Duke hits legal wall

Minority Leader Watson Duke speaks to the media last week outside the Assembly Legislature, Scarborough. PHOTO BY LEEANDRO NORAY   -
Minority Leader Watson Duke speaks to the media last week outside the Assembly Legislature, Scarborough. PHOTO BY LEEANDRO NORAY -

The Minority may not have a legal leg to stand on in its bid to remove Ancil Dennis as the new chief secretary of the Tobago House of Assembly (THA).

That’s the position of President Paula-Mae Weekes and a Senior Counsel, whom Minority Leader Watson Duke has retained to look into the legitimacy of Dennis’ appointment.

Dennis, 33, was sworn in on Tuesday at President’s House, St Ann’s. The oath of office was administered by the President.

He was voted in as the new Chief Secretary in the Assembly Legislature, on May 6, after its former office holder Kelvin Charles resigned on April 30.

Duke has since challenged the legality of Dennis’ position, saying the circumstances by which he was elected was not explicitly covered in the THA Act. He said the act is silent on a chief secretary assuming the position after the previous office holder resigned.

However, the Office of the President has sought to clear the air on the controversial matter, saying Weekes is satisfied due process was followed.

In a statement on Wednesday, the office said the President felt compelled to respond to the “apparent confusion."

“The Office of the President finds it necessary to bring clarity to the process that was employed leading up to the assumption of office by the Chief Secretary,” it said.

The office noted the THA Act provides a single process for the filling of a vacancy in the position of chief secretary, whether that vacancy arises by virtue of the election of a new assembly, by the resignation or death of a chief secretary or by the revocation of the chief secretary’s appointment by the President under Section 35 of the Act.

The office said in all cases, the chief secretary is elected by all members of the assembly employing the process laid out in the Act – Sections 8 and 11.

“Once the chief secretary is elected, he is then administered the oath of office by the President, after the President has been satisfied that he has been duly elected.

“The President was so satisfied in this instance by notification from the Presiding Officer, indicating compliance with Sections 8 and 11 of the Act.”

The office made it clear the President does not appoint the Chief Secretary, “as there is no provision in law so to do.”

It said the vacancy created by Charles’ resignation was not a vacancy in the assembly, as he continued to be an assemblyman, having been elected by the constituents of Black Rock/whim/Spring Garden as their representative in the last THA election in 2017.

The office said Dennis was not elected to the assembly to fill a vacancy in the assembly but was already an assemblyman having been elected as the representative for Buccoo/Mt Pleasant.

It added in any event, there was no vacancy in the assembly but in the executive council.

Speaking at a virtual news conference on Wednesday, Duke told reporters he was advised by a Senior Counsel that the only way he could challenge Dennis' election was through a constitutional motion as the THA enjoys parliamentary privilege.

Duke said, “Having heard the argument, he quickly said to me that the Parliament is a law unto itself. There are privileges that cannot and will not be entertained in a court.”

He was advised that these parliamentary privileges allow the assembly to conduct its affairs “in a manner that it sees as fit.”

The Minority Leader said he was hurt by the attorney’s statement.

“I questioned it. But, I understood that he spoke from a position of knowledge. We are following the Westminister system – a system where there are separation of powers between the legislative arm, the executive and the Judiciary and they do not interfere with each other.

“So, what happens within the walls of Parliament are to be sorted out there, save and except it is a constitutional motion.

“As we all know, the Constitution is the supreme law of the land and all laws must obey the Constitution and all bodies in this country, whether Parliament or not, must subject themselves to the Constitution.”

In the meantime, Duke said the Minority bench intends to seek information from the executive council through the Freedom of Information Act to find out what decisions were made between the time Charles resigned and Dennis was sworn in.

“So, we will now write the chief secretary and ask the chief secretary to provide us with all the decisions that were made between April 28 and May 12, when there was no chief secretary and no executive council.

“We want to find out what decisions were made, what spendings were made from the nation's finances that were not recurrent expenditure and were not expenditure.”

Duke said Tobagonians are tired of having representation without their participation.

The Minority Leader’s news conference came hours after he issued a statement, reiterating his call for Tobago to be independent.

In the statement, he described Dennis’ appointment as a "heinous, political evil.

"On that day, a political party usurped the authority of the Tobago House of Assembly, raising several threats to democracy on the island of Tobago."


"Duke hits legal wall"

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