The time has come for the Parliament of St. Vincent and the Grenadines to consider laws that will allow the government to deduct monies from the salaries of MPs who do not attend meetings of the House of Assembly.
Minister of Economic Planning, Camillo Gonsalves, made the call in Parliament on Friday during the debate of the Estimates of Income and Expenditure for 2016, which opposition lawmakers did not attend as part of their on-going protest of the results of the Dec. 9 general elections.
Prime Minister Ralph Gonsalves, agreed, saying as he wound up the debate that the public would expect the government to do something “about persons who don’t come to Parliament and want to draw money”.
“And I am hoping that we will have a bill to that effect on the 22nd [of February] before this Honourable House,” the Prime Minister said, adding that while it is not on the Order Paper, it can be amended to include “a bill relating to certain matters of that kind,” said the Prime Minister, who is also Minister of Legal Affairs.
“Because the public would expect us. And whether it is a deduction from your salary or a penalty in monetary terms for not coming, whatever it is, we will do it because we have been looking at other laws in other countries where you have similar such provisions. I hope we don’t have to do it, Mr. Spekaer. I hope. I hope we don’t have to do it,” Gonsalves said.
He noted that the opposition has filed election petitions and urged them to come to Parliament while they await the outcome.
Speaking earlier, Camillo noted that in some jurisdictions, the speaker can authorise the police to physically bring members to the national assembly for debates and to vote.
This seemed to have triggered the ire of opposition lawmaker, MP for Central Kingstown. St. Clair Leacock, who said one day later that Gonsalves would not send the police, but should come himself, along with his (Camillo’s) father (Prime Minister Gonsalves).
The economic planning minister, who is also MP for East St. George, told lawmakers that it is striking that when lawmakers are making a call for value for money, some Members are “conspicuous by their absence.
“And I wonder if they are also absent from the bank queue when it is time to collect their salary,” he said.
Opposition lawmakers, all member of the New Democratic Party (NDP) turned up to Parliament on Dec. 29 to be sworn in and walked out soon after.
They say that the ruling Unity Labour Party (ULP), which officials say won eight of the 15 seats while the remainder went to the NDP, stole the election — and a fourth consecutive five-year term in office.
Camillo, who was elected for the first time in December after almost three years as senator and minister of foreign affairs, said that million of dollars are being spent to pay lawmakers.
“And I think it is appropriate that when we discuss expenditure we discuss the fact that thus far for 2016 the government is wasting money.”
He noted the presence of former parliamentarians Clayton Burgin and Girlyn Miguel, as well as Herman Belmar who failed to win the Northern Grenadines for the ULP, as well as candidates from the Democratic Republican Party in the audience as lawmakers debated the estimates.
“And it is striking to me that none of them are being paid to be here, yet they are here because they have an interest in the business of St. Vincent and the Grenadines and the development of the country. But, many of those who are paid to be here have not only absented themselves, again, but they have bragged about the fact that not only will they be absent today, but they intend to be absent for the foreseeable future,” Camillo said in reference to opposition MPs.
He said that the opposition can go to frivolities, adding, “Well all like t have fun.
“And they can celebrate the victory of desperation of self-delusion over common-sense at any locale they see fit and they can celebrate the victory of fantasy over reality, but if you celebration of delusion gets to the point where it is interfering with your real work, then you have to consider whether or not you are fit for the job that you applied for.”
The minister’s comments were in an apparent reference to the NDP’s “victory rally” in Layou on Saturday, where Leacock made his response.
Camillo said that many parliaments around the world forfeit members’ salaries if they are absent without a valid reason.
He noted that some parliaments say attendance means being present for debates and votes, adding that a person cannot show up to work, stay for five minutes and tell their employers that they were present, neither can a student do the same at school.
“And I believe, Mr. Speaker, Honourable Member, that it is high time that if this particular mode of protest continues that we test the strength of their commitment by forfeiting all or a portion of their salary, because they must come to work to get paid.”
Camillo said an elected MP can say, with some justification, that the role of an elected member is greater than coming to Parliament and also includes meeting people and doing things in their constituencies.
Coming to Parliament is an essential part of an MP’s job, he said.
He noted that the opposition senators, Shirlan “Zita” Barnwell and Jules Ferdinand, have no constituency responsibilities.
“Their sole function is to add to parliamentary debates. They are not constituency representatives, they are not ministers, they are not parliamentary secretaries, and to show up to swear in, to leave, to then collect taxpayers’ money on a monthly basis is travesty.
“And it is something that I would use stronger language for, but I would like them to be present to respond, lest they say I am impeaching or impinging on their credibility or integrity,” Camillo said and called for senators to have “some serious self-reflection”.
He said that house speakers across Westminster and Commonwealth countries and parliaments have “powers and have muscles that must be exercised to enforce discipline in this house.
“I recall, for example, that in the late 1980s or early 1990s the Speaker of the house in the United States sent the police to drag members back into parliament to vote. And they were brought in by their hands and feet because they were trying to absent themselves and obstruct a vote.
“And I note that it has happened across the world, where speakers issued a call to the house and forcibly bring members of parliament into this house to participate in votes and debates. And we need to consider the outer limits of the speaker’s authority if people continue to abuse the goodwill of this government and of the people of St. Vincent and the Grenadines,” Camillo said.