies and gentlemen, custodians of our great democratic tradition, when the people watch over-exuberant behavior with no sense of amusement, they become further alienated from our Parliamentary system of Government and our young people become cynical of it. Robust, vibrant discourse yes, but uncivil behavior no.

I concur with the idea that more opportunities should to be created for civil society groups to make presentations in our Parliament. There needs to be greater interaction between citizens and interest groups and our legislators. These groups must be able to influence legislation   from the ground up. With critical issues such as the economy, justice, security and education weighing on the national agendas, giving civil society groups greater access to Parliament would strengthen trust between the people and their representatives.

I like the preamble to the Canadian Code of Official Conduct for its Parliamentarians which states these first principles:

  • To recognise that the service in Parliament is a public trust
  • To maintain public confidence and trust in the integrity of Parliamentarians individually and to maintain public confidence that society places in Parliament as an institution
  • To assure the public that all Parliamentarians are held to standards that place the public interest ahead of the Parliamentarians’ private interests and to provide a transparent system by which the public may judge this to be the case;
  • To foster consensus among Parliamentarians by establishing common roles and by providing the means by which questions relating to proper conduct may be answered by an independent, non-partisan advisor.”

One of the good things about conferences like these is that they enable participants to exchange notes about best practices and strategies for improving efficiency and accountability. I sense in the democratic world a renewed stirring to be responsive to people, to broaden and deepen democratic engagement and to increase people’s participation in their democratic systems. Constituents are expressing increasing interest in how Parliamentarians vote on particular issues. Making voting records available is one means of acceding to this call for greater accountability.

Ladies and gentlemen, the availability of the Internet easily facilitates Parliamentarians giving greater access to constituents and reporting about their activities. Parliamentarians can issue regular reports on their legislative actions and issues raised by them and they can use the Internet to solicit views and create forums to communicate ideas. I was interested to find that the Finnish Parliament publishes a wide-ranging annual report online. In Luxembourg the annual report of the Chamber of Deputies is circulated to every household in the country. And in St Kitts and Nevis I know they have used oral questioning of Parliamentarians through town hall meetings.

As one former General Secretary of the Inter-Parliamentary Union, Anders Johnsson, said some years ago, “Parliament is the central institution through which the will of the people is expressed, laws are passed and Government is held in account”.  You have come together to sharpen your axe and to see how you can do your work even more effectively and with greater impact and buy-in.

You have responded to constituents concerns about governance and have convened to see how their interests can be better served. It is my hope that you will emerge from this your 37th annual conference stronger, more responsive, more resourceful and recharged for the mission of service to the people who reposed the confidence in you to elect you.   I urge you to make good on that trust as good stewards.