On Monday 29th January 2018 Opposition Leader Dr. Godwin Friday presented the Speaker of the House of Assembly (House) with a notice of a motion of no confidence in the Dr. Ralph Gonsalves led ULP administration. On Wednesday 31st January, 2018 the House met to consider the said motion which was struck down before its contents were debated by Members of the House.
In determining whether or not the motion should be debated in its original form, certain issues were raised concerning the amendment of the motion by the ULP administration and the implications of making such amendments. This article will seek to answer three of the issues that were raised during the discussion in the House, namely, (1) Can a motion of no confidence be amended? (2) If it can be amended, to what extent can amendments be made? (3) If the entire recitals and question of the original motion can be amended does that prevent a motion of no confidence from ever being brought to the House of Assembly?
The Original Motion
The Constitution of St. Vincent and the Grenadines does not provide any definition of what is a motion and neither does the Standing Orders of the House (Standing Orders). Nonetheless, a description of a motion can be found in Robert’s Rules of Order (Robert) and Erskine May Parliamentary Practice (May). Those two books are considered to be the authorities on the procedure that should be followed when conducting meetings. The former applies to meetings generally, whereas the latter focusses primarily on parliamentary procedure.
May is used as an authority to fill the gaps where our Standing Orders are silent or to clarify any doubts with respect to the interpretation of our Standing Orders (Rule 82). It provides a treatise on the practice of the House of Commons in Britain and therefore serves as authority for what is considered to be the proper and acceptable parliamentary practice here in St. Vincent and the Grenadines. Hence, whenever reference is made to May, in this article, it will either be to fill a gap where the Standing Orders are silent, amplify the application of the rules or to clarify any doubts which pertain to the interpretation of the Standing Orders.
The Robert Rules of Order (2000) defines a motion as a formal proposal by a member, in a meeting, that the assembly take certain action (p. 26). Erskine May (2004) also defines a motion as a proposal made for the purpose of eliciting a decision of the House (p.382). Both authorities define motions in similar, if not identical terms. The Opposition’s motion of no confidence is not replicated in its entirety in this article but in summary it lamented that; (a) the health services and basic maintenance of roads are inadequate (b) the young people are deprived of hope and employment opportunities (c) that government officials, family members and associates abused their powers and used such powers as weapons against citizens and (d) that there is a break down in law and order reflective of rampant crime and the failure of law enforcement to protect the elderly, women and young persons. For those reasons the Opposition prays that the House declares no confidence in the ULP administration.
If the House voted in support of the motion the ULP Administration would have fallen. The reasons given above in support of the motion by the Opposition are outlined in the recitals of the motion. A recital is a short story in the motion that begins with “whereas…”
Amendments to the original Motion
The Constitution does not make any provisions for the amendment of a motion of no confidence. But Rule 32 of the Standing Orders of the House (Rules) makes it clear that a motion can be amended provided that the amendment is relevant to the substance of the motion. There is no restriction in the Rules on the extent to which a motion may be amended but there are provisions in Rule 32 which
stipulate the procedure that should be followed to effect an amendment of a motion. We will not concern ourselves with the procedure that was followed to effect the amendment since that was not disputed in the House. The Rules of the House do not define an amendment. However, an amendment is simply the altering or changing of the contents of the original motion.
The amendment may have the effect of either modifying the contents of the original motion to improve its acceptability or it may provide a different proposition as an alternative to the original motion (May at p. 397). Essentially, there is no restriction on the extent of the amendment that is proposed. However, any amendment that puts forward an alternative proposition must be relevant (Standing Order Rule 32) or germane (Robert at pp. 129-131) to the question that was raised in the original motion (Robert 129). The ULP administration modified the original motion to such an extent that it resulted in a different proposition being put forward as an alternative to the original motion. Was that amendment permissible? Was it relevant or germane to the original motion? Let us examine the legitimacy of the ULP’s amendment.
It was already mentioned in the foregoing that there is no restriction on the extent to which an amendment can be made to an original motion. It has also been established that an alternative to the original motion can be proposed by an amendment. What needs to be clarified is whether the amendment was relevant to the original motion. The recitals of the ULP’s amendment to the original motion provide that; (a) the quality of the life for the people have been markedly improved (b) there have been vast improvements in health services, education, housing, social safety nets, cultural and sporting facilities and physical infrastructure; (c) the stabilization and growth of the economy has provided hope and job creation opportunities for all especially the young (d) that our people enjoy an unprecedented level of civil and political rights, freedom, democracy, judicial independence and transparency with the absence of official corruption and; (e) that state administration has been the bulwark in the fight against crime and the protection of the poor and marginalised, the elderly, women and young people. Therefore, the House should express full confidence in the ULP government of the Prime Minister Dr. the Hon Ralph E. Gonsalves. Was the amendment relevant?
The abridged version of Black’s Law Dictionary (2000 at p. 1035) refers to relevant as an expression “that is logically connected and tending to prove or disprove a matter in issue.” A vote of no confidence or a vote of confidence is the corollary of each other. Either way they are logically connected and in the instant case they determine whether or not the House has confidence or no confidence in the ULP administration. A very quick glance at the recitals of the original motion will reveal that the recitals of the ULP government’s motion provide a direct response to the recitals of the original NDP motion. Moreover, the ULP’s recitals are diametrically opposed to those of the original motion. It is like one person saying you are old and the other responding no I am young. In substance they are both discussing the same issue, which is essentially age. A similar discussion can take place over the issue of race. The NDP may say that the Prime Minister is white but the Prime Minister may retort that he is black.
The question that the NDP put to the House for consideration was that there is no confidence in the ULP administration. The ULP amended the question to contend that there is confidence in the ULP Administration. Both motions are discussing the issue of whether or not there is confidence in the ULP administration. The ULP is not saying that there is no confidence in the NDP and the NDP saying that there is no confidence in the ULP. The questions that were put forward by the two sides of the House only relate to the ULP and not to the NDP. The two questions that were asked by both sides of the House have to do with one issue and one issue only, namely, whether or not the House has confidence in the ULP administration.
Accordingly, it is clear that the ULP’s amendment was relevant to the original motion and therefore satisfied the requirements of the Standing Orders Rule 32. To put it another way the amendment was germane to the question being put by the original motion.
The motion of the NDP says that there is no confidence and the amended motion says that there is confidence. If the motion was not amended those who support the motion would have debated along those lines and those who are against would have advocated their opposition to the motion. Following the amendment of the original motion, those who have confidence in the ULP administration would have debated to that effect and those who do not have any confidence in the ULP Administration would have stated their opposition to the motion of confidence.
In essence, the original motion and the amended motion are six of one and half a dozen of the other. I will now turn to the question whether by permitting a party to amend a motion for no confidence it precludes a no confidence motion from being brought to the House of Assembly.
Implications of Section 47(2) of the Constitution
Section 47(2) (a) of the Constitution of St. Vincent and the Grenadines empowers Representatives of the House of Assembly to bring a motion of no confidence in the government. In order to bring such a motion the Speaker must be notified in writing and such notice must be signed by at least three Representatives of the House. If the Speaker receives the notice either during the sitting of the House or within five days of the House being summoned to sit, he is required to either; (a) ensure that the motion is considered by the House within seven days of receipt of the notice or (b) summon the House to meet within fourteen days of receipt of the notice where the House is not sitting or where it is not summoned to meet within five days. However, if the House does not meet and dispose of the motion within 21 days of receipt of the notice, the Clerk of the House will be empowered to summon a special meeting of the House for the purpose of debating and disposing of the motion.
It is my understanding that the House was sitting at the time that Dr. Godwin Friday, leader of the Opposition presented the notice of the motion to the Speaker of the House. Accordingly, the Constitution mandates that the motion be given consideration within seven days of receipt of the notice. It is also my understanding that the House did meet on Wednesday 31st January, 2018 to consider the motion within the prescribed time limit.
The question that needs attention is having satisfied the requirements for notice how should the motion be considered? The proviso in Section 47(2) (a) reads as follows: “Provided that if the House does not, within twenty one days of the notice, meet and dispose of the motion, the Clerk of the House shall summon a special meeting of the House at such time and place as he may specify for the purpose of debating and disposing of the motion.” Section 47(2) (a) also provides that whenever the motion of no confidence is brought to the House it must cause the motion to be considered. In my opinion that phrase requires the House to meet and review the motion in order to be satisfied that it is properly before the House. The motion may be amended in accordance with the Standing Orders and disposed of or debated or it may be adjourned to another sitting of the House.
If the motion is not disposed of within twenty-one days of receipt of the notice of motion then the Clerk of the House shall summon a special meeting at which the motion will be debated and disposed. My understanding of the section is that a debate on the motion is only mandatory when the Clerk of the House convenes a special meeting.
Interestingly, however, Section 47(2) (b) of the Constitution further provides that what is required in Section 47(2) (a) “shall be without prejudice to the power of the House to [make] rules of procedure that[a] notice 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.” The phrase without prejudice is referred to in Black’s Law Dictionary (2000 at p.1293) as meaning; “without loss of any rights in a way that does not harm or cancel the legal rights and privileges of a party.” Accordingly, Section 47(2) (b) did not cancel the power of the House to make provisions for the procedure that should be followed with respect to a motion of no confidence. The section also did not, by extension, abrogate the procedure that was provided in Section 47(2) (a). Section 47(2) (b)
empowers the House by its Rules of procedure to do two things. Firstly, it permits the House to provide by its rules that any Member of the House can give notice of a motion of no confidence. Secondly, it empowers the House to provide by its rules that a motion of no confidence can be debated and disposed of at any sitting of the House.
In Section 47(2) (b) the word provide is most instructive. It means stipulate, specify, postulate or require. These words have one thing in common and that is, they connote positive action. They require something to be done. They do not require passive conduct or omissions. Therefore, when Section 47(2) (b) speaks about providing by its rules it is requiring such provisions to be expressly spelt out in the Standing Orders of the House. Unfortunately, however, the Standing Orders of the House have not made any of the provisions that satisfy the requirements of Section 47(2) (b).
The Standing Orders have not made any provisions for any Member of the House to give notice of a motion of no confidence and neither do they empower the House to debate and dispose of a motion of no confidence at any sitting of the House. Accordingly, only the provisions of Section 47(2) (a) apply to the giving of notice of a motion of no confidence and in determining the sitting at which the motion of no confidence can be debated and disposed of. In essence, a notice of a motion of no confidence cannot be brought pursuant to the Rules of the Standing Orders and neither can the provisions of the Standing Orders determine at which sitting of the House a motion of no confidence can be debated and disposed. Until such time as the House makes provisions in the Standing Orders which expressly require that any Member of the House can bring a notice of a motion of no confidence or expressly provide that the House can determine the sitting at which a motion of no confidence can be debated and disposed of, the intent and purpose of Section 47(2) (a) remains intact, notwithstanding the requirements of Section 47(2) (b).
In summary, a motion of no confidence can be amended. Any amendment to a motion of no confidence can modify the contents of the original motion to improve its acceptability or it may provide a different proposition as an alternative to the original motion. Therefore, the amendment can be very extensive. However, it is important to note that any amendment must be relevant or germane to the question put in the original motion.
This brings me to the question raised by the Speaker that in the light of the amendment that was properly made by the ULP to the original motion of the NDP can a motion of no confidence ever be brought here in St. Vincent? The answer is simply, yes. Firstly, the constitution provides for such a motion to be brought. Secondly any amendment to the motion must be relevant to the question raised by the original motion. Thirdly, no amendment to a no confidence motion will be permitted if the question of whether there is confidence in the government is changed to something that is not germane to the motion of no confidence.
The debate must be about the issue of confidence. Whether it is about confidence or no confidence, the arguments for and against will not be affected. On the issue of whether the Speaker ruled correctly in permitting the ULP to amend the original motion of no confidence the aforesaid conclusions are sufficiently explicit.