Speaker Sir Gerald Watt was wrong

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By Charlesworth C. M. Tabor, Attorney-at-Law

I am sure there is no one in Antigua and Barbuda who is not aware of the fiasco that transpired in Parliament on Thursday 14th May, 2020 between the Speaker of the House Sir Gerald Watt and the Leader of the Opposition Jamale Pringle. For those who are not aware of the facts that gave rise to the parliamentary fiasco I will briefly outline them. 

 A few weeks ago the Prime Minister made a public announcement that he was establishing an Economic Recovery Committee (ERC). The function of the ERC is to formulate plans to stimulate and diversify the economy to address the fallout from the Covid-19 pandemic.  In his public announcement, the Prime Minister made it quite pellucid that he was inviting the Opposition Leader to be a member of the ERC because of his constitutional position as Opposition Leader, and that it was inevitable that he do so by virtue of that position. The Prime Minister as usual was wrong in his pronouncement because the only constitutionally obligated position that the Opposition Leader has to serve on is the Public Accounts Committee, of which he would be the Chair. Moreover, the ERC was not established as a Parliamentary Committee but was established by the Prime Minister on his own volition.

All the issues surrounding the public invitation (and subsequent written invitation) by the Prime Minister to the Opposition Leader to join the ERC; and the Opposition Leader’s reasons for declining to be a member of the ERC have been fully ventilated in the media and are well known, therefore I will not focus on them here. My sole focus in this article will be on why the Speaker of the House was wrong in not granting permission to the Leader of the Opposition to make a personal explanation to the Parliament.

In the sitting of Parliament on Thursday 14th May, 2020 under the heading of Personal Explanation on the Order of Business, the Leader of the Opposition rose to his feet and announced to the Speaker that he wanted to provide a personal explanation to the House as to why he declined to participate in the ERC established by the Prime Minister. With respect to personal explanations by Members of Parliament, this is what Erskine May had to say in his authoritative text on The Law, Privileges, Proceedings and Usage of Parliament, and I quote “In regard to the explanation of personal matters, the House is usually indulgent, and will permit a statement of that character to be made without any question being before the House provided that the Speaker has been informed of what the Member proposes to say, and has given leave.”

When the Leader of the Opposition informed the Speaker that he wished to make a personal explanation and what the personal explanation would be about, he would have discharged the first requirement to facilitate his request. The second requirement to facilitate the request would have been the granting of leave by the Speaker. Although the Speaker has complete discretion over whether to grant or refuse permission to a Member to give a personal explanation, this permission is invariably granted since the Speaker should be as indulgent as possible. And this indulgence shoud be even moreso when the Member (Leader of the Opposition) is the sole member of his Party in Parliament as obtains in the current situation.

There are those who seem to think that a personal explanation requires advance notice and therefore the Speaker was right not to allow the Leader of the Opposition to provide his personal explanation because no advance notice was given. No advance notice is required. All that is required is that the Speaker should have an idea of the subject matter of the personal explanation. In the instant case, the Leader of the Opposition indicated to him the subject matter of his personal explanation which would have been a rebuttal of the statement by the Prime Minister appointing him to the ERC. However, the most troubling and astounding part of the whole fiasco, was the reasoning given by the Speaker for his refusal to grant permission to the Leader of the Opposition to give his personal explanation. The reasoning of the Speaker was most flawed, and given the fact that he has been Speaker for almost 6 years and is an eminent lawyer of long standing, his flawed reasoning either smacks of senility or is a case of pure malice. The latter of course I do not accept to be the case. 

  Now, let us look closely at the reasoning of the Speaker. In denying the request of the Leader of the Opposition to make a personal explanation, the Speaker submitted that the explanation was directed at a statement that was made outside of Parliament and therefore could not be allowed. The Speaker was clearly wrong on that submission. A personal explanation can be made on any matter once the matter is personal to the Member and is in reference to his capacity as a Member of the House. The matter does not have to relate to something said in the House (as the Speaker was erroneously suggesting). The matter could be something said outside of the House (as the Prime Minister’s statement was). The Speaker was, therefore, DEAD WRONG when he said that the Leader of the Opposition could not give a personal explanation on a matter (statement) that occurred outside of the House.

Similarly, the Speaker was again DEAD WRONG when he said that personal explanations have to do with a Member informing the House of a change in Party affiliation or any similar procedural matters. Personal explanations can be provided on any matter once the matter touches and concerns a Member of the House in his capacity as a Member of the House.

Does one have to be an Einstein, when presented with the facts of this matter, to come to the conclusion that the statement made by the Prime Minister outside of the House, directly touches and concerns the Leader of the Opposition? So as to dispel any doubt about that I shall repeat the Prime Minister’s statement. The Prime Minister publicly declared on his radio station Pointe FM that Jamale Pringle, Leader of the Opposition, was invited by him to be a member of the ERC because of his constitutional position as Leader of the Opposition. Following the rejection of the Prime Minister’s invitation by the Leader of the Opposition, the Prime Minister then engaged in his usual spin and false narrative. In that regard, he accused the Leader of the Opposition of being guilty of a dereliction of his duty and also of being unpatriotic. Such utter nonsense could only come from the mouth of the Prime Minister.

The point that I am making in this article is that the Speaker of the House was wrong in refusing to give the Leader of the Opposition the opportunity to make a personal explanation. I have indicated that the two grounds upon which the Speaker relied to justify his refusal were incorrect and not supported by any procedural parliamentary or legal basis. The fiasco in Parliament on the 14th day of May, 2020 was rather unfortunate and could have been avoided if the Speaker was on the top of his game. The whole procedure should have been quite simple. The Speaker should have allowed the personal explanation by the Leader of the Opposition and then the Prime Minister would have been given an opportuinity to reply (if he so chose since the personal explanation was about a statement he made). That would have been the end of the matter and no debate would follow since debates are not allowed on personal explanation.

The Speaker of the House, Sir Gerald Watt, despite his knowledge and experience messed up big time. I can only hope that this does not happen again in the House.

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