There are two kinds of freedoms, wrote Charles Kingsley, the false where one is free to do what he likes; and the true where he is free to do what he ought. Kingsley it was who in Water Babies also wrote: “I am very ugly. I am the ugliest fairy in the world; and I shall be till people behave themselves as they ought to do. And then I shall grow as handsome as my sister, who is the loveliest fairy in the world; and her name is Mrs. Doasyouwouldbedoneby. So she begins where I end, and I begin where she ends; and those who will not listen to her must listen to me, as you will see.”
I suspect it would be a long, long time before Kingsley’s ugliest fairy in the world started to resemble her handsome sister Mrs. Doasyouwouldbedoneby if her transformation depended on our behaving ourselves “as we ought to do.”
We are undeniably as we are today, that is to say, indescribably grotesque, precisely because we did not do what we ought to have done decades ago—whether in relation to our economy, our natural environment, our education system, our people. For too long have we persisted in doing belatedly what needed urgently to be done. A long time ago procrastination had retooled our DNA.
Consider the section of our law that governs government guarantees of bank loans (yes, that again!). Last amended in February 2011, the law requires that every related detail be placed before parliament prior to its endorsement of loan guarantees. It does not permit so-called guarantees in principle, as in the time of Rochamel. Nevertheless, parliament continues routinely to grant “belated guarantees,” in the process flouting Section 41 of the Finance Administration Act.
Last Tuesday another resolution, centered on yet another “belated” loan guarantee, came before parliament. Alas, the particular session will be remembered for the excrementitious exchanges between the MP Guy Joseph and the House Speaker—not for the deplorable fact that once again parliamentarians had voted in favor of a loan guarantee in the name of a private entity long after it had been awarded a multi-million dollar government contract not approved by parliament.
The widely discussed argument between the Castries Southeast MP and the Speaker was ignited by the former’s possibly loaded questions about the connection between the signatory to the contract—a ministry official—and the similarly surnamed CEO of the contracted entity. I say “possibly loaded” because the questioner’s motives were never clear. The resultant back-and-forth soon descended to depths that, although hardly unprecedented, had more in common with back-alley catfights than with honorable gentlemen. The below-the-belt verbal assaults ended with the Speaker sternly silencing the MP and directing he take his seat.
Still the fall-out continues. The debacle appears to have inspired a cottage industry that offers for sale “Since When Das Your Role?” tee shirts, mugs, mash-ups, cartoons and side-splitting videos featuring the MP and the Speaker at full throttle, at once embarrassing and hilarious.
However, at least two aspects of last week’s House carnival were anything but funny: the role of the Speaker and the continued flouting of the law by lawmakers. In the UK the Speaker of the House of Commons chairs debates in the Commons chamber. The holder of this office is an MP who has been elected to be Speaker by other Members of Parliament. The Speaker is perhaps best known as the person who keeps order and calls MPs to speak during Commons debates. The Speaker calls MPs in turn to give their opinion on an issue. MPs signal they wish to speak by standing up from their seat (a custom known as “catching the Speaker’s eye”) or they can notify the Speaker in advance by writing.
The Speaker of the House of Commons has full authority to ensure MPs follow the rules of the House during debates. This can include directing an MP to withdraw remarks if, for example, they use abusive language; suspending the sitting of the House due to serious disorder; suspending MPs who are deliberately disobedient (known as “naming”); asking MPs to be quiet so Members can be heard.
In the UK, House Speakers must be politically impartial. Therefore, on election the new Speaker must resign from his or her political party and remain separate from political issues even in retirement. However, the Speaker will deal with constituency problems like a normal MP.
Speakers still stand in general elections. They are generally unopposed by the major political parties, who will not field a candidate in the Speaker’s constituency. During a general election Speakers do not campaign on political issues but simply stand as “the Speaker seeking reelection.”
So-called unparliamentary language is not permitted in the Westminster system. This includes, but is not limited to, the suggestion of dishonesty or use of profanity. The most prohibited case is any suggestion that another member is dishonorable. So, for example, suggesting that another Member is lying is forbidden.
In Saint Lucia, where parliament ostensibly operates in accordance with the rules of the Westminister system, MPs routinely berate one another and contemptuously refuse to take their seat at the direction of the Speaker. Some have been known to denounce fellow Members as “renegades and criminals, corrupt” and so on—with impunity. There have also been naked death threats hurled across the table.
Speakers are generally not expected to join in House debates. But then who determines what is or is not a debate? At this juncture I am reminded of the US Supreme Court’s Justice Potter Stewart who, while referencing “a hard-core pornography matter,” said: “I shall not today attempt further to define the kinds of material I understand to be embraced within that shorthand description and perhaps I could never succeed in intelligibly doing so. But I know it when I see it, and the motion picture involved in this case is not that.”
In all events, we may wish to embrace the ordinary meaning of “debate,” at any rate, as defined by most dictionaries: “To engage in argument by discussing opposing points; to engage in formal discussion or argument; to dispute or argue about.”
Did Saint Lucia witness a debate last week between the Southeast Castries MP and the Speaker? Was the Speaker (to paraphrase Charles Kingsley) free to say what he liked in response to the MP’s quite possibly laced questions about signatures, contract law and defect liability? Was the MP out of order when he chose to tango with the Speaker, to the extent he invited the Speaker to contest general elections and win a seat if he wished to debate elected MPs? Was the MP obeying House rules when he sought to explain the role of Speaker to a sitting Speaker?
Some have insisted the Speaker did nothing wrong when he expressed disagreement with the MP’s interpretation of a contract, in particular with that aspect pertaining to the Defects Liability Period. Wouldn’t the rules have been better served had the Speaker left it to the prime minister or to the minister for infrastructure to demistify in their rebuttals whatever had mystified the Castries Southeast MP? You decide, dear reader; I have bigger sardines to fry.
I remain concerned that local Speakers, like our Directors of Public Prosecution, often assume during House sittings an air of infallibility powered by imagined limitless authority. And speaking of infallibility, permit me a small digression, this time related to the famous appeal court decision in relation to Martinus Francois’ 2004 contention that the finance minister did not have the legal authority to guarantee loans for a particular hotel project without prior parliamentary approval.
Observed Justice Redhead in his written judgment: “Members of the parliament of Saint Lucia must have known what they were voting for. The resolution was before them. The resolution speaks quite clearly of borrowing to finance capital and recurrent expenditure and also for financing government’s capital works program. The members of parliament must be taken to understand what are capital and recurrent expenditures and what is a capital works program. If members of parliament did understand, and in my view they must have, then when they voted unanimously on the resolution they were passing a resolution for the government to borrow to finance capital and recurrent expenditure and for financing government’s capital works.”
The problem was that the judge misquoted the cited resolution. What it sought to do was borrow for the quite clearly stated purpose of “financing government’s capital works program and for refinancing government’s obligations in respect of the former Hyatt.” (My emphasis) Contrary to the judge’s conclusion, the resolution said not a word, not a word, not a word about borrowing “to finance capital and recurrent expenditure.”
I’ve cited the above to prove judges are human, therefore fallible. (The cited judgment also states that Kenny Anthony became the prime minister of Saint Lucia “in 1992”—five years before he faced this country’s electorate for the first time!) Indisputably, judges are not without their vulnerabilities. Neither are MPs, lawyers, Directors of Public Prosecutions, House Speakers—and yes, journalists.
I should also add that permanent secretaries also are prone to error. Indeed, if I should accept as truth the prime minister’s advice to his immediate predecessor during his budget address immediately following his party’s 2011 election victory, that “you cannot trust what public servants tell you,” then what the PS at the ministry for reconstruction told the Hot Button Issue’s Timothy Poleon last Wednesday was hardly worth listening to. Indeed much of it has been challenged by individuals in a position credibly to do so.
It remains to remind our MPs that their contributions to parliamentary debates should be clearly understood by the people, to whom they are accountable. There is no room in parliament for arcane jargon. Surely the details of a contract can be debated in easily understood English. Ditto the law governing loan guarantees by the government!