Once more the House opposition chose to stage a predictable walk-out in the course of debate rather than duke it out with the government. Their show of defiance on Tuesday came shortly after the MP for Laborie Alva Baptiste’s presentation in the 2017 budget debate. The prime minister and MP for Micoud South had just stood up to deliver his closing remarks when one by one the opposition leader and Castries East MP Philip J. Pierre and his team filed out in protest. Later, at the press conference that usually follows SLP walk-outs from the House, Pierre offered the reasons for his party’s most recent protest. In short, that the prime minister had prevented government and opposition MPs from saying their piece on the budget.
Following the PM’s adjournment of the House this week, Pierre told reporters: “Such an important budget. The government’s first for this year and the prime minister saw it fitting to adjourn it for 40 days. This has serious implications for the country. There could be no capital expenses, there could be no new initiatives, because the budget had not yet been passed. The prime minister did not care.”
He offered rationale behind his party’s decision to prematurely eject themselves from the proceedings: “It is conventional and normal that after a member of the opposition has spoken, a member on the government side responds. Again we came, willing and able, to speak to the issues of the budget. But the prime minister, in his normal vindictive and spiteful manner, because he has the power of rebuttal, refuses to allow four senior members of his government to speak.”
Meanwhile at least one media representative was left wondering whether Pierre & Co had been out-strategized by Chastanet and his merry men. Pierre said he and his fellow opposition MPs had been looking forward to the presentations of MPs Stephenson King, Ezekiel Joseph and Edmund Estaphane. Coincidently, the government MPs also were looking forward to the “bombshells” that opposition members claimed ready to drop at Tuesday’s House meeting.
As is usually the case, there was much to be read on Facebook about the walk-out by experts in their own mind, whether what they offered was coloured red or yellow. There was the expected consensus on one side that the prime minister had prevented MPs on both sides of the House from saying their all-important pieces on the day’s topic. Hardly surprising, there were few references to the Speaker who alone is authorized to say when an MP may or may not speak – and, for that matter, what he or she may say!
When this reporter contacted Speaker Leone Theodore-John for her take on what had transpired on Tuesday and the possible trigger, this is what she said: “There is no stated order relating to when MPs get to deliver their contributions. The Speaker recognizes the mic right of MPs in accordance with the House Standing Orders that state it all depends on who catches the attention of the Speaker by turning on the light on his or her microphone. The average time – and we’ve actually checked – between contributions is five to six seconds. After MP Alva Baptiste had delivered his address and taken his seat, there was an unusually long lull. I slowly looked at both sides of the aisle, but saw no light. After a time the prime minister’s light came on and was duly acknowledged. His was the only light that came on at any time after the Honourable Alva Baptiste had spoken.”
Additionally: “The prime minister was the one who presented the Bill. By turning on his light he indicated to me he was ready to start his rebuttal, during which no other MP is authorized to speak on the Bill.”
The opposition having left the building, the prime minister revisited his predecessor’s 1997-98 budget address, with particular references to the Marketing Board, Radio St. Lucia, and the Fish Marketing Corporation, quoting Anthony as having said, “Relating to the state of statutory bodies, Mr. Speaker, during my presentation of the supplementary budget to this honourable House I spoke of the serious economic challenges confronting our statutory corporations. Permit me to explain the extent to which this financial mismanagement and accountability has spread . . .”
The prime minister continued, “The former prime minister Kenny Anthony in his presentation highlighted the Water and Sewerage Authority which at the time had outstanding liabilities of $110 million. The NDC had an annual shortfall of $5 million and a long-term debt of over $40 million. According to PM Anthony: ‘Due to the NDC’s inability to meet its financial obligations the government has in the past eight months paid in excess of $4 million to the Caribbean Development Bank on behalf of NDC.’
“The Broadcasting Authority, in Anthony’s words, was ‘a victim of interference by the previous administration and had an outstanding liability of $1.16 million . . .’ ” The story was the same for all of the named statutory bodies; in debt beyond their recovery. “That is why one of our calypsonians had reason to sing We Have Two Leaders Leading We Country: Kenny and Toni,” the PM observed.
“I can either just talk,” said the prime minister on Tuesday, “or I can walk.” Was that a pun? After all, that’s precisely what Pierre and his team had chosen that day to do: they had walked, not talked!
Said the prime minister, referencing his budget: “Yes, we have a deficit this year. But our intention is to grow the economy. And unlike what the MP for Laborie said earlier, that we are taking a big risk, we on this side don’t think so.” Needless to say the bill passed unopposed. At any rate, unopposed in parliament!