TUESDAY’S historic sitting of the House of Assembly was anything but normal. For starters, the January 29th session here was taking place at precisely the same time that four hours and thousands of miles away, the UK parliament was also locked into an equally riveting session. Here, the Prime Minister was facing a Motion of No Confidence in his leadership; there, the UK Prime Minister was battling her way through Westminster, seeking House support or direction for what she’d insisted was her good Brexit deal gone bad.
The first sitting for 2019, it started almost 90 minutes late. But with an unusually packed parliamentary chamber and given the importance of the day’s proceedings, the Speaker noted the presence of John and Joan Public in the House and encouraged “the citizenry of Sweet Helen” to continue to populate “your House, your Chamber.”
The Prime Minister and Ministers quickly dispensing with first readings of bills laid in their name it was soon time for the main item in the order Paper: The Motion of No Confidence in the Prime Minster by the Opposition Leader.
Castries East MP Philip J. Pierre had hardly started off before Castries South East MP Guy Joseph challenged the basis on which the Motion was moved, claiming it could not legally be carried in the name of or against the prime minister.
Joseph insisted by interjection that the Motion was therefore flawed and should be thrown out. But Speaker Andy Daniel, obviously ready for the legal challenge, tabled a document quoting several legal precedents from other Caribbean states and courts to overrule the Castries South East MP’s legal and constitutional challenge.
Recalling his “previous life” as a magistrate, Speaker Daniel reassured and promised MPs that “I will be fair in this chair” He quoted similar No Confidence Motion cases from St Kitts and Nevis and Guyana, as well as New Zealand, along with rulings of the Eastern Caribbean Supreme Court, along with sections of the Saint Lucia Constitution, to indicate that “there is nothing unconstitutional about this motion being in the PM’s name.”
The Opposition Leader delivered a prepared statement to outline his case against the Prime Minister, his presentation obviously containing much of everything the government side would have preferred either not said or said in the way it was.
Pierre had clearly listed as many of the negative things his party wanted to throw the PM’s way, even referring to actions and statements by Mr Chastanet before he became Prime Minister – until the Speaker asked that he keep his characterizations within the boundaries of his period as prime minister.
Try hard as he may, the Speaker’s job was well cut out to be a difficult one that day. In the almost two hours the opposition leader took to make his presentation, every effort was made by the key Government MPs to interject on ‘Points of Order’.
MPs for Gros Islet, Anse La Raye/Canaries, Castries Central and Choiseul repeatedly joined their counterparts from Castries South East – and the Prime Minister – to ceaselessly challenge the Opposition Leader, most accusing him of “misleading the House.”
Indeed, between the start and end of the opposition Leader’s presentation of his case to back his motion, there were at least nineteen (19) interjections by MPs from the Government side, ranging from allegations of misrepresentation to reopening matters already dealt with in earlier proceedings.
Things did get testy most times, with several government MPs, including the Prime Minister, accusing the Opposition Leader of “abusing” House privileges, violating House Standing Orders and the Saint Lucia Constitution, “imputing improper motives”, making allegations without documentary evidence and “lying about growth figures.”
Even the Speaker came under repeated pressure from Government MPs. Gros Islet MP Lennard Montoute said “There must be a limit to this continuing abuse,” he told the Speaker in one of his several interjections, adding: “It’s a bad day, don’t make it worse!”
Directly addressing the Speaker’s refusal to bow to requests that he rein-in the Opposition Leader or put the Motion to an early vote, the Gros Islet MP advised that “This latitude is allowing him [the Castries East MP] to continue…”
The Speaker again over-ruled the clearly annoyed MP, who asked the Speaker: “How much further will we allow it to go?”
Castries South East MP Guy Joseph would point similar accusing fingers the Speaker’s way. “I don’t know how long you will allow this to continue,” he told the Speaker, adding: “I have seen a lot of latitude given in this House, but not like this…”
The Speaker, clearly under pressure from both sides, did try his best to walk the parliamentary tightrope, several times asking the Opposition Leader to “withdraw” or “re-phrase” statements he could not immediately back-up with available evidence.
The Castries East MP would most times acquiesce to the speaker’s ruling, if only to allow himself to continue to deliver his heavily-loaded case against the prime minister.
Pierre eventually ended his intended political eulogy for the prime minister by calling on members on the government side to vote with their consciences and support his motion, not to change their government but to change the prime minister and relieve Saint Lucia of Mr Chastanet’s leadership, for the many reasons he’s just outlined.
The one-hour lunch break lasted all of 90 minutes and the House resumed for the much-expected debate on the motion, with more pressure on the Speaker – from the government side – to bring an early end to this part of the day’s proceedings.
After Laborie MP Alva Baptiste concluded his presentation, Castries Central MP Sarah Flood-Beaubrun, herself a former Speaker and fleetingly named as Deputy Speaker after the 2016 General Elections, called on the Speaker to “put the question to the House” – in other words, put the Motion to a vote.
The Opposition Leader urged the Speaker not to go that route (as yet), as only two of the six opposition members had spoken.
The Speaker noted that government MPs would have enough time to respond and said he did not want to rule in any way that would appear to disadvantage the minority, especially as the Opposition Leader had indicated that other members on his side were yet to and wanted to speak on the motion as well.
Not to be easily outdone, the Castries Central MP cited the time factor. She said: “We have 12 bills to discuss and the opposition has had wide latitude. They have been given unprecedented latitude and I think this is an abuse.”
The prime minister would add to the pressure on the Speaker (to stop the debate and put the issue to the vote. Following-up where the Castries Central MP ended, the Micoud South MP told the Speaker: “The two (Opposition MPs) who have spoken have said all that they wanted to say and repeated all that’s been said in the motion, so put it (the motion) to the vote.”
He added: “This is not a vote of no confidence in the government but a vote of no confidence in a leader… Their right is to bring the motion…”
Speaker Daniel stood his ground and allowed the debate to continue, with the MPs for Dennery North (Shawn Edward) and Castries South (Ernest Hilaire) taking the floor to add fuel to the day’s opposition fiery parliamentary flay, followed by the MP from Vieux Fort North (Moses Jn Baptiste).
If it appeared that the government side was refraining from responding to the Opposition Leader’s damning claims, that position changed after five of the six opposition MPs had spoken, with government MPs for Castries Central (Sarah Flood-Beaubrun), Micoud North (Gale Rigobert), Choiseul MP Bradley Felix, Castries South East Guy Joseph, Babonneau MP Ezekiel Joseph and Anse La Raye/Canaries MP Dominic Fedee, all taking to the floor in quick succession.
Dennery South MP Edmund Estephane had broken his silence earlier to urge the Speaker to put the motion to the vote, saying: “Is this the marketplace? We are wasting my time and my constituents’ time…”
Estephane would add: “They (the opposition) are trying to make history. There’s nothing they have said that they haven’t said before, so let us vote now!” But again the Speaker didn’t yield to the pressure to bring the proceedings to a premature end.
After several government MPs spoke, Estephane would again ask for the floor, this time apparently pressing the request button at the same time as Vieux Fort South MP Kenny D. Anthony.
Perhaps thinking the Dennery South MP wished to speak on the motion, Dr Anthony yielded – but much to his regret, as Estephane would, yet again, call for the Motion to be put to the vote.
Not moved by the former prime minister’s protestations, the Speaker ruled that his eye had caught the Dennery MPs request first, thus him being given the floor.
The vote was put and the result – as much expected – was divided strictly along party lines, all eleven government MPs opposing and all six opposition MPs supporting their ill-fated effort to secure three votes from the government side to remove the Micoud South MP from his position as Prime Minister of Saint Lucia.
As it turned out, the only MP who didn’t speak was former Prime Minister and Castries North MP Stephenson King, who, interestingly enough, was the one being recommended by several opposition spokespersons as the one his fellow MPs should have backed the opposition’s resolution to replace Chastanet as Prime Minister.
By the time the votes were put in the parliaments in London and Castries on Tuesday evening, some interesting democratic exercises and experiences had been shared on both sides of the Atlantic: the UK Prime Minister had been forced to walk back on her earlier insistence that the Brexit deal she’d agreed with the EU was the one and only, while the Saint Lucia PM had been able to secure 100% worth of the confidence of his fellow UWP MPs.
Prime Minister Theresa May may have been beaten into unwilling but inescapable submission after suffering the dishonor of being the most unpopular prime minister among British MPs in history, but given the way the politics of Westminster democracy plays out at Westminster, she’s again lived to fight another day.
Prime Minister Chastanet has also lived to fight many more days, but parliamentary democracy in Saint Lucia is certainly seen as having scored a sustained victory on January 29, 2019, even if only for one day.