The House That Compton Built

The moment Marcus Nicholas resigned his post as Deputy Speaker of the St Lucia House of Assembly, the stage was set for an action-packed showdown. It happened this week. The Constitution places the ruling party in double jeopardy when it mandates that the Deputy Speaker should not be a Cabinet member. It rules out all nine members of the government. Then, it allows for the appointment to be made when it is “convenient” to the House. When the question was put to the House and both government and opposition sat silently, the Speaker concluded that it was not a convenient time for the mute members to elect a Deputy Speaker.
In an earlier time there had been protests about the manner and rush to independence.  In our haste to break the colonial ties we adopted a constitution made in the image and likeness of our former masters. A constitution in which we the people had very little input because the new kings who wanted complete domination of their subjects did not see the need for mass consultation. So, here we are thirty-two years after attaining political independence and we have become slaves to our own folly—trapped by simple words such as “convenience.”
This constitutional mess of words inherited by Prime Minister Stephenson King and politically exploited by Opposition Leader Kenny Anthony, is a consequence of the shabby House that the deceased John Compton built. In this instance both King and Kenny are standing on solid ground. The stalemate is the result of a constitutional provision that provides ambiguous guidance and leaves it wide open to convenient individual interpretation. Interestingly, the King government sat speechless during the House sitting allowing the Speaker’s all powerful dictates to guide the process. On the other hand, the opposition argues that traditionally it is the government that makes such appointments and it has not been known in the context of our fig leaf democracy for the opposition to have a say in such an appointment. The opposition also argues that the government has tied its own hands behind its back and with an election to be called at any moment now, it is in no charitable mood.
“We have been calling for elections for a long time now,” argued the SLP’s press secretary. “Why should we now do anything to help this government remain in power?”
This SLP position is reasonable and rational, and is completely understandable in an election cycle.
The Speaker of the House in whom ultimate authority resides to guide and direct the proceedings of the House, made a ruling that the “business of the House” should proceed.  The reasoning for her decision was based on what she claimed was advice from regional sources. It would have been instructive and informative and could have assisted the debate, if the Speaker had provided the sources, or the authority, which guided her decision. The Speaker owes it to the House and the people of St. Lucia to tell us exactly how her authority was influenced. It would have removed all suspicious clouds and given clarity. This is a constitutional impasse without precedent and the Speaker should have been more careful to clarify her decision based on substantiated and verifiable facts. That was absolutely necessary  to prevent future legal challenges, since the business of the House proceeded without the opposition present. Also, it would have provided a basis to deal with such occurrences in the future.
Another confusing aspect of the Speaker’s ruling was her statement that the election of a Deputy Speaker was not “convenient” at this session, but, as if acquiring powers from on high, she knew somehow, by some divine inspiration, that it would be convenient during the next session of the House. Perhaps the Speaker was inspired by her dear father, Mr Bert Husbands, given his numerous godly years as a church deacon! I certainly doubt that the Speaker has a direct line from God, for her to be so definitive in her statement about a future sitting of the House. Talk about the usual “peeing in my eye and calling it rain!” Dr Anthony was therefore perfectly justified in accusing her of supporting the Government, in St Lucia’s Honourable House of Assembly!
The fact is that unless the date for the general election is announced, nothing is likely to change in terms of the disposition of seats in the House. The government will still have nine seats, the opposition six, and two independents liming in limbo. So, what will make it “convenient” then is left for the imagination. I do not share the Speaker’s optimism. Perhaps what the Speaker is aware of is that we were witnessing the final session before a general election. She was obviously being very cynical, while pretending to support “convenience” for the next House sitting, knowing that the result of an election will indeed make it convenient.
What is clear from this distance is that in a maturing democracy such procedural matters are worked out by the parties prior to a session. The government and opposition should respectfully dialogue over such constitutional implications before Parliament is convened, and an arrangement made on the way to proceed. Constitutional issues usually have grave implications for a nation and both government and opposition should be circumspect about how such matters are handled. Who is right and what political games are played for electoral advantage must not be a consideration. The country should never be plunged into a
constitutional crisis when commonsense dictates amicable resolutions.
The hurriedly constructed Constitution in preparation for independence may have provoked this crisis but the chaos was compounded by politicians who are hell bent on proving that developing countries can never mature. Unfortunately, elections in this part of the globe hardly change anything. And the debilitating process is recycled. C’est la vie en Saint Lucie!

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