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Thursday 19 September 2019
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Who really thinks they are privileged?

Photo courtesy Pixabay
Photo courtesy Pixabay

Philbert Gervais

THE MP for Oropouche East asserts that the composition of the Committee of Privileges, formed to adjudicate a complaint against him, was unconstitutional. The main crux of Mr Moonilal's argument was that once members recused themselves it did not constitute a vacancy and there are no provisions in the Standing Orders for appointment of temporary members to replace those who recused themselves.

Further, adding two more members would change the composition of the committee from six members (three Government, two Opposition and the Speaker as chairperson) to eight members. Replacing the two government members with Dr Gadsby-Dolly and Mr Anthony Garcia was perceived as violating Standing Order 92, as the committee's composition was now moved from six to eight.

In many Westminster systems of parliamentary democracy, including the House of Commons in the UK, it is common practice to appoint a temporary member whenever a substantive member recuses himself/herself. This is to ensure that the committee reflects the composition of the House.

So it is no anomaly if the member to be replaced is one who belongs to the Opposition, that the Speaker of the House will consult with the Leader of the Opposition or the Chief Whip for a replacement; and if the committee member that needs to be replaced is a member of the ruling party, the Speaker consults with the Leader of Government Business for a replacement.

Back in 2004-2005, the Privileges Committee that was formed to investigate allegations arising out of the renowned tearoom brawl involving then government member Dr Keith Rowley and then Opposition member Chandresh Sharma saw then Opposition MP Gillian Lucky being substituted for Siparia MP Mrs Kamla Persad-Bissessar.

There are a litany of further examples to show of members of Privileges Committees being replaced when the initially selected members recused themselves.

In 2009, there was a Privileges Committee investigation into allegations that then-opposition leader Mrs Persad-Bissessar misled the House of Representatives with respect to statements made about the President, the late Professor George Maxwell Richards. Mrs Persad- Bissessar, who was a member of the Committee of Privileges, recused herself and was replaced by then-member Subhas Panday, an MP.

On June 9th, 2009, Opposition Senator Wade Mark, through Personal Explanation in the Senate, was accused of misleading the Senate in relation to the possibility that then-health minister Jerry Narace had come into contact with the influenza AH1N1 virus. There was a Senate Privileges Committee investigation into that matter. Narace was replaced by then-minister Emily Dick-Forde for this matter.

The Committee of Privileges, like many other committees of the House of Representatives, always has government members form the majority. The committee has the power to call for witnesses to attend and for documents to be produced, that is, it can compel the production of material and the attendance of witnesses.

Witnesses, including members, may be asked to make an oath or affirmation before giving evidence. The Privileges Committee like all other committees derive its power from the House (Parliament). Their job is to consider what is before them and report. Those reports and deliberations, like all others, are sent to the House for decision as a collective body on adoption or rejection. The residual question now left to ask is, "Who really thinks they are privileged?"

Regular Wednesday columnist Gabrielle Hosein is on leave.

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