Minister of Finance, Camillo Gonsalves says that the opposition’s motion on electoral reform, which came up for debate in Parliament on Friday, contained “poison pills” for the government.
He said that, as a result of these “poison pills”, the government would have had to vote against the motion, thereby giving the opposition an opportunity to score political points.
However, neither the motion nor an amendment to it by Prime Minister Ralph Gonsalves ever made it to a debate, as the four hours allocated to the debate ran out amidst raucous back and forth over interpretation of the rules of the House of Assembly.
Leader of the opposition, Godwin Friday tabled the motion on April 23, 2019 and it was initially scheduled for debate on May 9.
However, the government and opposition decided to postpone the debate for last Friday and to allocate four hours for it.
When the motion came up for debate on Friday, the prime minister moved an amendment which the opposition said hijacked the motion.
In making his contribution amidst argument over whether the intent of the rule allowed for amendment to motions, the finance minister called for a “lowering of the temperature” and for lawmakers to move from some of the “hyperbole” that had pervaded the debate.
“Today is the day for private members’ motion and the honourable leader of the opposition and the opposition which has brought the motion, they have placed on the table the issue of electoral reform to be debated,” the finance minister said.
He said government lawmakers were not trying to change the fact that electoral reform was up for debate.
“We are in a democracy and it is a cockeyed view of any democratic process — and I know that you, Mr. Speaker, has studied this — that anything brought into a democratic parliament is un-amendable and must be simply voted up or down.”
House Speaker Jomo Thomas told the finance minister that that was not the case, but that the tradition of the Vincentian parliament has been to allow debate on private member’s motions without amendment of the types that the government was proposing.
The finance minister retorted:
“Mr. Speaker, with respect, that is your argument, because you are the one who has raised the issue of tradition.”
The speaker then asked the minister, “Why do you think that has not been violated in the past?” Thomas asked.
“Mr. Speaker,” Gonsalves said. “We have, as our democracy deepens, to move ourselves from the point where we think that if one side bring legislation or the other side bring a motion, nobody can touch it, you must simply have your hot air talk and vote it up or down.”
Gonsalves said he was trying to add context, saying it was quite clear to him where the rules are on the matter.
“Responsibly, I think both sides of this Honourable House can 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 you are going to have, you are going to have a debate, and at the end of it, because of the text of the motion, this side will have to oppose it and then what would come out of it is: we brought electoral reform to the house and they government vote against electoral reform. And that is not where we should be going as a mature democracy, Mr. Speaker,” Gonsalves said.
He said that if a motion or legislation on an important topic comes before Parliament there must be, “in the nature of politics, in the nature of a democracy, an attempt to amend and tweak the language so as to arrive at a consensus.
“The point of the matter is that the motion that has been brought by the Leader of the Opposition will not enjoy consensus. An amendment has been proposed, you get to put that amendment to the vote, and, thereafter, other amendments can be made to be put to a vote.
“But what we should be trying to do here, Mr. Speaker, is to have a mature conversation on electoral reform. There is nothing in the amendment by this side of the house that will change anything that is being said on that side. But what will matter, Mr. Speaker, is what is voted on and what text becomes the record of the consensus or decision of the house. And what we do not want to have is an election gimmick–” Gonsalves said.
“Well, it is clear that we are not going to have consensus,” the Speaker said.
Gonsalves said that lawmakers were at the beginning of the process and other amendments may be offered that are taken in good faith and agreed to from both sides.
“So I don’t think we should pre-judge this. So, what I am saying, Mr. Speaker, in the interest of consensus and in the interest of a mature democratic process, the Speaker has to allow amendment, whether they are fundamental, whether they are large or small in order that the reflection of the will of the house is represented at the end of the day. And I think that is what this amendment seeks to do.”
The opposition’s motion called on lawmakers to resolve to amend the Representation of the People Act and adopt other practical and effective measures to ensure free and fair elections and restore public confidence in the nation’s electoral system.
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”.