MP-Speaker ex­change inspires cot­tage in­dus­try

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There are two kinds of free­doms, wrote Charles Kings­ley, the false where one is free to do what he likes; and the true where he is free to do what he ought. Kings­ley it was who in Wa­ter Ba­bies also wrote: “I am very ugly. I am the ugli­est fairy in the world; and I shall be till peo­ple be­have them­selves as they ought to do. And then I shall grow as hand­some as my sis­ter, who is the loveli­est fairy in the world; and her name is Mrs. Doasy­ouwouldbedoneby. So she be­gins where I end, and I be­gin where she ends; and those who will not lis­ten to her must lis­ten to me, as you will see.”

I sus­pect it would be a long, long time be­fore Kings­ley’s ugli­est fairy in the world started to re­sem­ble her hand­some sis­ter Mrs. Doasy­ouwouldbedoneby if her trans­for­ma­tion de­pended on our be­hav­ing our­selves “as we ought to do.”

We are un­de­ni­ably as we are to­day, that is to say, in­de­scrib­ably grotesque, pre­cisely be­cause we did not do what we ought to have done decades ago—whether in re­la­tion to our econ­omy, our nat­u­ral en­vi­ron­ment, our ed­u­ca­tion sys­tem, our peo­ple. For too long have we per­sisted in do­ing be­lat­edly what needed ur­gently to be done. A long time ago pro­cras­ti­na­tion had re­tooled our DNA.

Con­sider the sec­tion of our law that gov­erns gov­ern­ment guar­an­tees of bank loans (yes, again!) Last amended in Fe­bru­ary 2011, the law re­quires that ev­ery re­lated de­tail be placed be­fore par­lia­ment prior to its endorsement of loan guar­an­tees. It does not per­mit so-called guar­an­tees in prin­ci­ple, as in the time of Rochamel. Nev­er­the­less, par­lia­ment con­tin­ues rou­tinely to grant “be­lated guar­an­tees,” in the process flout­ing Sec­tion 41 of the Fi­nance Ad­min­is­tra­tion Act.

Last Tues­day another res­o­lu­tion, cen­tered on yet another “be­lated” loan guar­an­tee, came be­fore par­lia­ment. Alas, the par­tic­u­lar ses­sion will be re­mem­bered for the ex­cre­men­ti­tious ex­changes be­tween the MP Guy Joseph and the House Speaker—not for the de­plorable fact that once again par­lia­men­tar­i­ans had voted in fa­vor of a loan guar­an­tee in the name of a pri­vate en­tity long af­ter it had been awarded a multi-mil­lion dol­lar gov­ern­ment con­tract not ap­proved by par­lia­ment.

The widely dis­cussed ar­gu­ment be­tween the Castries South­east MP and the Speaker was ig­nited by the for­mer’s pos­si­bly loaded ques­tions about the con­nec­tion be­tween the sig­na­tory to the con­tract—a min­istry of­fi­cial—and the sim­i­larly sur­named CEO of the con­tracted en­tity. I say “pos­si­bly loaded” be­cause the ques­tioner’s mo­tives were never clear. The re­sul­tant backand-forth soon de­scended to depths that, although hardly un­prece­dented, had more in com­mon with back-al­ley cat­fights than with hon­or­able gen­tle­men. The be­low-the-belt ver­bal as­saults ended with the Speaker sternly si­lenc­ing the MP and di­rect­ing he take his seat.

Still the fall-out con­tin­ues. The de­ba­cle ap­pears to have inspired a cot­tage in­dus­try that of­fers for sale “Since When Das Your Role?” tee shirts, mugs, mash-ups, car­toons and sidesplit­ting videos fea­tur­ing the MP and the Speaker at full throt­tle, at once em­bar­rass­ing and hi­lar­i­ous.

How­ever, at least two as­pects of last week’s House car­ni­val were any­thing but funny: the role of the Speaker and the con­tin­ued flout­ing of the law by law­mak­ers. In the UK the Speaker of the House of Com­mons chairs de­bates in the Com­mons cham­ber. The holder of this of­fice is an MP who has been elected to be Speaker by other Mem­bers of Par­lia­ment. The Speaker is per­haps best known as the per­son who keeps or­der and calls MPs to speak dur­ing Com­mons de­bates. The Speaker calls MPs in turn to give their opin­ion on an is­sue. MPs sig­nal they wish to speak by stand­ing up from their seat (a cus­tom known as “catch­ing the Speaker’s eye”) or they can no­tify the Speaker in ad­vance by writ­ing.

The Speaker of the House of Com­mons has full au­thor­ity to en­sure MPs fol­low the rules of the House dur­ing de­bates. This can in­clude di­rect­ing an MP to with­draw re­marks if, for ex­am­ple, they use abu­sive lan­guage; sus­pend­ing the sit­ting of the House due to se­ri­ous dis­or­der; sus­pend­ing MPs who are de­lib­er­ately disobe­di­ent (known as “nam­ing”); ask­ing MPs to be quiet so Mem­bers can be heard.

In the UK, House Speak­ers must be po­lit­i­cally im­par­tial. There­fore, on elec­tion the new Speaker must re­sign from his or her po­lit­i­cal party and re­main sep­a­rate from po­lit­i­cal is­sues even in re­tire­ment. How­ever, the Speaker will deal with con­stituency prob­lems like a nor­mal MP.

Speak­ers still stand in gen­eral elec­tions. They are gen­er­ally un­op­posed by the ma­jor po­lit­i­cal par­ties, who will not field a can­di­date in the Speaker’s con­stituency. Dur­ing a gen­eral elec­tion Speak­ers do not cam­paign on po­lit­i­cal is­sues but sim­ply stand as “the Speaker seek­ing re­elec­tion.”

So-called unparliamentary lan­guage is not per­mit­ted in the Westminster sys­tem. This in­cludes, but is not lim­ited to, the sug­ges­tion of dis­hon­esty or use of pro­fan­ity. The most pro­hib­ited case is any sug­ges­tion that another mem­ber is dis­hon­or­able. So, for ex­am­ple, sug­gest­ing that another mem­ber is ly­ing is for­bid­den.

In Saint Lu­cia, where par­lia­ment os­ten­si­bly op­er­ates in ac­cor­dance with the rules of the West­min­is­ter sys­tem, MPs rou­tinely be­rate one another and con­temp­tu­ously refuse to take their seat at the di­rec­tion of the Speaker. Some have been known to de­nounce fel­low Mem­bers as “rene­gades and crim­i­nals, cor­rupt” and so on—with im­punity. There have also been naked death threats hurled across the ta­ble.

Speak­ers are gen­er­ally not ex­pected to join in House de­bates. But then who de­ter­mines what is or is not a de­bate? At this junc­ture I am re­minded of the US Supreme Court’s Jus­tice Pot­ter Stewart who, while ref­er­enc­ing “a hard-core pornog­ra­phy mat­ter,” said: “I shall not to­day at­tempt fur­ther to de­fine the kinds of ma­te­rial I un­der­stand to be em­braced within that short­hand de­scrip­tion and per­haps I could never suc­ceed in in­tel­li­gi­bly do­ing so. But I know it when I see it, and the mo­tion pic­ture in­volved in this case is not that.”

In all events, we may wish to em­brace the or­di­nary mean­ing of “de­bate,” at any rate, as de­fined by most dic­tionar­ies: “To en­gage in ar­gu­ment by dis­cussing op­pos­ing points; to en­gage in for­mal dis­cus­sion or ar­gu­ment; to dis­pute or ar­gue about.”

Did Saint Lu­cia wit­ness a de­bate last week be­tween the South­east Castries MP and the Speaker? Was the Speaker (to para­phrase Charles Kings­ley) free to say what he liked in re­sponse to the MP’s quite pos­si­bly laced ques­tions about sig­na­tures, con­tract law and de­fect li­a­bil­ity? Was the MP out of or­der when he chose to tango with the Speaker, to the ex­tent he in­vited the Speaker to con­test gen­eral elec­tions and win a seat if he wished to de­bate elected MPs? Was the MP obey­ing House rules when he sought to ex­plain the role of Speaker to a sit­ting Speaker?

Some have in­sisted the Speaker did noth­ing wrong when he ex­pressed dis­agree­ment with the MP’s in­ter­pre­ta­tion of a con­tract, in par­tic­u­lar with that as­pect per­tain­ing to the De­fects Li­a­bil­ity Pe­riod. Wouldn’t the rules have been bet­ter served had the Speaker left it to the prime min­is­ter or to the min­is­ter for in­fra­struc­ture to demistify in their re­but­tals

what­ever had mys­ti­fied the Castries South­east MP? You de­cide, dear reader; I have big­ger sar­dines to fry.

I re­main con­cerned that lo­cal Speak­ers, like our Di­rec­tors of Public Pros­e­cu­tion, of­ten as­sume dur­ing House sit­tings an air of in­fal­li­bil­ity pow­ered by imag­ined lim­it­less au­thor­ity. And speak­ing of in­fal­li­bil­ity, per­mit me a small di­gres­sion, this time re­lated to the fa­mous ap­peal court de­ci­sion in re­la­tion to Mart­i­nus Fran­cois’ 2004 con­tention that the fi­nance min­is­ter did not have the le­gal au­thor­ity to guar­an­tee loans for a par­tic­u­lar ho­tel pro­ject with­out prior par­lia­men­tary ap­proval.

Ob­served Jus­tice Red­head in his writ­ten judg­ment: “Mem­bers of the par­lia­ment of Saint Lu­cia must have known what they were vot­ing for. The res­o­lu­tion was be­fore them. The res­o­lu­tion speaks quite clearly of bor­row­ing to fi­nance cap­i­tal and re­cur­rent ex­pen­di­ture and also for fi­nanc­ing gov­ern­ment’s cap­i­tal works pro­gram. The mem­bers of par­lia­ment must be taken to un­der­stand what are cap­i­tal and re­cur­rent ex­pen­di­tures and what is a cap­i­tal works pro­gram. If mem­bers of par­lia­ment did un­der­stand, and in my view they must have, then when they voted unan­i­mously on the res­o­lu­tion they were pass­ing a res­o­lu­tion for the gov­ern­ment to bor­row to fi­nance cap­i­tal and re­cur­rent ex­pen­di­ture and for fi­nanc­ing gov­ern­ment’s cap­i­tal works.”

The prob­lem was that the judge mis­quoted the cited res­o­lu­tion. What it sought to do was bor­row for the quite clearly stated pur­pose of “fi­nanc­ing gov­ern­ment’s cap­i­tal works pro­gram and for re­fi­nanc­ing gov­ern­ment’s obli­ga­tions in re­spect of the for­mer Hy­att.” (My em­pha­sis)

Con­trary to the judge’s con­clu­sion, the res­o­lu­tion said not a word, not a word, not a word about bor­row­ing “to fi­nance cap­i­tal and re­cur­rent ex­pen­di­ture.”

I’ve cited the above to prove judges are hu­man, there­fore fal­li­ble. (The cited judg­ment also states that Kenny An­thony be­came the prime min­is­ter of Saint Lu­cia “in 1992”—five years be­fore he faced this coun­try’s elec­torate for the first time!)

In­dis­putably, judges are not with­out their vul­ner­a­bil­i­ties. Nei­ther are MPs, lawyers, Di­rec­tors of Public Pros­e­cu­tions, House Speak­ers—and yes, jour­nal­ists.

I should also add that per­ma­nent sec­re­taries also are prone to er­ror. In­deed, if I should ac­cept as truth the prime min­is­ter’s ad­vice to his im­me­di­ate pre­de­ces­sor dur­ing his bud­get ad­dress im­me­di­ately fol­low­ing his party’s 2011 elec­tion vic­tory, that “you can­not trust what public ser­vants tell you,” then what the PS at the min­istry for re­con­struc­tion told the

Hot But­ton Is­sue’s Ti­mothy Poleon last Wed­nes­day was hardly worth lis­ten­ing to. In­deed much of it has been chal­lenged by in­di­vid­u­als in a po­si­tion cred­i­bly to do so.

It re­mains to re­mind our MPs that their con­tri­bu­tions to par­lia­men­tary de­bates should be clearly un­der­stood by the peo­ple, to whom they are ac­count­able. There is no room in par­lia­ment for ar­cane jar­gon. Surely the de­tails of a con­tract can be de­bated in easily un­der­stood English. Ditto the law gov­ern­ing loan guar­an­tees by the gov­ern­ment!

Deputy Prime Min­is­ter Philip J. Pierre: Not a word, not a word,

not a word about be­lated guar­an­tees!

Castries South­east MP Guy Joseph: Will his big ques­tion fire up

the co­matose car­ni­val spirit?

ker Peter Foster QC: Was he more pa­tient han nec­es­sary last Tues­day?

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