Opposition Leader Godwin Friday says he feels targeted by the Attorney General’s Reference (Constitutional Questions) Bill passed into law on Thursday.
Friday, who is Member of Parliament for the Northern Grenadines, however, said that his fears did not originate with him, but were based on comments made by the government.
“Mr. Speaker, as it is now, the bill leaves a lot to be desired in terms of the way it is structured, in itself, the political context in which it has arisen. I feel, Mr. Speaker that I am somewhat targeted in these matters,” he said during the debate on Thursday.
“And it makes me, Mr. Speaker, very unconformable to be debating it here in this Honourable House because it is not me, you know. I didn’t give the examples,” he said, adding that the prime minister, in his presentation, gave the examples of the motion of no confidence and his (Friday’s) Canadian citizenship.
“And you are asking me to be a party to something that originated with the intention of me as a target. That’s asking a lot of me, Mr. Speaker. It is asking a lot of my colleagues on this side of the house, it is asking a lot of our society. When we do bills, they ought to arise in a context that addresses matters that are of broad concern; not matters that are specifically targeted,” said Friday who, along with the other opposition lawmakers, opposed the bill.
The law gives the Attorney General authority, subject to the approval of the Cabinet, to send to the Court of Appeal questions about the constitution for interpretation.
However, the opinions of the court will be non-binding.
‘Godwin Friday references?’
Friday said he had to go back to ask the overall question of what is the “mischief” the bill was seeking to correct — that is to say, what is its overall objective.
“And we can’t be naive in thinking that this just arose because intellectually, we think it useful to have this to go to the court. It arose within a political context and the two questions I hear, they worry me, because both of them relate to me,” he said and chuckled.
“One of them has to do with the motion of no confidence I brought to this House [in January], and the second has to do with my Commonwealth citizenship through my citizenship in Canada and here in St. Vincent and the Grenadines,” the opposition leader said.
“So, what are we doing with this legislation? You’re going to have two references — the Godwin Friday references? The Leader of the opposition references with respect to matters concerning me.”
Some supporters of the ruling Unity Labour Party and other persona have argued that Friday should not be a Member of the Vincentian Parliament because he is also a Canadian citizen.
Friday who was born in SVG and attained Canadian citizenship as an adult, has rejected this argument, noting that the SVG Constitution says that to vote in elections or to become an MP in SVG, a person must be a Commonwealth citizen.
In February, amidst confusion about the meaning of the section of the SVG Constitution under which motions of no confidence are brought to Parliament, the government, opposition, and the speaker had agreed to ask the court for an opinion on the relevant section of the constitution.
On May 3, the government brought the Attorney General’s Reference (Constitutional Questions) Bill to Parliament, saying this was to give legislative power to the agreement reached in January.
However, the opposition rejected the bill saying that it went beyond what they had agreed in January and that it was aimed at the opposition leader.
Speaking during the debate on Thursday, the opposition leader said:
“If you have a question with respect to my legitimacy or eligibility to be in the Parliament, do what is done all the time: bring a petition or sue me or something and let us decide it as a live issue rather than having it as some sort of theoretical question that is presented to the court and then if you want to get me out of Parliament, you still have to go and take specific actions against me and see if the court would rule consistent with the opinion that is purported would be given with respect to the matter that comes before it under this legislation.”
Under the law, the opinion of the Court of Appeal is non-binding, and the opposition has said that the opinion should, in fact, be binding.
Friday said that under the bill, the constitutional questions that would reach the court are only those that the government thinks worthy.
“And if we in this Parliament are to give support to that, Mr. Speaker, why not have it where the entire Parliament has some say,” Friday said, adding that this should also be extended to interest groups.
He said that another “large question” that needs to be determined is that when there are such bills, the state bears the cost of litigation, which makes it easy for the government to go forward on matters
“And so, Mr. Speaker, I do not believe that the bill achieves the purported progressive intention that it aspires to. And when we consider the way in which you make legislation that seems perfectly innocuous – a law to do something that everybody says the objective seems laudable – but the way in which it is applied later on can corrupt the very intentions that are being espoused in the draft legislation.
“This is why you need, Mr. Speaker, the input of the Parliament so that people are aware of what is happening.”
He said everyone is aware of the context in which the bill is being brought.
Friday said he had a problem with the Speaker’s ruling with respect to the motion of no confidence in January.
Thomas, however, agreed that the government could amend the opposition motion, which the government did, essentially turning it into a motion of confidence in the government, the outcome of which has no constitutional consequence.
On Thursday, the opposition leader told the speaker:
“We have discussed ways in which to address that. The government wants to devise this method to deal with it. Well, they created the problem because they argued vigorously before you, even when I think you saw that the argument was invalid.”
He said that the government switched the motion and invited opposition lawmakers to debate it.
“Inviting us here today to debate this bill is a continuation of that same insult. We are fixing a problem that you created, that ought not to have been there. So, Mr, Speaker, as it is presented, I will not support the bill.”