It started as usual with a prayer, words thickly coated with hope and references to Scripture, not to say pledges to lay aside personal interests and prejudices, if only for the duration of the day’s House sitting. Needless to say normalcy returned as soon as the prayer had been delivered. From talk of OJO Labs, artificial intelligence (defined by the Castries East MP as “mind bending”) to biblical allusions – “40 days and 40 nights”. Naturally there were the usual servings of maypwis and picong (read insults!) that continued until close to the midnight hour. Of course the House Opposition left early to say from the steps of the Castries market, before a friendlier audience, what they might’ve said in parliament if only for the purposes of Hansard!
Actually, the particular House session was a carry over from that adjourned sixty (not forty) days earlier, in consequence of childish games over which MP should speak when. After the bills (public finance management; accreditation authority for medicine and other health professions, not to mention more millions to be borrowed) were presented, Opposition Leader Phillip J Pierre grabbed the floor to insist the stated amounts to be borrowed were simply “not enough” to finance this year’s budget – a situation that left the MP wondering what might be secretly afoot. Over and over Pierre predicted the prime minister would be left with no other option but to return to the House for approval to borrow more dollars, as if it had not long been established that the main purpose of local House sittings was to seek approval for more loans.
“If he [the PM and minister for finance] is asking for $103 million dollars,” said the Castries East MP, “where will he get the money to continue financing the other projects of the government? The money he’s asking for doesn’t even cover the overall deficit that he has . . . where will he raise the remainder of the money? He has to return to the House.”
The now you see him, now you don’t MP for Vieux Fort South, Kenny Anthony, questioned what he deemed an “unusually crafted resolution that may or may not be legal”. The three-term former prime minister also wondered aloud why Saint Lucia was attracting high interest rates, and how long the situation was expected to persist. He answered his own question.
“The fact of the matter is Saint Lucia is attracting the highest rate of interest for its instruments of the RGSM,” he said. “There is both a positive and negative side to this. At first glance an investor, including an ordinary Saint Lucian, would want to buy the instruments of the government of Saint Lucia; your treasury bills, because it’s offering an interest rate of six percent. After all, banks are not offering those interest rates. They might as well invest in government securities. That’s a short-term benefit. The long-term issue, and the underlying structural issue, is that your instruments are attracting high rates of interest because your economy is under stress.” Eureka!
As if Tuesday’s House sitting were a Facebook exchange, the discourse soon turned from the country’s finances to Juffali, Rochamel and Grynberg, which the MP and former sports minister contemptuously dismissed as passé, albeit unresolved. What MP Shawn Edward considered au courant was the contentious so-called “minister’s account” that had been set up, by all that was said on Tuesday, by the National Lotteries Authority. This issue was a left-over from the earlier cited adjourned session. This was how Dominic Fedee, the MP for Anse la Raye-Canaries reintroduced it on Tuesday:
“I was surprised to hear people asking the prime minister to disclose frankly how he’s going to finance the rest of the budget. I mean, frank and full disclosure? I don’t think any of you [on the opposition side] is entitled to speak about frank and full disclosure.”
Shifting to face the Vieux Fort South MP, Kenny Anthony, two chairs away, Fedee said: “Honourable member, your silence on Juffali is deafening. And you want to talk about frank and full disclosure? The House is still waiting to hear an explanation for Grynberg. You want to talk about transparency? You want to talk about accountability and transparency? Then let us talk about what led you to condone a minister in your government that had an account in his name, an account referred to as ‘the minister’s account’.”
Shawn Edward, the Dennery North MP, sprang from his chair on a point of order. House Speaker Leonne John attempted a correction: “Not an account in the minister’s name, but an account called ‘the minister’s account’; that is something completely different!”
Nevertheless the Anse la Raye-Canaries MP considered the so-called minister’s account “a gross violation of good governance.” The Dennery North MP fired several scatter shots in retaliation. He described Fedee as a source of amusement, someone short on credibility, “someone you have to think twice about whether to take him seriously”.
Edward’s next target was the MP for Castries Southeast, Guy Joseph. He said the MP, as his “organization’s political hit man” had been specially assigned to throw dirt on his reputation. When Guy Joseph rose on a point of elucidation, Edward took refuge behind the House rules that permitted him the choice to ignore the particular interruption. He said he would not yield and a characteristically calm Joseph backed off.
But then the MP for Gros Islet, Lenard Montoute, who now holds the sports portfolio earlier controlled by Shawn Edward, stood up on a point of order that demanded more respect than had been shown Guy Joseph. He appealed to the Speaker via the House rules to order the Dennery MP to withdraw his offensive description of a House member as “a political hitman”. To that Edward acquiesced. He withdrew, from the record, at any rate, his offensive remark. Of course, with the session being broadcast live to the world via the Internet, how could the damage be undone?
Edward continued: “Madam Speaker, the account was set up by his [Lenard Montoute’s] own admission when the government of the United Workers Party was inundated with requests from young people to attend university and to further their education. The amount allocated by the ministry of public service was grossly insufficient, which prompted the minister [Montoute], who had responsibility for two ministries: public service and human development, and social transformation, youth and sports.”
Edward referenced a letter to the Chairman of the National Lotteries Authority sent by Lenard Montoute, when he was initially minister of sports, and then stated: “Now I can understand if you’re taking money from NLA to fund a programme that is aligned with the ministry of youth development and sports, then yes, that is okay. But the National Lotteries Authority was being asked to transfer that money to finance programmes of the public service ministry.”
Before Edward had a chance to read from a document he had been waving as he spoke, Montoute rose on the stated authority of Standing Order 35.5. “The member for Dennery North is imputing improper motives and is misleading the House,” he said. “I, as the minister for public service, at no time asked the chairman of the Lotteries Board to allocate finances for the purpose of awarding scholarships. Neither have I at any time indicated we had a problem meeting scholarships. I never asked the Board at any time to award scholarships to anyone. I’ve never said so; I’ve never done so.”
The Dennery North representative proceeded to read from a letter dated November 2, 2011 that seemed to substantiate his claim.
Montoute attempted to provide clarity: “Madam Speaker, this matter has to be brought to rest once and for all. If not, I rather suspect it will be a recurring subject. I do not know how successful I will be in attempting to bring the matter to rest.”
Noting that reference had on several occasions been made to a “minister’s account”, Montoute called out the Dennery North representative who earlier had assured the House there was no minister’s account, then had gone on to “ascribe blame to someone else for opening a minister’s account”.
Reading from the minutes of a Lottery Board of Directors meeting on Thursday, July 23, 2009, during which time Montoute was minister for youth and sports, with responsibility for the National Lotteries Authority, he let it be known that he fully understood the provisions of the Act of the Lotteries.
“I recognize as minister that though I was in a position to give policy direction, I did not have the authority to interfere directly with the day to day running of the board. That is inappropriate, and I think that’s the observation I made that sparked off this debate.”
Reading from the letter from 2009, in which one of the board’s directors “expressed disappointment on behalf of the department of youth and sports at the NLA’s inability to contribute to airfares associated with participants in the Windward Islands Championship,” Montoute detailed how an account had been opened at the Bank of Saint Lucia, an idea proposed by the board’s chairman. The account had reportedly been “set up and designed for the sole purpose” of particular events.
Moving on to another document, this time dated 29 May, 2012, that Montoute read into the House record: “Sir, in an effort to create a more equitable distribution of funds to the various stakeholders, the following mode of operations shall come into immediate effect as it pertains to the allocation of funds at the National Lotteries Authority. The following formula should be applied with regard to the allocation of funds.”
“These are directives coming from the minister [Shawn Edward],” Montoute said, then continued reading. The letter detailed the proportions of grants and contributions that would benefit youth and sports organizations. Although facilities, national players and special events would also benefit from the reserve fund, Montoute said, this was “still within the scope of the National Lotteries”. He came to the arrangement set up to finance the “minster’s requests and support services”.
“Don’t ask me what that means,” Montoute said. “I challenge anyone to point out to me in the National Lotteries Act, the document that governs how the NLA operates, where this can be justified.”
As detailed by Montoute citing the document, the then youth and sports minister Edward had indicated a need to “assist various financial requests, sometimes instantaneously”.
“He indicated in his letter to the NLA board that he could not depend solely on the agreed allocation to the fund, and proposed a minimum of $200,000 be placed in the minister’s account. If you hear any mention of a minster’s account,” Montoute told the House, “I am not the one saying it. The Board of the NLA is itself making the reference.”
Additionally: “This would not only facilitate the funding of sudden requests, but also assist any other ministry that may come to him [the minister] for assistance. Again I make reference to the NLA Act. That is highly inappropriate and contrary to good governance.”
As he read the NLA minutes and other correspondence, Montoute painted a picture of what he described as “impropriety of the highest order”. Meanwhile a silent Shawn Edward had been rocking back and forth in his chair. Suddenly he was on his feet again to complain to the Speaker about Moutoute’s use of the word “impropriety” with reference to the Dennery MP. Following several minutes of kindergarten-like back and forth, Montoute said: “I did not impute improper motives; I established improper motives.” At the behest of the Speaker, however, he finally withdrew the offensive word. For her part the House Speaker let it be known that House debates had degenerated to the point that she soon would be at a loss what to do about the ritual name calling and unsubstantiated accusations (every word of which was transmitted live and in colour world-wide!)
While at least one member of the House suggested an inquiry into the matter – in his turn the prime minister seemed to suggest the NLA had some questions to answer – Montoute offered the assurance that his government was “more than ready to get on with the business of the people, more than ready to execute its plans and policies” now that its budget had finally been adopted by the House.
As earlier stated, the Opposition was in the meantime busy on the steps of the Castries market!