By Andre Bagoo
September 12, 2013 – newsday.co.tt
OPPOSITION and Independent Senators were caught napping early yesterday morning when they missed their chance to formally oppose historic legislation introducing proportional representation to the system of local government.
During a marathon 17-hour sitting of the Senate, which began on Tuesday and ended at 3.15 am yesterday, the senators had vociferously objected to the Municipal Corporations (Amendment) Act 2013, the unprecedented legislation which introduces a system of proportional representation for the selection of aldermen.
In the end, the senators suffered a major embarrassment when they ironically failed to realise that a vote was being taken on the election reform legislation. They failed to cry out “no” when asked for their vote by Senate President Timothy Hamel-Smith; failed to call for a division to allow them the opportunity to have votes recorded senator by senator; and also missed their chance to call on the Senate President to invoke the Standing Orders allowing them a second bite at the cherry in taking the vote again.
By the time some senators realised what had happened, the ship had sailed, the Senate was adjourned and the legislation was on its way to President Anthony Carmona without any dissent to it being formally recorded on the Hansard for posterity.
The events unfolded at about 3 am in the chamber at the International Waterfront Centre, Wrightson Road, Port-of-Spain. After a fraught committee stage, during which time the legislation was considered in exhaustive detail clause by clause, the bill was left as-is and reported back to the Senate floor. Minister of Works and Infrastructure Dr Suruj Rambachan – who had piloted the legislation – reported to the Senate that it had made it through the committee stage.
Hamel-Smith then informed the Senate that the legislation had been accepted in the committee stage without amendment and moved, “that an act to amend the Municipal Corporations Act, Chapter 25:04, be now read a third time and passed. Those in favour say aye.”
A loud cry of “aye!” could be heard from several senators, including members of the Government benches. Hamel-Smith then said, “those opposed say nay.” At this stage there was dead silence.
Hamel-Smith paused and looked at senators for a few seconds before declaring, “I think the ayes have it!” There was no request for a division, which can be requested by any member of the Senate under Standing Order 45(2).
Present in the chamber at the time were PNM Senators: Pennelope Beckles, Terrence Deyalsingh, Shamfa Cudjoe, and Faris Al-Rawi. All Independent Senators were present, with the exception of Ian Roach. As per the normal procedure at the end of the day’s Parliament business, the presiding officer then called upon the Government Whip, Ganga Singh, to seek the adjournment.
Singh complied, saying, “Mr President, I beg to move, in the wee hours of this morning, that this Senate be now adjourned to Friday September 20, 2013, at 10.30 am.” According to the unrevised Hansard, two senators only then found their voices, interrupting him while he was still on his feet, querying whether or not a division would be taken. Singh pointed out the legislation required only a simple majority, meaning it was not crucial for the record to reflect the vote of each member since the Government held a majority already.
The Senate President then rose to move the adjournment but in the middle of this, there was then a query from Independent Senator Elton Prescott SC.
“Mr President, may I seek your guidance, please sir?” Prescott said. “I had anticipated that there might be a division on this because I have a certain position. Am I on the right track at all?”
Hamel-Smith responded, “It seems not. You could have been, but I put he question to the Senate, there were no ‘nos’ and no request for a division. I then proceeded to the next step.”
Prescott, at this stage, according to Parliament record, said, “I appreciate it.” No senator, even at this stage, called for a motion to re-open the vote, a move which could be done by invoking the Senate’s powers to regulate its own affairs. The question of adjournment was also put to the Senate and approved without objection.
After the Senate had formally been adjourned, PNM Senator Faris Al Rawi rose to ask what business the Senate would be considering at its next sitting. He failed to raise any objection in relation to the vote.
Amid reports that he had sought a report from Beckles, the Opposition Whip in the Senate, PNM political leader Dr Keith Rowley yesterday did not respond to queries from Newsday. Beckles, too, did not respond to calls.
However, the fallout for the PNM deepened later in the day when PNM senators gave conflicting accounts of what happened. Al Rawi, speaking with Newsday, said he had, in fact, said no when the Senate President called for votes.
“I specifically said no,” Al Rawi claimed. “And a couple people behind me also said no.” He did not identify these. However, Al Rawi’s colleague, Deyalsingh yesterday gave comments in direct contradiction to this. Deyalsingh told a radio programme the PNM took a position to say nothing.
“We just said nothing,” Deyalsingh said. “Saying nothing is not supporting the bill. We took the decision at the start that we were not supporting the bill so there was no thought of even saying no.” PNM Senator Fitzgerald Hinds added more to the brew, saying, “If someone did not respond saying no that does not mean yes. If you said neither that would be abstention.” On the same radio programme, Hinds claimed the Government “needed two Independents” to vote with them and this is why they did not want a division. (In truth, all governments have 15 senators in the Senate, meaning they can automatically pass simple-majority legislation without Independent support).
The missed opportunity to vote ‘no’ was the second major gaffe for the PNM in Parliament in the space of four months.
A similarly embarrassing incident occurred on May 20 when, during the PNM’s own motion of no-confidence against Prime Minister Kamla Persad-Bissessar, the motion was almost shut down because no PNM speaker rose to continue the motion after Opposition Leader Dr Keith Rowley had completed his pilot. Diego Martin Central MP Dr Amery Browne, however, hurriedly rose to avert a crisis on that occasion.
The sheepish manner in which the Opposition missed the boat was in stark contrast to the strong stances taken during the debate and an aggressive strategy of attack and team-work by the Independents during the committee stage in an attempt to force amendments which would stall the legislation for at least one more sitting of the Parliament.
“The objection the PNM has is not to proportional representation (PR),” Deyalsingh had said. “Our objection is the manner in which PR is being brought to the Senate to enshrine it via legislation without the population having the chance to ingest it and to inform themselves.”
Prescott, also opposing, said, “A responsible government might not want to preempt the Constitutional Reform Commission. There needs to be some wider public consultation. Am I really getting the chance to elect the aldermen? The answer seems no.”
Independent Senator Rolph Balgobin said, “I would question why are we doing this now. We have a higher duty of care.”
“This move has to be made with dialogue,” said Independent Senator Dhanayshar Mahabir. “While in principle we don’t disagree what we do disagree with is putting forward something so hasty.”
He objected to the calculation formula of the proportional representation bill and queried why the bill was not wider in scope. Independent Senator Anthony Vieira said, “In the same breath the mover of the bill talks about the need for democracy they are moving about it in an undemocratic fashion.”
Independent Senator Subhas Ramkhelawan, however, indicated support for the bill.
Ramkhelawan, the most senior Independent in the current Parliament, Prescott, Mahabir and Balgobin did not answer calls or respond to messages yesterday.
Hamel-Smith, questioned after the sitting was adjourned, said the entire incident was, “amazing”.
“I did not hear a single voice say no,” he said.