Log In

Reset Password

Semicircular chamber could help unite MPs

Semicircular seating: President Barack Obama delivers an address to Congress. The design of the American political chamber is something that British MP Chuka Umunna would like to see copied in London

If our environment shapes our behaviour, Mr Editor, observers must wonder what's wrong with our House on the Hill. You may think I jest; I do not.Somebody Famous (hint) got me to thinking about this again when he e-mailed me a recent clipping from the London Evening Standard. Thank you.“Turn Parliament into a museum”, screamed the headline. No joke. The story was apparently prompted by plans over there to refit their Houses of Parliament — and to the tune of £7 billion (about $10.77 million). Again, no joke. The museum suggestion was the first part of a two-part suggestion from Labour MP Chuka Umunna. The second part, his main point, was to replace the Commons with a new semicircular chamber, which, in his opinion, would help to foster “less confrontational debates”. Instead of Labour and Conservatives facing each other across the aisle, with the Speaker in the middle as referee — the very model the British gave the colonies — Mr Umunna argued that MPs should instead sit in regional groups to help to induce cross-party co-operation. I wonder.Regional groupings might also end up pitting one region against another. In any event, regional groupings wouldn't really work here in Bermuda. We just don't have those sorts of numbers, ie, representatives in the hundreds. Still, MP Umunna may be on to something.“How can we continue with a chamber that nurtures the ridiculous tribalism that switches so many people off?”, he is quoted as saying in the London newspaper. Hmmm. Sounds familiar. Contrast, if you will, performances and behaviour in the Senate with those in the House where, down below, they sit around a table. With 36 members up the Hill, it would take a mighty big table all right, but semicircular seating may, for a start, make for a pleasant change.But not everybody warms to the suggestion.The same news story quoted a former deputy speaker, Nigel Evans: “America has the sort of chamber he is talking about — sterile and boring. Politics is by its nature confrontational,” he countered.I take his point, too, although I am not sure he's right about the US Congress being entirely sterile and boring. On the contrary — if you have ever seen them in action, particularly when it comes to congressional committees and aggressive investigations.However, there are times and there are issues when vigorous debate is warranted, and here the Westminster system serves us well.A hungry, strong and determined Opposition is meant to put those in power to the test and to hold the Government accountable. To my mind, it is a simple matter of having different horses for different courses.Lively debate we want on the issues of the day: whether it be through parliamentary questions, on proposed policies, or on the motion to adjourn. MPs get their chance to vent and to represent their respective parties, their constituents and their concerns.But the business of the country need not always be about political theatre. There are Bills to be examined closely and questions to be asked of those who drafted them. There are standing committees that are meant to investigate and to hold decision-makers to account. There are cross-party committees that ought to be struck to tackle issues that are of continuing concern to the wider community, regardless of which party is in power or out. Like, for example, on soaring healthcare costs and, yes, our immigration policies.Surely, there is no need to always have to shout across the aisle to make a point. Our MPs should be challenged to exercise a different approach on occasion: the around-the-table, semicircular approach brings with it the opportunity for MPs to not only work together, but to be seen to work together, which may well produce a different, if not better, result. It has to be worth the effort. If only those in power would not retreat into what they themselves once railed against when on the Opposition benches. Otherwise, a predictable pattern persists. The abused becomes the abuser — and while players may come and go, the well-worn script continues, much like your favourite soap. If it was broke then, it is still broke now. Fix it. Government isn't promised to any one party, but parties are expected to keep their promises. What do we on the outside know, other than what we see and hear and read week in and week out? But I suppose, Mr Editor, that those on the inside clearly know what works best for them, but not necessarily for us.”

Salaries board: silence speaks volumesTip of the columnist's cap this week to reporter Jonathan Bell for his persistence. It was three months ago that one of my columns was appropriately headlined: “What happened to Salaries Review Board?” What indeed, Mr Editor.This is no advisory board. It is a statutory body and its establishment required by law. Look it up under www.bermudalaws.bm: Ministers and Members of the Legislature (Salaries and Pensions) Act 1975. It is meant to be an independent board of no fewer than six but no more than eight members who are appointed by the Premier for four-year terms. The Act requires that this board be called upon to review the salary scales of MPs and ministers every two years and to report to the Legislature with recommendations. They are given fairly wide latitude, too, to go up and/or down.This mechanism to opine on the often controversial issue of parliamentary salaries was put in place about ten years ago. The body's last review and report was seven years ago. Apparently, no one has heard from them since — neither hide nor hair.So what gives? The Royal Gazette reporter Jonathan Bell tried to find out, but reported recently that his questions have gone unanswered. But mind you, Mr Editor, silence constitutes an answer of sorts, too — and that, too, speaks volumes.