Debate on Electoral Reform shelved after Opposition rejects Government’s Amendment
by Bria King
Raucous behaviour ensued in Parliament yesterday when Prime Minister Dr Ralph Gonsalves proposed an amendment to a Private Member’s motion on electoral reform put forward by Leader of the Opposition Dr Godwin Friday.
And the members of Government were accused by the Opposition of using the rules of the House of Assembly to hijack the motion and twist it for their own benefit.
The Opposition’s motion read in part: “Whereas public confidence in the electoral to deliver free and fair elections is vital to democracy; and whereas the electoral system in our country has revealed serious problems over the years and most recently in the 2015 general elections that have shaken public confidence in it; and whereas the Special Voter Registration Period and the lack of impartiality among election officials have been highlighted as being among such problems…. Be it resolved “that this Honourable House support a motion to bring about necessary and desirable changes to the elections process in our country by amending the Representation of the People Act and by adopting other practical and effective measures to ensure free and fair elections and restore public confidence in our electoral system”.
The Private Member’s motion initially had seven clauses.
The Prime Minister’s amendment to the motion saw two more clauses being added, changes being made to the wording of the initial clauses and an additional resolution statement.
Gonsalves cited standing orders 24 and 25, which allow for his amendment to the motion to be made without providing notice to the Opposition.
And he gave printed copies of the motion to the Clerk of the House for it to be distributed to the other members.
“Mr Speaker, this amended motion is within the four walls of the standing orders…,” the Prime Minister said.
“It is relevant to the subject matter, it is not an entirely different subject matter. Indeed Mr Speaker, there are essentially four issues raised in the motion, which we have all addressed in the amended motion; public confidence in the electoral system for free and fair elections which is vital to the democracy, secondly, whether or not there are ‘problems in the electoral system’ undermining free and fair elections, three, reference is made in the amended motion as exists in the motion to the core of the constitutional and legal framework of the electoral system and fourthly, the necessary and desirable requisite to engage in further constructive bipartisan dialogue between government and opposition to strengthen and improve the electoral system, which is also raised in the motion.”
In response to the proposed amendment, the opposition leader said that he does not believe that the intention of the rules of the House were that they be used to negate debate of motions brought to the House of Assembly.
And he expressed his belief that except for the second resolve, the Prime Minister’s amendment negates his Private Members motion and was not drafted with the intention to solicit constructive discussion of the matters before the House.
“Mr Speaker, I’m very disappointed that…the honourable Prime Minister would use the rule to amend a motion of this nation whereby the intention is essentially to replace the motion that is before you that was moved by myself and seconded by the honourable member for Central Kingstown (St Clair ‘Major’ Leacock),” Friday said.
He continued; “that cannot be the purpose of the rules. That is a misuse of the rules of the House Mr Speaker…so is this then still a private members bill or motion? And if so, can a member of Cabinet move a private member’s motion? It is out of place for the prime minister to bring this amendment to this honourable House, Mr Speaker and I beg that you rule on a matter of common sense and proper interpretation…”
Opposition senator, Kay Bacchus-Baptiste also rose to argue the amendments proposed by Gonsalves. She said that according to the interpretation of the rules, the proposed amendment is not an amendment at all. And she agreed with Friday that it sought to negate the motion brought forward by the Opposition.
“The only amendment that is permitted is a minor change. That is what the rule is saying. There’s no rule saying that you can amend a person’s motion by a substantive change. The rule says, it must be an amendment,” Bacchus-Baptiste said.
She also said that members of parliament should “act like reasonable people. This is not a market square where people are just trying to win one up on the other and try to negate every motion ever placed by the Opposition. This is a House where we come here to do the people’s business and to debate serious issues”.
Finance minister, Camillo Gonsalves also contributed to the debate and said that his side of the House was not attempting to change the fact that the intention is to debate electoral reform. But he described it as a “cock-eyed view” to believe that anything brought into a democratic parliament should not be amended and just voted upon.
The finance minister also said that he believed both sides could come to an agreement on electoral reform. “…but if a motion is written in such a way as the original motion by the Leader of the Opposition is; that contains poison pills to this side of the House, what are we going to have?” Gonsalves said.
“We are going to have a debate and at the end of it, because of the text of the motion, this side of the House will have to oppose it and then what will come out of it is, we brought electoral reform to the House and the Government voted against electoral reform.”
He further reiterated that the amendment does not change what will be debated in the House, but rather ensures that what is voted upon and put on record facilitates a consensus being met by both sides of the House.
Ultimately, the Speaker, who described the debate on the issue as interesting, ruled that amendment to the motion would go forward.
“I must say however, that I think — as I said to the Prime Minister, which he disagreed with — I think it fundamentally upends the parliamentary procedure and practice which has been established since Independence and members can choose to think that through and see how we go forward. But I don’t think that based on the rules, I don’t think I can say that the motion cannot carry,” Thomas said.
But as the Prime Minister rose and began to read his amendment in the House, some members of the Opposition, namely parliamentary representatives for Central Kingstown (St Clair Leacock), West Kingstown (Daniel Cummings) and North Leeward (Roland Matthews) began banging on the table to hinder him from speaking.
Because of the persistent raucous behaviour, Thomas suspended the sitting for 10 minutes. And when he returned, he put forward a proposal in relation to the accepted amendment so as to facilitate a discussion on electoral reform.
“What I am suggesting is that a way of facilitating the discussion on electoral reform, we take the amended motion, look at it because in essence, my understanding is… the amended motion simply fleshes out a little more some of the issues so we take 1,2, remove 3,4 and 5, take 6, take 7, remove 8 and we discuss the rest,” the Speaker said.
“All of us have been invoking the name of the people, all of us have been invoking the fact that we are rightfully elected and representing of the people, so I don’t want us to lose that fact and then just do the politics, which doesn’t allow us to do the centrally important work which we are here to do.”
The House then broke again for 15 minutes to allow the Opposition to consider the proposal put forth by the Speaker. However, when Parliament resumed, there was still no clear consensus on how debate on the motion would go forward. “That is not what we are used to here in this country,” Friday said, when he rose to give a response to how the Opposition wished to proceed.
The opposition leader said that “in the past, under the NDP government and probably before, private member’s bills actually used to be interpreted, when I first came to this house, they called it Opposition Members day because the opposition or the government side never proposed a motion to take up the time to debate a private member’s motion. That is what has happened under this government…”
He said that the Government essentially hijacked the motion and made it their own and because they have a majority in the House, nothing can be done about it.
Leacock, the parliamentary representative for Central Kingstown also raised his voice and shouted that the government was making a fool of the people’s business in the House of Assembly.
Since consensus could not be reached, neither the motion nor the amendment to the motion were debated.
This is not the first time that the Government has moved to amend a motion put forward by the Opposition. In January 2018, the Prime Minister used Standing Order 25(a) to table an amendment to a motion of No Confidence put forward by the Opposition.
The amendment by the Government turned the motion of No Confidence into a motion of Confidence by removing the negatives in the original motion.