- Published on Wednesday, 17 July 2013 05:43
- Written by By Ken Clifton - Massachusetts Councilman
Occasionally in life there comes a moment in time when remaining silent in the face of an impending travesty is a betrayal of peace and justice. The pressing constitutional crisis in St. Kitts and Nevis is one such moment.
I address my countrymen and women, not as an elected member in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, but as a son of the soil of St. Kitts and Nevis, a country that has given to me its heart and soul and that has instilled in me the values to which I hold dearly.
I have been honoured and privileged to serve my country of birth in various capacities and today, like many thousands of Kittitians and Nevisians, I reside in America but our hearts are very much at home with our families and loved ones. Our love and commitment to the land of our birth is beyond question.
Any son or daughter of the soil who sat in their living rooms in America, England, Canada and elsewhere in the Diaspora and observed the eerie sight of riot clad security officers with guns drawn in a stand-off with their countrymen and women must have been horrified.
Yet at the same time, it must be gratifying for many to see our countrymen and women who have been traditional political enemies, putting aside fierce political rivalry and strife and coming together in unison. Others would argue, however, that it is a union of convenience, a prescription for instability and disaster.
But my appeal is not about partisanship nor is it even about politics, it is about a simple but most profound virtue called justice. Unfortunately, our country is at an impasse. For well over seven months, an unprecedented length of time, a Motion of No Confidence (also known as a censure motion) in the Government of our Prime Minister, the Rt. Hon. Denzil Douglas, has been filed.
Yet the nation’s Parliament, led, aided and abetted by our Prime Minister and the Speaker is still to hear the Motion of No Confidence. This situation is made even more alarming by the fact that six of the eleven elected Members of Parliament, a majority, have not only expressly stated but have documented in writing, that their intention is to support the Motion of No Confidence.
As our Prime Minister would have been advised, when our nation adopted the Westminster system of government, all were fully aware of the fact that an essential ingredient of this system is that the formation, success or continued existence of a government is dependent on the support that such a government receives from the elected Members of Parliament. It is for this reason that Constitutional Scholars, throughout the Commonwealth, have regarded the Motion of No Confidence or Censure Motion as perhaps the most important Parliamentary Procedure in our system of government. In this regard I would commend for reading to the Prime Minister and Speaker, Rodney Brazier’s Constitutional Practice in which he reminds us that:
“The real significance of the general requirement that a government retain the confidence of the House of Commons is not in the rare loss of a vote of confidence or in the somewhat more frequent legislative defeat, but rather that it obliges every government to defend itself, explain its policies, and justify its actions, to its own back-benchers, to the opposition parties, and through them to the country as a whole.”
This is therefore, not a mere request being made by the opposition but in every sense of the word, the hearing/consideration of the Motion, which has been delayed for over seven months, represents a clear breach of the very Rules that the Prime Minster pledged that he would respect when he took the oath of office. Those who support him in this most unconstitutional act should take a moment to reflect, not on their own prospects, but the prospects for the idea that we all call justice. Delay in hearing or considering censure motions is something that those who practice our system of government or those who are experts on its practice, make clear should not be encouraged. In this regard Ryle and Griffith, in Griffith and Ryle on Parliament make the rather apt point that:
“By convention…if the official opposition tables a motion of censure (Motion of No Confidence) on the government, the government provides time for it to be debated.”
It is only too obvious that a confidence motion takes on even more significance and urgency when a sitting government’s defeat is a real possibility. This situation is especially precarious when there is a minority government, one with a fragile majority or where there is internal strife and dissent. This was the case in 1979 when Labour PM Callahan loss a Motion of No Confidence. This led to the dissolution of Parliament and the eventual defeat of the Labour government.
As recorded by the House of Commons Library, the themes of “urgency” and “certainty” consistent with Motions and their aftermath are reflected in the following exchange between PM Callahan and Opposition Leader Margaret Thatcher following Labour’s loss of the Motion:
Mr James Callaghan: Mr Speaker, now that the House has declared itself, we shall take our case to the country. Tomorrow I shall propose to Her Majesty that Parliament be dissolved…and then I shall announce as soon as may be - and that will be as soon as possible - the date of Dissolution, the date of the election.
Mrs Margaret Thatcher: As the Government no longer have authority to carry on business without the agreement of the Opposition, I make it quite clear that we shall facilitate any business which requires the agreement of the Opposition so that the Dissolution can take place at the very earliest opportunity and the uncertainty ended.
The obstruction of the course of justice by the Government should be transparent to all, as the anemic reasons being advanced by the government are proving, as the day goes by, to be convincing only those who, one must conclude, were never committed to the constitutional principles that we agreed should govern us.
The specious excuse that the Constitution does not stipulate a timeline for the Motion is not supported by law or parliamentary practice. The argument that the Prime Minster may have it heard at his convenience flies in the face of centuries of precedence starting in 1782 when Lord North was forced to resign after a successful Motion. If a Prime Minister can have a Motion heard when expedient to him, then logically he may choose to have it on the last day of his active term which is tantamount to not having it heard at all.
The newly advanced pretext by government leaders that it is the former Deputy Prime Minister, the Hon. Sam Condor and the former Senior Minister, the Hon. Timothy Harris, who defected from the Douglas-led Labour government and have crossed the floor should resign their seats, is unsupported by law or parliamentary practice and is not worthy of serious discussion.
After the Government’s reluctance to hear the Motion filed on December 11, 2013, the united Opposition took the matter to Court. The Government then claimed the Motion cannot be heard because it is “sub judice” or before Court. The Opposition then proceeded to discontinue the matter in the Court to remove the impediment claimed by the Government.
Now, in an unprecedented move unheard of in the history of Parliamentary practice, the Speaker claims he wants the Court to decide matters contrary to his earlier position that the Court has no jurisdiction. When we select a Speaker, not only is there a reasonable expectation of acceptable parliamentary decorum but we the people have a right to expect some semblance of fairness, objectivity and leadership in a Constitutional crisis and this is what is done in other places.
Whereas a Speaker is entitled to have his own personal affiliation, it is a widely held principle that the Speaker must not only be impartial, but must be perceived to be so – rather like Caesar’s wife and blind justice. Dave Lovick writing in the Canadian Parliamentary Review puts it best:
“I cannot, frankly, imagine any Speaker with any modicum of understanding and appreciation of parliament who would not be mindful of his or her responsibilities to parliament, to parliamentarians, and to self. The Speaker who demonstrably favoured one side or faction over the other would have a career reminiscent of Hobbes’ state of nature – nasty, brutish, and short.”
Thus who better to remind the Speaker of the importance of speed and urgency in holding the debate when a censure motion is filed than the foremost parliamentary authority Erskine May in Parliamentary Practice, known as the “Parliamentary bible,” who decades ago made this most telling observation:
“From time to time the Opposition puts down a motion on the paper expressing lack of confidence in the government or otherwise criticising its general conduct. By established convention the government always accedes to the demand from the Leader of the Opposition to allot a day for the discussion of a motion tabled by the official Opposition which, in the government’s view, would have the effect of testing the confidence of the House”
It is a long held Parliamentary convention that a Motion takes precedence over normal business for the day. Such is the urgency and import that Parliament may even be recalled from recess for such a Motion to take place. In recognizing that a reasonably early day is invariably found despite government’s exigencies, Erskine May continues:
“This convention is founded on the recognised position of the Opposition as a potential government, which guarantees the legitimacy of such an interruption of the normal course of business. For its part, the government has everything to gain by meeting such a direct challenge to its authority at the earliest possible moment”.
Outside the realm of partisanship and contrary to the rules, it would be irrefutable that a sitting Speaker is openly colluding with a Prime Minister to thwart the will of the majority of elected members of Parliament and, by extension, the will of the people. This cannot be the way forward and the sooner we restore confidence in our commitment to constitutional principles, the greater the chance we will have to preserve the idea that we all know as justice.
I, therefore, make an unequivocal and direct appeal to our Prime Minister and the Speaker of the National Assembly to put our country first and adhere to the democratic norms and ideals. In the interest of peace and justice, I appeal to the better judgment of the Prime Minister and beseech the Government to hear the Motion of No Confidence. To do otherwise, would be irresponsible at best and illegitimate at worst. It would be contrary to their oaths and, more importantly, a violation of the sacred rights of the people.