Virtual Parliament sessions would infringe on public’s rights, says PLP senator

Virtual Parliament sessions would infringe on public’s rights, says PLP senator
Senator Fred Mitchell (FILE PHOTO)

NASSAU, BAHAMAS — Progressive Liberal Party (PLP) Chairman Fred Mitchell said yesterday that while he agrees with alternative accommodations being used to better facilitate parliamentary proceedings, virtual sessions would infringe on the public’s constitutional right to physically observe the legislature conduct the people’s business.

“I’ve had discussions with members of the judiciary and within our own caucus about the question of virtual sessions of both in the courts and the Parliament

“My own view is that given the way our constitution is structured, there is no reason at this point for meetings to be held virtually, whether in court or in Parliament.

“I am very concerned about the issue of public access, and it seems to me that we have to be very careful when we agree to do anything which would exclude the natural, physical presence of the public to see what their legislators are doing and how the courts are operating.”

It was confirmed Tuesday that a House of Assembly staffer tested positive for COVID-19, prompting closure and sanitization.

A small percentage of MPs — 16 members, including House Speaker Halson Moultrie — met briefly on Wednesday.

The MPs were spread throughout the Lower Chamber and the gallery to facilitate social distancing to a greater extent.

Members of the media remained in the foyer.

In a September 9 draft resolution obtained by Eyewitness News, Speaker of the House of Assembly Halson Moultrie pointed out that the Houses of Parliament, constructed in the 19th century, has limited capacity to allow for the required physical distancing because of its numerical composition.

According to the document, with new health protocols requiring a minimum 14-day quarantine for anyone infected with or exposed to the virus as a result of being a contact “the implementation of the new protocol could deprive honourable members of their constitutional right, and parliamentary privilege, to assume their seat”.

Noting that all members of Parliament have a constitutional right to attend proceedings, the draft resolution recommends the House “agree to a hybrid arrangement for the sittings of this House in the events of pandemics, emergencies and disasters, to accommodate the participation of members”.

Asserting that the building is “inadequate for the purpose”, Mitchell underscored the need to follow through with constructing a new parliamentary building.

He said in the interim to address the issue of space, sessions can be moved via resolution to a larger space to accommodate parliamentarians and the public in a safe manner that adheres to the health guidelines.

He added: “But I think you have to be very careful going down the road of virtual meetings.”