The Opposition United National Congress (UNC) found itself three times unlucky yesterday as it lost three tied votes with the Government as the House of Representatives returned from its mid-year recess. The votes the UNC lost were votes to adjourn debate on a motion to approve Senate amendments to the Bail (Acess to Bail) Amendment Bill; begin debate on a motion to approve Senate amendments to the Criminal (Plea Discussion and Plea Agreement Bill) 2017 and a motion to adjourn the House to September 15.
The votes wered tied on all three occasions as Government and the Opposition each had 17 MPs in the House. On each occasion, Speaker Bridgid Annisette-George used the casting vote available to her under the House's Standing Orders and voted with the Government. Missing on the Government's side were Prime Minister Dr Keith Rowley, Public Administration and Communications Minister Maxie Cuffie, Social Development Minister Cherrie Ann Crichlow Cockburn, Port-of-Spain South MP Marlene McDonald and La Brea MP Nicole Olivierre.
Rowley is in California having a medical check-up. Cuffie was hospitalised on Tuesday after experiencing a "medical episode." Annisette-George granted leave to Cuffie, McDonald, Olivierre and Crichlow Cockburn from yesterday's sitting. She also granted leave to Princes Town MP Barry Padarath, the only UNC MP who was absent from the sitting.
Prior to the vote to adjourn debate on the motion to approve Senate amendments to the Bail Bill, Opposition Chief Whip David Lee complained the Opposition had come prepared to debate this motion and the motion on the Plea Bargaining Bill. Oropouche East MP Dr Roodal Moonilal questioned Annisette-George whether the status quo was maintained when she voted with Government to adjourn this debate. Annisette-George warned him his comments could be considered to be contempuous. Moonilal questioned Annisette-George a second time when she supported Government on debating the motion for the Plea Bargining Bill. When the Opposition objected to the House's adjournment and called for a third vote, Acting Prime Minister Colm Imbert remarked, "Mad people."
Speaking after the sitting with reporters, Attorney General Faris Al-Rawi and Leader of Government Business Camille Robinson-Regis expressed concern about the Opposition's behaviour. Recalling the amendments to both bills were supported by all senators, Al-Rawi said, " It is striking that the Opposition would come here today and completely abuse the system of agreement."
He said when the notice of the sitting was sent out, Cuffie was "healthy and well." With Parliament due to prorogue on September 21, Al-Rawi said the Opposition's actions was designed to, "defeat the Government's passage of law." Robinson-Regis said neither bill required a special majority for passage and it was normal for the House to be asked to approve Senate amendments to any bill. "Under normal circumstances, these go without incident," she stated. Robinson-Regis said she received a letter from Lee only on Thursday evening and it did not articulate the concerns which Persad-Bissessar raised during the sitting.
Persad-Bissessar insisted the Opposition did not take advantage of the equal numbers in the House to frustrate the passage of both bills. She said it was "shameful" for Government to use Cuffie's illness as an excuse for its unpreparedness to debate the motions. She said this gives "further credence" to polls issued on Thursday which criticise the performance of Rowley and the Government. Reiterating the Opposition has serious concerns about both bills, Persad-Bissessar said if the Government convinces the Opposition next Friday that the amendments will assist in dealing with crime in TT, the Opposition would vote for them.
She said Annisette-George, "saved the Government today." While saying she could not criticise the Speaker without being sanctioned, Persad-Bissessar said the protocol is that a presiding officer uses a casting vote to break a tie and maintain the status quo. Hinting this did not happen, Persad-Bissessar reiterated, "They (Government) were brought back from the brink of defeat by the actions of the Speaker."