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Opposition Leader Godwin Friday says that the two young senators that the government appointed last year, making one of them a full minister, “did not rise to the occasion” when they had their chance to participate in their first budget debate this week.

The debate was terminated prematurely when no one rose 10 seconds after House Speaker Rochelle Forde called for further debate as the proceedings resumed Wednesday morning. 

Friday spoke about the development at a press conference called by his New Democratic Party in Kingstown on Wednesday afternoon.

He noted that two of the senators are full ministers.

“And this is to be expected that you will present in the Parliament, whether you’re new or not or whether you were expecting to do it this time or not, that is your obligation, that’s your duty,” the opposition leader said.

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The opposition leader said he expected that some persons had been looking forward to hearing the new senators’ presentations. 

“And we in the opposition, we always look forward to hear not them but everybody on the other side speak so that we can respond as well,” Friday said.

“And they were present and they did not rise to the occasion. They could have gotten up and they could have spoken.”

Last July, Benarva Browne, a 33-year-old town and country planner, was appointed a senator and minister of urban development, energy, seaports, Grenadines affairs and local government.

Then in August, Shakell Bobb, a 30-year-old lawyer was appointed parliamentary secretary in the Office of the Prime Minister.

They joined in the senate Minister of Foreign Affairs, Keisal Peters and Ashelle Morgan, deputy speaker of the House of Assembly, both of whom are lawyers and were appointed in 2020.

On Wednesday, after just one day of debate and day three of what he had billed as the usual five-day presentation, Prime Minister Ralph Gonsalves invited Minister of Finance Camillo Gonsalves to wrap up the debate.

He did so 10 seconds after House Speaker Rochelle Forde called for further debate and no one stood as the proceeding commenced for the day. 

When the prime minister called for the conclusion of the debate, only two government members –Agriculture Minister Saboto Caesar and Communication and Works Minister and Deputy Prime Minister Montgomery Daniel — had spoken on it.

On the opposition side, Friday had led off the debate and Senator Shevern John had also spoken.

The prime minister did not make a presentation in the debate, defending his finance minister’s EC$1.6 million budget or elaborating on the government’s plan for citizens security — a year after a record smashing 55 homicides — as the finance minister had said the PM would have done.   

Friday told the media that if the senators were looking forward to the opportunity to debate the budget, when the call was made for further debate, they would have taken advantage of the early opportunity to speak. 

“But none of them did. So, it shows something as well as to … possibly their level of preparedness when they were there that morning.”

When the speaker called for further debate on the motion, the prime minister could be heard saying, “Are you speaking?”

However, as the camera feed, provided by state media, was showing the house speaker at the time, it was not possible for the public to know to whom the prime minister was speaking when he said this.

Opposition Senator, Israel Bruce, who was present in the chamber at the time, however, told iWitness News that the prime minister was looking in the direction of the senators when he asked the question.

iWitness News was reliably informed that most of the government ministers were absent when the debate resumed. 

Minister of Health Jimmy Price was overseas attending his mother’s funeral, the prime minister had told Parliament on Tuesday. 

On the opposition side, two lawmakers MPs were said to be ill while a third had to attend to an emergency.  The opposition leader arrived late also.  

Meanwhile, Bruce, who had arrived at the assembly chamber on time, told his party’s press conference that the prime had approached him “an informal sense” before the Parliament resumed 

“I think I was the lone member on the opposition benches who was inside the halls and he asked whether or not I was ready to go,” Bruce told the media. 

“Firstly, it was not his business for me to tell him when I’m ready to go. It’s a strategic position for us,” the senator said.

He said he, however, told the prime minister “that I will not go first and it was expected that a member on the government benches will go first. 

“He went, he had some interactions with members on the side. And then he said to me, ‘Well, I would go. If I have to go, I would go.’ I said, ‘Well, go right ahead.’ 

“So, when the speaker asked, the Honourable Prime Minister rose to his feet, having intimated to me that he will speak because the others were not ready to speak, it was the understanding that he was going to use his time and address the Parliament on the budget.”

Ralph Gonsalves 2
Prime Minister Ralph Gonsalves speaking in Parliament on Wednesday, Jan. 10, 2024.

When the prime minister rose, he told the speaker:

“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.” 

After a very brief pause, he continued:

“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.” 

Bruce said that based on his conversation with the prime minister, “I formed the conclusion that … [he] was seeking to size up who from the opposition benches would speak preferably or possibly in what particular order?’

The senator, however, said the opposition has to make a decision whether or not it discloses the order in which its lawmakers are going to speak. 

“There were 10 remaining members on the government side to speak. Our situation is that the Honourable Member for South leeward is ill and out of Parliament since Monday, the honourable member for East Kingstown took ill and had to leave parliament yesterday. So, this morning, we were down to four speakers and the government 10. Two of ours had already spoken.”

Israel Bruce
Opposition Senator Israel Bruce speaking in Parliament on Wednesday, Jan. 10, 2024.

Bruce said he was “fully prepared” to debate the budget.

“Up to last night, I was having meetings in my preparation. Fully! I can deliver my budget presentation at this moment,” the senator said. “I was absolutely 100% prepared…”

Meanwhile Friday said it was important to have the government’s budget presentation “in total, before you respond” in particular, where the finance minister had said that specific minister would provide details on certain aspects of the budget.

“How you going debate without knowing the full story as to what the government is [planning to do]?” Friday said.

“… it’s not this is not something that … that should be put at our feet. …the most important thing, the most egregious thing that happened this morning, the most inexcusable thing, the most contemptuous and insulting thing was that the honourable Prime Minister was in … the Parliament, he could have spoken. He refused to speak on his own budget. 

“You have to ask yourself why. Why? That is the key issue that the people of this country have to ask yourself. Has he lost it? He had a plane to catch? He had something else to do that was more important than the mundane business of running the affairs of the people of this country? I don’t know. But the people have to ask these questions.”