Going through two elections within a mere seventeen months and emerging from that experience as the third highest vote getter with 580 votes, qualified me to become a Member of the Parliament of Sint Maarten. But what does that mean? I was soon to find out after the swearing-in ceremony which took place on Easter Monday, April 2nd, 2018. Cramped together in a hall at the Governor’s Office, the fifteen elected parliamentarians listened to the wise counsel offered by His Excellency, the Governor, prior to him administering the oath of office. Unfortunately, due to limited space, each parliamentarian was only allowed to invite two persons to attend the ceremony.
Initially, the first public meeting of Parliament was scheduled to be held two hours after the swearing-in ceremony. In this meeting, the Chair and Vice-chair of parliament were to be appointed and the newly sworn-in MPs would have had the opportunity to give their maiden speeches. Unfortunately, because the parliamentary coalition had not yet been formalized, this meeting was cancelled.
On Tuesday, April 3rd through Monday, April 11th a series of orientation meetings was organized for all MPs. The newcomers in Parliament plus just a couple of senior parliamentarians faithfully attended the orientation sessions which were conducted by Dr. Luciano Milliard, professor of constitutional law at the University of Aruba. In the sessions, he dealt with the three basic laws generally used by parliamentarians, namely the Constitution of Sint Maarten, the Kingdom Charter and the Rules of Order of Parliament. In addition, Professor Milliard discussed with us how a law comes into being: from an idea, to an initiative or draft law, to a law that is passed by Parliament. It was also interesting to be part of a mock parliamentary meeting. New to the orientation this year was a full day’s session on ceremonial protocol which ended with an official dinner where the protocols of official dining were demonstrated and explained.
After the orientation session, I came face to face with the actual workings of parliament. I experienced my first faction leaders meetings. These meetings are called by the President of Parliament to discuss matters that affect the political parties, such as the Regulation for Faction Workers. Then, there are the Central Committee meetings and the plenary or public meetings of Parliament. The majority of the meetings held, are meetings of the Central Committee in which matters are duly debated and where members exchange ideas and make proposals.
In the last Central Committee meeting held May 15th 2018, concerning two draft laws. One pertaining to an amendment to the 2017 budget and the other to the automatic exchange of tax and financial information between countries, I raised a series of questions and made several comments regarding these two laws. At the end of the meeting the Minister of Finance said to me, “I am getting more blows (questions) from the coalition partner than from the opposition”. I said to him, “Please do not take it personal. I am just doing my job!”
When the discussion in the Central Committee meeting has been sufficiently exhausted, the President of Parliament then submits the issue to a Public Meeting of Parliament for final handling. In the Public meeting, Parliamentarians can approve, reject or defer the issue to another meeting.
You might have also noticed the difference in decorum between a Central Committee meeting and a Public Meeting of Parliament? During Central Committee meetings, deliberation is more informal and MPs are not required to stand when speaking. They simply raise their hands and receive acknowledgment from the Chair. The Public meeting on the other hand is much more formal. MPs are required to sign the speakers’ list if they wish to address any one of the topics on the agenda. Furthermore, the duration of the speaking time is fixed and MPs are required to stand as they address the Chair. During my brief time in office, I experienced both meetings. For me the preparation for the Central Committee meeting is more tedious and thorough. Once the research is done for the Central Committee meeting it is then far easier to prepare oneself for the Public meeting.
My first Public Meeting was the budget meeting in which I presented the motion to reduce the salaries of MPs by 15%. I am pleased that I was able to deliver on SMCP’S campaign promise. Unfortunately, the motion was not debated during the budget meeting but was deferred to a subsequent meeting so that it can be included in the cost cutting measures that still have to be approved by the Council of Ministers. As you can imagine, the motion did not sit well with many of my colleagues in Parliament but I believe that it resonated well with the general public who is expecting their elected officials to lead by example and demonstrate their empathy and solidarity with the people who are still suffering in the aftermath of hurricane Irma.
For a small parliament I am amazed at the amount of reading that is required, both in English and in Dutch. Every day, a plethora of documents land in our email boxes or are uploaded to one of the drives on the Parliament’s server to which all MPs have access. In my view Parliament, is well on its way to becoming a paperless institution.
I wouldn’t want to end this article without commending the staff who work in Parliament. In my opinion, they are doing a great job! They are friendly, helpful and willing to go the extra mile to accommodate Members of Parliament or simply just to get the work done.
Leader of the Sint Maarten Christian Party