Deputy Prime Minister Sir Louis Straker insisted in Parliament, on Friday, that the rules governing the conduct of the national assembly, rather than common sense, should take precedence.
His comment came amidst the raucous debate over whether Speaker of the House of Assembly, Jomo Thomas should allow Prime Minister Ralph Gonsalves to amend a motion brought by Opposition Leader Godwin Friday.
Friday’s motion on electoral reform called on lawmakers to resolve to bring about “necessary and desirable changes to the elections process” in St. Vincent and the Grenadines.
This, according to the motion, was to be done 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”.
But Gonsalves, citing the rules of the House, moved an amendment to the motion, which Thomas allowed after much intense debate.
The speaker said he was constrained by the standing orders to rule as he did.
The prime minister’s amended motion asked lawmakers to “declare that the current electoral system, grounded in the SVG Constitution Order, 1979, and the Representation of the People Act and the regulations made thereunder, is sound and has delivered free and fair elections, inclusive of those in 2015, reflective of the will of the people”.
The amended motion concluded, “And be it further resolved that the Government and Opposition meet to discuss any necessary and desirable amendment of the Representation of the People Act, designed to strengthen the electoral system, participatory democracy, and the conduct of election campaigns in peace, fairness, and high ethical standards without in any way compromising the fair pursuit of competitive elections”.
Friday told Parliament that he was “very disappointed” that the prime minister would use the rules to amend a motion of that nature “whereby the intention is essentially to replace the motion that is before you”
He said that whereas the rule permits for amendments of motions, “… I don’t now believe that the intention of the sensible people who drafted the standing orders of this house intended that the standing orders would be used to essentially, negate debate of motions that are brought to this house….”
The opposition leader said the motion was a private member’s. A private member’s motion is one brought by a lawmaker who is not a member of the cabinet of ministers.
“And every motion that is brought to this House, a member can stand and do what is being done here,” Friday said, adding that the rules also provide for amendments to amendments.
“So what are we going to do? We are going to interpret the Standing Orders to say we can stand here all day and amend motions? That cannot be the intention for which the standing orders were drafted.”
‘Common sense is the overall context’
Asked by the Speaker what he thinks the intention of the drafters was, Friday said it had to be that there is a good faith reason for amending a motion and “not just simply to stymy debate”.
Thomas then asked the opposition leader if he was “alluding bad faith to the amendment”.
Friday said the amendment was intended to replace the motion.
“If the prime minister wants to bring a motion, he can put that as part of government business,” the opposition leader further said, adding that government business takes precedence on every other meeting of Parliament, except the third meeting of each year.
“So, it cannot be that this is intended to enhance the debate, or in any way correct any aspect of motion that will then permit constructive debate on the motion.
“We have to presume, Mr. Speaker, that the reason we are here in this Honourable House is to engage in constructive discussion of matters that are substantively before the house, which this motion is and not just simply to interpret the rules of the house in such a way that it frustrates debates and matters that are before this house. That cannot be the intention of the rules,” Friday said.
The opposition leader further said that the prime minister’s amended motion essentially negates the original motion.
“How will that be a debate on the motion that is before this house? So what do I do, Mr. Speaker? I rise and I ask for an amendment of the amendment that essentially removes everything that was brought by an amendment by the prime minister, and then we debate that as well?
“And then you have an amendment to the amendment of the amendment and we can do that all day. That cannot be the purpose of the rules. That is a misuse of the rules of the house,” Friday said.
“Common sense is the overall context in which everything is done in this house. You can’t simply say you look at the strict letter of what is written here and divorce it from common sense and practicality.
“So is this then still a private members’ 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 a proper interpretation.”
‘You have no relationship to common sense’
At this point, Sir Louis interrupted the opposition leader, saying:
“The rules are the rules here. The standing orders are the rules; not common sense.”
“So you don’t rule on common sense?” the house speaker asked?
“No. But He has to go by the rules of the house,” Sir Louis said.
Friday responded: “I know this is how you conduct your business in this House. You have no relationship to common sense but most of us in this Honourable House we still believe that common sense is the best guide and teacher. The Honourable Louis Straker can rise and talk lack of common sense or nonsense if he wishes in this honourable house but that is not my intention here, Mr. Speaker.”
The opposition leader asked the speaker to interpret the rules in a way that enhances debate that is intended for the business of the house to be conducted.
He said the “supposed motion” proposed by the prime minister is “out of bound” and that the debate on the original motion should proceed.
“I don’t know what they are afraid of in terms of this motion that is before this Honourable House. Let us debate the motion. The people want it,” Friday said.
The Speaker then asked Friday if he was suggesting that there could be no proper debate on an amended motion for electoral reform.
“Mr. Speaker, I like the fact that you said ‘proper debate’ because we have to, at some point, interpret what we consider to be, or you, Mr. Speaker, an amendment, properly, to a motion before this Honourable House,” Friday said.
“When the purported amendment seeks to replace the motion that is no longer an amendment, that is, substantively, a new motion that is out before this Honourable House, and then, therefore, it cannot be accepted as an amendment. The mover of the motion should bring a motion on his own if he wishes to debate it in the Honourable House,” the opposition leader said.
The arguments over which motion should be debated used up the four hours allocated to debate of the motion, without any motion actually proceeding to a debate.
It was the second time in just over a year that the government had amended an opposition motion.
In January 2018, Gonsalves amended the opposition’s motion of no confidence, turning it into a motion of confidence, which government lawmakers passed in the absence of opposition members, who stayed away in protest.
The house speaker later said on social media that he erred in allowing the government to amend the motion.