Speaker of the House of Assembly Jomo Thomas, last Friday, questioned the insistence of Prime Minister Ralph Gonsalves and Sir Louis Straker to break with decades of parliamentary practice in St. Vincent and the Grenadines.
Thomas’s question came as the prime minister and his deputy insisted that the rules of the house should be interpreted to mean that a private member’s motion can be amended to the point that it essentially becomes a totally different motion.
Opposition Leader Godwin Friday, who had brought the motion on electoral reform, along with other members on his side of the house, had urged the use of common sense.
Sir Louis, however, rejected this suggestion, saying that the rules, rather than common sense, governs what takes place in the national assembly.
Addressing Gonsalves, the speaker said:
“Prime Minister, the issue that is very alive in my mind is the two longest serving members of this house, yourself and Sir Louis, are articulating most strongly for the amended motion. And in terms of history, aren’t you concerned that you are essentially upending post-independence parliamentary practice?”
“No, Mr. Speaker,” Gonsalves said.
“The old labour party between ‘79 and ’84 didn’t do this. The NDP in its 17 years didn’t do this, and we have had a change under this administration. There were times when I saw Sir Louis debating crime, under a private members’ motion; I think in ’97, in ’98, Sir Vincent debated crisis in the national commercial bank and there were no amendments to those. They were just allowed to be debated. As someone who serves this parliament, that doesn’t hound your mind at all?”
Gonsalves responded: “Mr. Speaker, if any one decides to, if a government decides to — and I made this point hitherto — acquiesce to a motion coming forward, or supports it, then the motion proceeds. But if a member of the government decides to, in the circumstances, decides to table an amendment, the amendment has to be considered within the four walls of the rules.”
Gonsalves was restating a point that he also made when he amended a motion of no confidence against his government in January 2019, turning it into a motion of no confidence.
The prime minister has argued that government lawmakers can use their majority to block debate on or take over a motion brought by the government.
Gonsalves said that during the presentation by Opposition Senator Kay Bacchus-Baptiste on whether the amendment was permitted the “clear politics effect and what is intended” became apparent.
The prime minister said that government lawmakers would vote against the motion proceeding but chose to bring an amendment instead, adding that this was proper under the rules.
The Speaker then asked the prime minister what violence he thinks would be done to the parliamentary practice or the debate if the house were to allow debate on the opposition’s motion.
“What you would do, Mr. Speaker, is take away my right as a representative of the people of North Central Windward to bring an amendment,” Gonsalves said.
The speaker has earlier asked the prime minister for his response to the opposition leader’s point that the opposition was being denied their one chance annually to bring a motion to the house.
“Mr. Speaker, they can debate, with great respect, what is in their motion when we put forward the amendment.”
But the Speaker told the prime minister that he could do the same.
The prime minister responded:
“No. No. But, Mr. Speaker, I can’t be denied the right to make an amendment… because the rules are very clear. I do not have to give notice of the amendment; if the honourable leader of the opposition wishes to amend his own motion, he has to give a notice.”