Statement By The New Democratic Party
During the intense exchanges that took place in the House of Assembly on Wednesday, January 31, 2018, this outrageous statement was made: –
“Mr Speaker, with great respect, ………I have already said that the opposition can bring a motion of no confidence only if the government acquiesces or agrees. ………….”
“Unless you have this initial step, which has to be overcome, you are going to have chaos in the Parliament………,”
These assertions were made by Prime Minister Gonsalves in addressing the Speaker of the House of Assembly, Honourable Jomo Thomas. The Prime Minister was stridently resisting the Speaker’s indication that debate should proceed on the Motion of no Confidence in his Government that was signed by the seven elected Representatives of the Opposition (out of the total of fifteen Representatives in the House). It was the first such Motion of No Confidence to be proposed over the past seventeen years that the NDP has been the Parliamentary Opposition in St. Vincent and the Grenadines.
The Speaker of the House in disagreeing with this absurd contention by the Prime Minister, referred in Hansard (the official records of the House of Assembly), to occasions when the ULP was in the Opposition between 1994 and 2001; (during which time the PM was Leader of the Opposition for the latter two years,) where several motions of no confidence in the NDP government were presented to the House; all of which were debated, including one that went to debate at a time when there were only three elected opposition lawmakers. PM Gonsalves retorted that he was then able to secure a debate, only because the Government acquiesced.
The outcome of his relentless resistance, which ensued over a period of three hours, was that the Prime Minister successfully bludgeoned the Speaker into making a ruling, that thwarted the Opposition’s motion of no confidence via an amendment that effectively flipped the question being proposed, from the House resolving its lack of confidence to a motion by which it was asked to express Full Confidence in his Government.
Government lawmakers then debated and passed that motion, but in the absence of the Opposition members, who upon the House adjourning for lunch, refused to normalize this travesty and did not return to Parliament for the post-luncheon debate.
As The Leader of the Opposition, I argued strenuously in the House against the PM’s claim. I later he denounced the Speaker’s ruling as being: –
“……. a violation of our Constitution. When you violate our constitution, you violate our rights and I tell you we will make sure that this right is protected for the people of this country…………”
I have since written to the Speaker confirming the Opposition’s rejection of the ruling and the proceedings which followed it as a nullity under the Constitution. I pointed out that section 47(2), of the Constitution of SVG which speaks to a vote of no confidence, provides in relevant respects that: –
(2)(a) If notice in writing is given to the Speaker signed by not less than three Representatives, of a motion of no confidence in the Government the Speaker shall-
(i) if the House is then sitting or has been summoned to meet within five days, cause the motion to be considered by the House within seven days of the notice, or
(ii) if the House is not then sitting……..
(b) The provisions of paragraph (a) of this subsection shall be without prejudice to the power of the House to provide by its rules of procedure that notice of a motion of no confidence in the Government may be given by any member of the House or the power of the House to debate and dispose of such a motion at any sitting of the House.
In addition, I emphasized that no such rules of procedure have been made. The Standing Orders of the House of Assembly, which were passed under the provisions of section 45(1) of the Constitution to regulate its procedure and for the orderly conduct of its proceedings, are expressly stated to be made subordinate to the substantive provisions of the Constitution.
Accordingly, whilst these Standing Orders may be used for the conduct of the proceedings in the House in relation to the presentation, consideration and/or disposal of the Motion of No Confidence by the House, they cannot be used in such a manner, as to deviate from the substantive provisions of section 47(2) of the Constitution.
The Speaker’s Mea culpa
Although in replying to criticisms of his ruling by the public, the Speaker has since posted comments on Facebook, agreeing with Dr Friday’s interpretation, and sating that he erred by entertaining the amendment, that there is no way a constitutionally mandated provision can be negatived by an amendment and that once he ruled the motion could not be voted down before a debate the only other thing left was for the debate, the Government is persisting in their position that no vote of confidence in the government can be brought by the Opposition without the acquiescence of the Government lawmakers. In SVG, therefore, this important democratic right has been removed by the majority in Parliament.