Tuesday’s sitting of the House of Assembly was indeed an historic one as for the first time in its history, an opposition leader’s monthly salary has come under threat. And not just any month, but rather the first three months of the opposition’s tenure.
The drama over Opposition Leader Allen Chastanet’s entitlement to his monthly remuneration unfolded first with House Speaker Claudius Francis who in a statement noted that “it is only after taking the oath of office that a Member becomes entitled to the full rights and benefits of a Member of Parliament.”
Chastanet’s first House appearance after the July 26 general elections was last Tuesday. He missed the first three sittings of the House, a matter which triggered the drama over whether he should be paid for his absences.
Francis, prior to finalising the matter, quoted the Saint Lucia Constitution and the case of Chandresh Sharma and others v The Attorney General of Trinidad and Tobago that was before the Privy Council and excerpts from Erskine May’s Treatise on The Law, Privileges, Proceedings and Usage of Parliament which describes the United Kingdom’s parliamentary practice as it pertains to when the salary of a Member of the House becomes payable.
Speaker Francis also dwelled on the matter of excuses proffered for absences from House Sittings stating that the Member for Micoud South (Chastanet) was well aware of the provisions of Section 54 of the Saint Lucia Constitution, regarding the timing of the first Sitting of Parliament following a General Elections.
Francis then quoted Standing Order 80 of the House Standing Orders, which states: “Where a Member (a) fails to obtain due leave of absence; and (b) within 15 days after the session on which the Member was absent as aforesaid satisfies the Speaker in writing that such failure was unavoidable, paragraph (2) of this order shall not apply to that Member.”
He also quoted Standing Order 87 Subsection (1) which states: “In any matter not herein provided for, resort shall be had to the usage and practice of the House of Commons of the Parliament of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, which shall be followed as far as the same be applicable to this House and not inconsistent with these Standing orders nor with the practice of this House.”
Francis acknowledged that Chastanet did send electronic notes to the Clerk of Parliament stating his absences.
“Unfortunately, the notes gave no reason, other than being out of State, for his absence…” Francis said.
He added, “The notes of the Member for Micoud South merely informing the Office of the Speaker that “I will be out of State and will not be able to attend the above Sitting of the House” cannot meet the standard “to obtain due leave of absence” stated in Standing Order 80.”
“Consequently, having read the notes sent to the Clerk, which I repeat are the only documents upon which I can properly base a decision, I am not satisfied that the Member for Micoud South’s absence was unavoidable,” Francis said.
He added, “Accordingly, I will make an Order that the Member for Micoud South be denied remuneration for the period of his absence. The Member and I have had a discussion earlier today as a consequence of which I will still stay this Order for a further two weeks to allow him a second opportunity so to do. Otherwise, this Order shall take effect on November 30, 2021.”
Chastanet, in a News Maker Live broadcast Wednesday night on DBS Television stated that “on no occasion was I told that what I send (notes) was not satisfactory.”
“So I had to assume that I met the criteria. I thought I was meeting the criteria. The issue regarding holding my salary as leader of the opposition, I don’t believe this is the purview of the speaker of the House,” Chastanet said, adding that he was not sure there was a basis for the Speaker to hold his salary simple because he did not attend parliament.
When asked by the host of the of the television programme whether he will be submitting any explanation to Speaker Francis clarifying his absences, Chastanet replied thus:
“I’m obligated to, of course.”
When pressed by the host he said “I was out for personal reasons.”
.When asked to be a bit more specific with his answers Chastanet said, “Why do I have to be specific? I mean again it’s for him (Francis) to be specific with me. At the end of the day I’m hoping that I can provide, and the information I would provide to the Speaker is sufficient and the standing orders are clear. I respect the fact that it’s his (Francis’) prerogative and I would adhere to whatever ruling that he (Francis) decides and once he’s established a ruling as I said I listen without prejudice and I’ll see where it goes.”
So if he rules no pay (are) you ok with that? Questioned the host of the television talk show.
Said Chastanet: “I didn’t say that. I said to you that I would accept it without prejudice. Without prejudice means that I maintain the right to challenge it if I think it’s necessary, but again I want to be very clear: I respect parliament, I respect the Speaker of the House. Certainly I don’t want anyone to believe I’m disrespectful to parliament so what’s most important is for the public to appreciate there was no message.”
Chastanet said that after the general elections he saw an opportunity to take a break “and I took it and I’m very grateful for doing it but I am back. I am not abandoning my post, I’m not abandoning my responsibilities in any particular way. I’ve stayed within the prescribed time of parliament. By all evidence I thought that I was conforming to what was required, the Speaker has taken the opportunity publicly to indicate that he was not satisfied and that’s fine and I will now rectify that situation moving forward but the fact is I am not in breach of anything.”