Speaking of speaking

House Speaker Bridgid Annisette-George. -
House Speaker Bridgid Annisette-George. -

IF THERE is a silver lining to be gleaned from Thursday’s historic Parliament sitting, it is that it was a victory for democracy, to the extent that the protests of the Opposition were facilitated.

Though Opposition members hyperbolically claimed democracy was dead, the fact that they were able to do so, vociferously and repeatedly, showed otherwise. In fact, many of those watching felt they should have been reined in more firmly.

However, their protests should not have been necessary in the first place. This was an unprecedented sitting involving constitutional provisions never before invoked.

Though the Speaker was assured her guidelines barring debate complied with the letter of the law – she went as far as to describe people who disagreed with her as “misguided” – it is clear that in fact diverse legal minds see this as a grey area.

It would have been preferable for the parties to have agreed on a procedure going forward, given the importance of the day (as well as the covid19 restrictions in place). Was any effort made to have non-partisan agreement on procedure?

While privilege motions are proposed without debate, the very title of yesterday’s Extraordinary Sitting tells us the motion was no ordinary one. It did not relate to an ordinary member of the chamber or to routine business.

It related to the President, who is the very first member of Parliament listed under section 39 of the Constitution, as well as head of state.

The gravity of such a motion merits a robust and open process. Why else would the Constitution stipulate the House of Representatives and then the Electoral College be involved?

The framers of the Constitution may well have envisioned the removal of a president as extremely rare, and may have wished to make provision for only the clearest of cases.

But the law they promulgated suggests the matter is far from a fait accompli. It is, in fact, a matter of conscience, since a vote is taken. It is a serious matter to compel a sitting chief justice and four judges to probe a president. It is not the same as being probed by a privileges committee with a government majority.

At the very least, it should be open to the mover of a motion to amend it with notice, especially if it is genuinely felt that a circumscribed process is warranted. It is unclear why amendment was disallowed.

That too narrow a view of the law was possibly taken was suggested moments after the college – comprising the full membership of both houses – convened.

In effect, all were asked to vote on something some of them had not even heard: only MPs had been present in the House when the text was read out.

Naturally, it is to be assumed that in fact the mover of the motion, Opposition Leader Kamla Persad-Bissessar, had earlier ensured her members knew what they were being asked to vote for.

Nevertheless, so weighty an occasion demands that every effort should be made to follow the process scrupulously and to the letter, in the interest of fairness, transparency and the democracy that MPs on all sides have taken an oath to defend.


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