Tensions high in test run for more vocal Opposition
THE Government’s proposal to allow Opposition members a louder voice in the new Parliament came in for a severe test on Tuesday, even before the proposals have been approved by the Standing Orders Committee.
The situation raised concerns among Government members as to whether the Opposition was preparing to abuse the privileges they were offered. Opposition members felt that the Government wanted their responses to be a “powder puff operation”.
Caught in the middle of all this was Deputy Speaker Marisa Dalrymple-Philibert, who had relieved the speaker, Delroy Chuck, and left the chair learning that, as speaker, she has to exhibit much sterner stuff.
The situation developed while Opposition spokesman on finance, Dr Omar Davies, was responding to a statement from minister of finance and the public service, Audley Shaw, on the $15.4-billion in extra-budgetary expenditures the new Government had inherited.
Members, including Opposition spokesmen, are not allowed to respond to ministerial statements in the House. But, on this occasion, in anticipation of its participatory proposals, the Government agreed to allow Dr Davies to make a statement in response to Shaw’s.
The problem, however, was that while Shaw revised his statement to avoid any confrontation with Davies, the former minister felt that he had to defend his record as minister.
Dr Davies said that on election day, September 3, the Ministry of Finance had $17 billion plus US$15 million in cash. He suggested that the Government should explain where it had all gone.
However, as Shaw was not sworn in as minister until September 14, one wonders whether the financial secretary shouldn’t be the one to answer that question.
It seemed that both Shaw and Davies were prepared for a supplementary estimates dress rehearsal until Golding intervened. He suggested that Shaw revise his statement, leaving out the points which could trigger a verbal clash.
Dr Davies suggested that the Government was seeking to “blame others” for its financial predicament and that it was “no use”. He warned that those from whom the Government wished to borrow would carefully monitor their handling of those challenges, to see whether “you are credible enough to obtain any additional loans”.
This drew leader of the House, Derrick Smith, to his feet suggesting that Dr Davies was abusing the privilege to make statements.
“On a point of order, Madam Speaker, when the government proposed to have an amendment to the Standing Orders to allow members of the Opposition to make statements and to respond, it was never intended for lengthy statements,” Smith said.
He was immediately drowned
out by the noise on the Opposition benches.
This exposed first-time Deputy Speaker Marisa Dalrymple-Philibert’s lack of experience in the speaker’s chair.
She kept knocking her gavel expecting that the members would respond. But the noise continued.
“Members! But they don’t hear?” said Dalrymple-Philibert, who then appealed to the clerk to Parliament, Heather Cooke. “Mrs Cooke?”
Smith suggested that the Government may have to change its mind about allowing Opposition statements if this was the way the privilege would be handled.
Dr Peter Phillips, leader of opposition business, suggested that the Government seemed to have expected a “powder puff operation” in terms of the statements from the Opposition.
“There is no specific allegation of abuse of privilege that has been brought to attention,” said Dr Phillips. “I would urge that the member be allowed to complete his statement, which I do not expect will continue for very long.”
Prime Minister Golding then intervened.
“Madam Speaker, if you will allow me to express an observation. The first draft that was prepared for the minister’s statement was not what he delivered,” said Golding. “He and I had discussions and we both agreed that we were going to make this issue as non-contentious as possible. Therefore, in his statement he sought to attribute no blame. He ascribed no motive. If the tenor that was set by him is to be changed, then it is making a terrible statement to us as to how this facility is going to be used in the future.”
Phillips said that Davies’ first draft was also “drafted in different terms” from what he delivered. He asked that the House allow Davies to continue.
“He is making a statement around the issues,” said Dr Phillips. “There is no abuse of privilege and, Mr Speaker, I suggest that you would be best advised to allow the member to conclude.”
By this time, the speaker, Delroy Chuck, had resumed and advised Dr Davies to wind up in two minutes.
Dr Phillips eventually explained that the Government could not have it both ways.
“All vibrant parliaments are the focus of intense and sometimes bruising debate,” said Dr Phillips.
After the sitting, the Opposition called a press conference in its meeting room for Dr Davies to highlight the main points of
Golding moves for heightened democracy in House
The Government last week kept its promise to have four select parliamentary committees headed by Opposition members for the first time, while Prime Minister Bruce Golding, in an apparent attempt at further strengthening democracy in the legislature, agreed to answer questions from members, including the Opposition, every second Tuesday.
Golding also announced that he had instructed the speaker, Delroy Chuck, to hold discussions with the clerk to Parliament, towards employing a full-time legal adviser to Parliament.
Leader of Opposition Business, Dr Peter Phillips, had raised the issue of amending the Standing Orders to allow for questions to be asked of the prime minister on matters of national interest and urgency.
Golding said that he was prepared to do so.
Golding: Let me be blunt with you. I am prepared to come here on that set day in Parliament, the second Tuesday of the month, and I am prepared to answer your questions without notice.
In the same way that I make myself available, because I believe that I have a duty to, I will expect that members will understand that it must be approached with a certain sense of responsibility. In other words, if I am asked a question about things that I could not normally carry in my head, it is not fair to conclude that this is a prime minister that doesn’t know what he is doing.”
He said that he would have no difficulty with questions on general administration and policy.
Turning to the lack of a legal counsel to Parliament, the prime minister noted that the chief parliamentary counsel was really the Government’s legal draftsperson.
He said that the chief parliamentary counsel should really sit in Parliament and be beholden to Parliament and not to the Government.
“I have already given instructions for discussions with the speaker and the clerk to see how we can design that role and fit it within the configuration of Parliament to introduce it on April 1,” he said.
Commenting on the current situation regarding legal advice to Parliament, the prime minister said: “We have sat here and, with all good intentions, we have passed bad laws and, sometimes, in less than three months we have had to come back here to correct the bad laws that we have passed.”
He said that Parliament owes it to the people, on whom those laws are to be enforced, to ensure that it has proper legal guidance in its deliberations on those laws.
. Golding also scored another first when he provided answers to questions on the divestment of the Government-owned sugar factories just seven days after the questions were tabled by former minister of agriculture, Roger Clarke.
Questions should be answered about 21 days after they are tabled. However, on some occasions the delays run into many weeks and even months.
. Parliament last week named the members of the new Public Accounts Committee (PAC) as follows: Dr Omar Davies, chairman; Marisa Dalrymple-Philibert; Everald Warmington; Andrew Gallimore; Laurence Broderick; Robert Montague; Michael Stern; Desmond Mair; Tarn Peralto; Peter Bunting; Sharon Hay-Webster; Morais Guy; and Ronald Thwaites.