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Opposition a ‘no- show’ for ‘flipped’ motion debate

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Their ‘Motion of No Confidence’ in the Government having been amended into a ‘Motion of Confidence’, Opposition Parliamentarians were a no-show for the afternoon session of the House of Assembly on Wednesday.

During the morning session, Prime Minister Dr Ralph Gonsalves had moved a motion to amend the motion of No Confidence, which the Opposition New Democratic Party (NDP) had filed on Monday, during the debate of the Estimates of Revenue and Expenditure.

The motion of No Confidence, signed by the NDP’s seven elected members of Parliament, gave five reasons why the NDP believes there should be no confidence in the Dr Ralph Gonsalves led Unity Labour Party (ULP)

administration, but Gonsalves’ amendment on Wednesday totally contradicted the original motion, turning it into a motion of Confidence in the Government.

But even before the Government side sought to amend the NDP’s motion, Prime Minister Dr Gonsalves and several other parliamentarians became involved in a heated exchange with the Speaker of the House of Assembly, Jomo Thomas, with the Government side arguing that, based on a unique provision in the Constitution of St Vincent and the Grenadines, the ULP majority in the House allowed them to vote down the motion of No Confidence even before it was debated.

Quoting section 47 (2) (a) of the Constitution, the Prime Minister said, “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 ….”

Gonsalves opined that the use of the verb “considered” made his argument valid, in that the motion should not be heard because the majority voted against it.

Quoting the Constitution further, the Prime Minister said, “Provided that if the House does not, within 21 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.”

In rebuttal, Leader of the Opposition Dr Godwin Friday said that the motion was brought to the House under Section 47 of the Constitution and that requires that the motion be debated in the House and voted on, not voted on before it is debated.

“The matter goes forward as you as the Speaker of the House has the authority under the Constitution to allow the matter. It is not just a question of bringing the matter to the House, voting on it before it is debated. If that is the case, a motion of no confidence would be totally unnecessary,” said Friday, who added that Section 47 of the Constitution is clear and that procedure has been used in the Commonwealth for ages and it is nonsensical to be done any other way.

Thomas agreed with Friday and noted that Gonsalves was implying that only the Clerk of the House has the authority to allow for debate on a motion of no confidence.

“Find support for your proposition in the entire Commonwealth,” Thomas told Gonsalves, a comment which was followed by another heated exchange between the Speaker and the Government side of the House.  

The Prime Minister, in response, said that his interpretation of Section 47 means, that the motion can be heard under three conditions only.

“There are three practical circumstances which arise from the plain reading of this, that the motion is brought by the Opposition and the Government acquiesces or agrees it should proceed; that the Opposition has a majority in the House (at least one person from the Government side votes with the Opposition); and if 21 days have elapsed and the Clerk is involved,” said Gonsalves to which Thomas asked, “Where is that said in the Constitution? It has to be legally grounded. So, it is only the Clerk who can ensure that there is a debate on a motion?”

The Prime Minister said that our Constitution is unique in this way and the reason why the framers of the Constitution included this unique provision is because they did not want a “particular mischief, and a particular mischief is that every other week you can have a motion of no confidence brought.”

Gonsalves also stated that the Opposition had the opportunity to address the points in their motion during the debate on the Estimates, but decided to walk out of Parliament on Monday. He said they also have the opportunity to state their points in the debate of the Appropriation Bill next Monday.

“These are unique provisions that stop the Opposition from paralysing the work of the Government,” said the Prime Minister, who added that Attorney-General (AG) Jaundy Martin and other persons versed on constitutional law agree with him.

But in response the Speaker said that on April 21, 1995 there were only three ULP parliamentarians in the House and they brought a motion of no confidence, which was brought and heard although there were 10 Government members. Thomas added that in January 21, 2000, there was another motion of no confidence. He said these examples mean that we have a parliamentary tradition that allows motions of no confidence.

He said that since the Government has been in power, the NDP has never brought a no confidence motion until now and this means that the NDP has not been bringing motions to paralyze the government in Parliament.

“Find support for your proposition in the entire Commonwealth where the Opposition brings a motion and the Government can vote it down before discussing it,” repeated Thomas.

Gonsalves added that the use of the word “consider” in Section 47 means, “to spend time thinking about a possibility or making a decision” and introducing debate where it says “consider” is wrong.

Thomas, however, countered: “The Privy Council says that in dealing with constitutional and statutory provisions these provisions call for generous interpretation avoiding what may be called the austerity of tabulated legalism.

“Perhaps the AG should take it to the High Court for clarification and interpretation,” said Thomas, who added that although Gonsalves had made a sound submission, he did not agree and would allow the debate.  

“…It cannot be that the Speaker of the House of Assembly cannot summon the House and get the House to debate a motion without the Government acquiescing,” said Thomas.

But before the debate on the Motion of no confidence could begin as ordered by the Speaker, the Prime Minister filed a motion to amend.

“…In as much as you have ruled, I draw your attention to Standing Order 25 (a), unless the standing orders provide otherwise, notice shall be given of any motion which it is proposed to make with the exemption of the following, a motion for the amendment of any motion, I submit an amendment to this motion. You have ruled that we should proceed, so I am amending the motion that is before the House,” said Gonsalves.

Thomas accepted the amendment, which was followed by another round of heated discussions that led to the Opposition not returning after the lunch break, although the Speaker had said that the amendment does not stop the Opposition from arguing the same points they would have made with their original no confidence motion.

Before leaving, the Leader of the Opposition said that the amendment does not amend, but negates and changes the NDP’s motion completely.

“I don’t want that the process and the procedures of this House to set precedent that essentially subvert the normal procedures that are followed with respect to motions of no confidence when they are brought to this house,” said Friday, who added that this should have been a routine venture, but the Prime Minister twisted the motion in his favour.

Thomas, on the other hand, told Friday that there was nothing wrong with the amendment.(LC)

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