Letters & Opinion

General Elections Anxiety and the Thin Parliamentary Line Between Prorogation and Dissolution

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Chronicles Of A Chronic Caribbean Chronicler By Earl Bousquet

Growing-up as a child, my father always told me: ‘Every day is a school day.’

His explanation was that ‘Life is about learning’ and ‘You learn something new every day.’

Today, Dad’s lessons remain fresh, the latest reminder coming just last weekend, with the news of the announcement in last Friday’s (March 6) Saint Lucia Gazette that the Saint Lucia Parliament would be prorogued yesterday (March 12).

The Gazette – in which all new constitutional, legal, parliamentary and other gubernatorial measures are announced in advance – also indicated the House of Assembly would be meeting again on March 16, 2021.

By Saturday morning I started getting calls and WhatsApp messages either seeking confirmation or expressing joy that ‘Finally!’ the House of Assembly would be dissolved and ‘At last!’ the date for elections’ will be announced.

It was like if the election bell had rung.

I know and expect that every Parliament lasts five years, with one Session per year that usually starts with a Joint Session of both Upper and Lower Houses, at which the elected MPs and appointed Senators collectively pay annual ‘Allegiance to Her Majesty the Queen’ (Elizabeth II)

I have always boiled inside and flipped to another channel or found other ways not to even listen to this annual insult to our national sovereignty that continues after 42 years of Independence, usually followed by the Prime Minister’s Budget Address to the House and the ensuing debate on the tabled Estimates of Revenue and Expenditure, respectively.

That’s what I have learned on the job over the past 44 years, but the language in the Gazette announcement did not describe all I just have.

So, with General Elections constitutionally due this year, the Prime Minister’s recent assurance that elections will be called within the ‘Constitutional’ time-frame and the start of the end of the First Quarter of 2021 beginning on Monday (March 15), Elections Anxiety has (understandably) got the best of many.

One particular WhatsApp inquiry posted my way was very instructive: ‘How can the Prime Minister dissolve the House on Friday and call a House meeting on Tuesday? Dat Man mad? He firing people on Friday and telling them come to work Tuesday. SMH!’

Most others cared less about the prorogation than about ‘When the Prime Minister will call the election…’ with much speculation as to whether it will be ‘Before or After June 6’ and ‘Whether he will choose to use the 90-day extension’ and take the election beyond the five-year term to mid-September 2021.

And a few argued over whether ‘Time’ s on the Government’s or the Opposition’s ‘side’.

And there were some interesting legal arguments over the 90-day extension period, led by an assertion that ‘The 90-days extension was NOT inserted in the Elections Law for the pleasure of the Prime Minister, but only just in case something like a Natural or Man-made disaster happens to prevent the elections from taking place on a set date.’

One legal mind asked: ‘But can’t the Prime Minister use the two-year COVID Emergency that’s already law to justify postponing the elections?’

To which another replied: ‘You mad? Not even Donald Trump could have postponed the US election for COVID-19. Besides, eight elections have been held in CARICOM under COVID in the past year…’

I found the discussion interesting, but did not contribute as I did not want it to end.

I knew, deep within, that the discussion was a right one, but about a wrong topic.

But it was serving as a good weather vane, a veritable windsock on just how well some people who feverishly contribute to online discussions and debates are in tune with what is, vis-à-vis what is wished (for).

Let me (try to) explain…

The topic was sparked by the Prorogation of Parliament – which means (by dictionary definition) ‘Discontinuation of a session of (a parliament or other legislative assembly) without dissolving it.’

But the discussion was about Dissolution of Parliament, the final act to clear the House for new General Elections, to elect a new Parliament comprising the 17 successful election candidates.

So, the discussion was a right one, only at the wrong time – if ever there was a ‘right time’ to discuss politics.

In other words, the discussion was taking place ‘before its time’ – as I told a fellow traveler on the long road through the everyday school of life and politics.

Indeed, I had called Ignatius Jean, as a former District Representative, MP and Cabinet Minister, to find out whether something had changed, because some of those in the chat rooms (including active politicians on both sides of the divide), I felt, knew or ought to have known the difference between Prorogation and Dissolution.

But I was wrong and right – wrong to think I was wrong and right to believe that Elections Anxiety was (and still is) to blame.

Which is why I will repeat an age-old recommendation that the two major parties and the Parliament of Saint Lucia take steps to consult and jointly create a set of minimum standards and requirements for persons intending to be elections candidates.

I continue to agonize over the fact that after every General Elections since Independence, more than half the new Cabinet always comprises persons who’ll learn — on the job – the difference between a District Representative, a MP and a Cabinet Minister, in the process mixing chalk and cheese with the expectation ‘they will learn fast…’

Many would not have read the Constitution of Saint Lucia, the Elections Act, the Standing Orders of the House of Assembly or the Senate, the Constituency Boundaries, or a full understanding of why the Senate is the Upper House and Senate President is the official Head of the Parliament (and not the Speaker of the House).

As I have said to every Senate President that I’ve had the opportunity to since 2000, the proposed minimum standards should be taught and imparted by experienced local, regional and international parliamentarians (of present and past), with support from international parliamentary bodies that would hardly turn down such a proposal.

After all, such a project would contribute so much to make better true politicians of the men and women who still tend to see politics as a power game or simply an unappreciated ‘personal sacrifice’ that few others are prepared to make.

Politics is more than just that – and the discussions referred to further underline my overlying conviction that until screening processes for elections candidates are based on more than just their ability to win, or to finance their own campaigns, we will continue to have unprepared Cabinet Ministers, MPs and Senators learning on the job, at the cost of being able to do it effectively.

By all means, elections candidates must be proven to be ready for the job – not only ready to learn on the job!

And so, the lesson many have learned every day these past seven days is that even the best among us learn a new lesson every day – even if by way of a reminder of something we knew but allowed ourselves to forget.

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