Leader of the Opposition Godwin Friday has cited the Constitution in making a case against the appointment of former senator, Deborah “Debbie” Charles, as Clerk of the House of Assembly.
Charles was a candidate for the ruling Unity Labour Party (ULP) in the 2015 and 2020 general elections and a senator and parliamentary secretary for five years ending November 2020.
She replaced as Clerk of the House of the Assembly, Nicole Herbert, who has retired from the Public Service.
The House of Assembly also has a new deputy clerk in the person of public servant Simone Huggins, who has worked at the House of Assembly for years. Huggins replaced Sharon Nash, who died in June.
On Thursday, when Parliament met for the first time with Charles in her new role, Friday announced that he had written to the chair of the Public Service Commission (PSC) about the appointment.
Friday, a lawyer, noted that unlike the Speaker of the House of Assembly, which can come from among the partisan members, the Constitution clearly states that the Clerk must be a public servant.
Section 35 of the Constitution says:
“(1) There shall be a Clerk of the House. (2) The office of the Clerk of the House and the offices of the members of his staff shall be public offices.”
The opposition leader registered his objection to Charles’ appointment while speaking during “congratulatory remarks”. He said he wished he truly could have joined Prime Minister Ralph Gonsalves, who is also a lawyer, in congratulating Charles.
“… I wish to record on record here, that we on this side of the house have very serious reservations and concerns about the appointment of the present holder of the Office of clerk to that position.”
The opposition leader said that the clerk is a very important, impartial position within the House of Assembly.
He said Charles, no matter how she may try to appear to be impartial, was recently a candidate in the elections, competing against an opposition member and recently held the “very partisan position” of a senator in this house, “combating” members of the opposition.
“And we’re asked to believe today that the mere changing of a robe for the usual garb of a member of the house will transform that person into an impartial performer in the office of Clerk of the House.”
Friday said it is “regrettable” that Charles was appointed to the position and he announced “for transparency” that he had written to the PSC about the appointment.
“… because it affects the way in which this honourable house functions, and certainly will affect the way in which members on this side of the house will regard the Office of the Clerk of the House.”
Friday, who has been an MP since 2001, said he had approached the Office of the Clerk of the House over the years “without any fear, or any doubt about the propriety of the responses or the assistance that might be given”.
He said he has canvassed opposition lawmakers “and they basically are fearful that they will not be able to use the office in the way they have done because of the appearance of partiality and the lack of trust that would be there”.
The opposition’s objection to Charles’ appointment was first made public by West Kingstown MP, Daniel Cummings, who defeated Charles in the 2015 and 2020 general elections. Central Kingstown MP, St. Clair Leacock has also spoken publicly against the appointment.
Friday said that all of the members that he canvassed in his caucus oppose the appointment.
“And I thought that it is necessary for me as the Leader of the Opposition and someone who seeks to uphold the integrity of this chamber and the efficiency of the work that is done here to raise that matter and put it on the record in this honourable house.”
He said he was expecting a response from the chair of the PSC.
“Again, I conclude by saying that the appointment of the present Clerk of the House, will diminish the performance of this august body because it will affect the way in which the members of the opposition regard and approach the Office of the Clerk of the House,” Friday said.
“It’s an appointment that should never have been made, because it clouds the office with a taint of political partisanship, which we’ve never had to worry about in this honourable chamber,” Friday said, adding that he would also address the matter elsewhere.
Charles subjected to ‘verbal abuse’
However, in his response, Gonsalves accused the opposition leader of verbally abusing Charles.
He said that besides elected members and senators, the speaker and the clerk are two important constitutional offices “touching and concerning [the] management” of the House of Assembly,
He noted that the clerk has one important role in the house outside of the speaker’s authority, in that if after 21 days of the filing of a motion of no confidence the speaker does not summon the house, the clerk is obliged under the law to summon the house to debate the motion.
“… it doesn’t talk about any partisanship; she has to do it,” the prime minister said.
He noted that the speaker is higher than the clerk, and pointed to instances in the past, where people who contested general elections were appointed speaker, including Nolwyn McDowall, who he defeated in North Central Windward in 1998.
Gonsalves further noted that Sir David Jack, who was an MP became governor general, which is also a constitutional position.
He said that the New Democratic Party, which is in opposition now, was the party that appointed both McDowall and Sir David.
The prime minister said the opposition leader was opposing Charles’ appointment on the grounds that she was one a senator and parliamentary secretary and, on that account, would be partisan.
Gonsalves said the opposition leader also said that because Charles was once a candidate for the ULP, opposition members “have a fear.
“It is something in their mind, not about Deborah Charles,” Gonsalves said, adding that the statement goes “towards the core, the essence of the integrity of this woman, as a mother, as someone who was a teacher, moulded children, a principal of a school and on no occasion that anyone can say that there was any evidence in her of malice, spite or bad mindedness”.
He said the PSC must have been “satisfied in her integrity, and in her capacity to do this job, that is why they appointed her.
“… to question her impartiality, to question that she would do something underhand or adverse to the interests of parliamentary democracy, or to the opposition, that you would not be even-handed is to question her integrity and her character and accordingly, subjected her as was, as happened here, to verbal abuse”.
PM’s ‘erroneous statements’
However, the opposition leader said that the prime minister made “erroneous statements” regarding the positions of speaker and clerk of the house.
“… one of the partisan members of the House can become a speaker,” Friday said, and further quoted Section 35 of the Constitution, which states, “… the office of Clerk and the offices of members of his staff shall be public offices”.
The opposition leader said:
“You ever heard of a Clerk of the House being elected here from amongst members of the house? … No, because this office is a public office like a civil servant office. It is expected to be independent…”
Friday said the prime minister wanted “to pretend that we live in Neverland; that somehow, one day you’re sitting two and a half years ago, throwing barbs at members of this side from one side of the house, you campaign in an election less than two and a half years ago against the member for West Kingstown, and you come now and you put on a robe and suddenly you’re supposed to say that this person has been transformed … magically into this paragon of [impartiality]?”
He said “reasonable people in this country would not expect that a clerk with that history, that recent history … would be able to perform, no matter how much she tries, her role impartially, or that we can expect that you would be impartial”.
Friday asked why it was that somebody from within the civil service was not promoted to the position as had been done in the past.
At this point, the prime minister, who had been shouting at Friday from across the floor, accused him of being “upset”, saying the opposition leader had turned “red”.
“I’m upset because I want to see this house function properly… If you want to find a position for a member of your party who ran in an election, there are lots of other positions you could find rather than have this independent role of clerk of the house being used in this manner.”
He said that as far as the opposition knows, Charles is still the ULP’s candidate for West Kingstown in the next general elections.
The ULP has not held a constituency conference to select a new candidate for the district, nor has it announced a new caretaker, the role that Charles played after she was defeated in the election.
“… and you’re telling us that we, … all reasonable people should accept that this member can perform or appear to perform the functions of this important office impartially?” Friday said.
“… it just strains reasonable conclusions based on the circumstances here. And that is why I have taken the position, we’ve put it in the record here, we’ll put it in the public domain. And I believe that most of the people in this country will understand the context in which we operate and I’ve written, the first time, … to the Public Service Commission, putting my record of this objection on record, and we shall discuss it further in public.”
But the prime minister shouted across the aisle that if he were the chair of the PSC, he would have ignored Friday’s letter.
“Well, why you don’t tell him to ignore it? … Send your telegraph; tell him to ignore it,” Friday said.
‘nothing but absolute professionalism’
Meanwhile, House Speaker, Rochelle Forde, said that she had prepared comments to make about the clerk.
“I want to say however, because I can’t just let it go like that, that since the appointment of the Clerk of the House, she has exhibited nothing but absolute professionalism; absolute, total professionalism,” Forde said.
“I actually have some remarks that I will make shortly and those come off the top of my head as they are already embodied in my remarks and which I will repeat when that moment comes.”
Forde, who is also a lawyer, did not speak to the substantive issue of the Constitution saying that the clerk must be a public officer.
In her prepared comments, the speaker said Charles has been “executing her functions and new roles professionally and with ease and with integrity.
From my observations thus far, she embodies all the qualities necessary to perform the functions of the clerk. Not only does she embody them, she has already demonstrated them. We wish you a long and successful tenure Ms Charles,” Forde said.