Parliament on Wednesday (today) approved the EC$1.6 billion Budget for 2024 presented on Monday after a controversial end to the debate.
Prime Minister Ralph Gonsalves invited the Finance Minister, Camillo Gonsalves, his son, to wrap up the debate after two members of the government and two opposition lawmakers had spoken.
On Wednesday, when the Parliament resumed for the second day of what was billed as a four-day debate, the prime minister stood and engaged the formality of moving that the sitting be exempted from the standing orders hours of sitting.
House Speaker Rochelle Forde then called for further debate, at which time opposition whip, West Kingstown MP, Daniel Cummings, who is chair of the opposition New Democratic Party (NDP), informed the house that Central Kingstown and East Kingstown MPs, St. Clair Leacock and Fitz Bramble were running later.
Cummings also began to give an indication about South Leeward MP and opposition lawmakers, Nigel “Nature” Stephenson, “may be with us today but I am not sure”.
Forde responded that Stephenson “gave me that indication”. She then called for “further debate” twice in 10 seconds at which point the prime minister stood.
“Madam Speaker, Honourable Members, it is unfortunate that I have to begin to speak on this particular occasion because I was due to speak on Friday,” the prime minister said.
“But inasmuch as no one is rising to speak, I think I invite the Honourable Minister of Finance to wrap up the debate so that we can all go home,” Gonsalves said.
After the finance minister delivers the budget, the opposition leader responds, but there is no rule that dictates in what order lawmakers debate the fiscal package.
The finance minister took five hours to present the fiscal package Monday evening and Opposition Leader Godwin Friday used all of his allotted four hours when he began the debate on Tuesday morning.
Forde then invited the finance minister to wrap up the debate, telling him he had three hours to do so.
At this point, Israel Bruce, an opposition senator, craved the speaker’s indulgence “… because it is my understanding that when you, as the speaker of the house, invites a member of the house to engage in further debates, and that member comes to his or her feet, it’s an indication that the member is about to debate the bill or the article that is before the floor.”
Bruce noted that the prime minister, who is MP for North Central Windward, had risen.
“And you rightly recognise the Honourable Member for North Central Windward. He either entertains the purpose for which he has risen, that is to participate in the debate, or then he takes a seat not having participated in the debate.”
The speaker interrupted Bruce, telling him she had heard him sufficiently on the point.
“I had indicated ‘Further debate?’ and there were housekeeping matters of which the Honourable Member, rightly so, for West Kingstown also participated. Then the Honourable Prime Minister, leader of house business, also made some further comments,” Forde said.
She again invited the finance minister to wrap up the debate.
‘this chair was necessitated by injury caused by the government side’
As the finance minister attempted to begin his wrapup, there were boisterous interventions from Bruce and Cummings.
At one point, the finance minister made a comment about the chair that Cummings has been using in Parliament for about a decade.
“I want the house to note that this chair was necessitated by injury caused by the government side, the police force, to have this chair,” Cummings responded.
The West Kingstown MP has repeatedly said the chair is necessary because of injuries he sustained in March 2011 when police, on the order of then House Speaker, Hendrick Alexander, physically removed opposition lawmakers from the assembly chamber.
However, the prime minister said that Cummings’ allegation “must not go unchallenged.
“… Well, the police can defend themselves. But I happen to know — I was in the house on the day. No member on this side of the house in any way had anything to do with any alleged injury suffered, may have been suffered by the Honourable Member for West Kingstown,” Gonsalves said.
“So, it’d be helpful if he doesn’t want to withdraw that comment. I want to just put the record straight,” Gonsalves said.
The house speaker appeared to accept the prime minister’s response, saying, “… the Honourable Prime Minister has indicated no one on this side caused your injury. I believe that to be correct.”
Forde further noted that Gonsalves said that the police could “defend themselves”.
As the finance minister again began his wrapup, Cummings, addressing the speaker, said that he had indicated to her that he shadows communications, work and health and had inquired of her whether the Minister of Health would be available to make his presentation before he (Cummings) responded “to the budget debate”.
On Tuesday, the prime minister told parliament that Minister of Health Jimmy Prince’s mother died in Trinidad and he had travelled there for the funeral.
Cummings said Forde had indicated to him that she was unaware but would expect that the health minister may be available to debate the budget.
“Therefore, I sat here and waited, waited to find out when the Honourable Minister of Health will be making this presentation before I can so do. I came here early this morning, deliberately, to find out what is happening and I saw no sign of the minister,” Cummings said.
“So, I am shocked that you would allow for the wrapup of this important debate, knowing that I indicated my firm intention to speak and that my speaking depended upon the presentation of the Minister of Health.
“I ask you in the circumstances, in the interest of the people of this country, and the very important exercise of the budget debate to revisit the decision, insisted upon, erroneously, by the Honourable Prime Minister, as indicated by my colleague, the Honourable Senator Bruce.
“I urge you again, Madam Speaker, with the power in your hand for the time being and in the interests of the just government of this land, to allow for the proper debate of this important budget we have before us.”
However, Forde, citing what she said was the WhatsApp conversation she and Cummings had had on the matter, suggested that Cummings had misrepresented what she said.
“You have just said that I told you I believe that he would be here. That is incorrect,” Forde told Cummings.
“Pull your records. I wrote to you, ‘I am not sure as I do not have funeral details.’ End of my response. So, I could not have given you that particular indication,” the house speaker said.
She further said that “nobody rose” when she said, “Further debate? Further debate?”.
“The rules permit for us to move along with the debate. As I agree with you. It is very important, but we still live in a democracy. We still follow rules. The rules of the house say that we must proceed.”
Forde again invited the minister of finance to wrap up the budget.
After another exchange between the speaker and Cummings, the prime minister stood and said there was a tradition in the house where the debate would alternate between the government and opposition lawmakers.
He said that based on that tradition and what had transpired so far, opposition lawmakers should have taken the floor when the debate resumed Wednesday morning.
On Tuesday evening, when the prime minister moved the motion for the suspension of the debate until 9 a.m. Wednesday, he had said that the debate would have to go late on Wednesday, if it was to be concluded on Friday.
Gonsalves further said that if it were not concluded on Friday it would happen on Saturday, a day on which Parliament traditionally does not sit.