The recent commentary on the subject by a well respected legal practitioner, Emile Ferdinand Q.C of St. Kitts, has again underscored the point, being made by PAM’s leader Shawn Richards, who filed the second motion earlier this month, that the time for excuses has passed, and it is time for the government and the Speaker to take action.
Lawyer Ferdinand made the point that “Deferral for months of the scheduling of debate and a vote on a motion of no confidence breaches a fundamental constitutional convention or principle. Such delay is a strategy which strikes at the core of parliamentary democracy and does no credit to the Speaker of our National Assembly and the present Government.”
The two main excuses advanced lately by the government speak to there being no specific timeline in the constitution of St. Kitts and Nevis and also the decision of the opposition in April to take the matter to court. The government has argued that because the matter was before the court, it was sub judice and should not be debated in parliament. However, lawyer Ferdinand, who has also served in various regional capacities in the judiciary, including acting judge, has dismissed both arguments advanced by Speaker Curtis Martin and Prime Minister Douglas.
“In any parliamentary democracy Government cannot be expected to conduct ‘business as usual’ in circumstances where the majority of the elected members of parliament are openly opposed to the Prime Minister’s leadership of the country. Where it is considered uncertain whether there is such elected majority in opposition to the Government, the proper constitutional mechanism to test such support, or the lack of it, would be an early vote in parliament on a motion of no confidence in the Government,” stated Ferdinand.
As for the court case brought by PAM and its associates in opposition, that matter was discontinued during the first week of July, as announced in a nation-wide radio address by PAM’s leader Shawn Richards.
Ferdinand was strong in dispelling the government’s notion that the absence of a specific timeline in the constitution is not an accurate reading of the course of action that should be taken, because the existence of British or Commonwealth Conventions, are to be respected as mandatory and must be appropriately acted on.
Ferdinand explained by citing opinions once shared with one of the Caribbean’s most illustrious legal minds, “The distinguished legal scholar Sir Fred Phillips, now of blessed memory, and who served as Governor of St. Kitts-Nevis-Anguilla, has written that constitutional conventions are an ‘important component of constitutional law’ and they pose political difficulties when they are disobeyed. He also quotes other renowned legal scholars who wrote that conventions “are forms of political behaviour regarded as obligatory.”
Ferdinand added, “It is therefore not surprising that there is an important constitutional convention in Commonwealth parliamentary democracies that motions of no confidence ought to be placed before parliament and determined as a matter of priority. The National Assembly ought not to ignore such motions or to leave them pending while attending to routine business. The reason for this is simple and clear: It is a fundamental principle that in a parliamentary democracy the Government and the Prime Minister in particular, ought to be likely to command the support of a majority of the elected members in the National Assembly. Bringing a motion of no confidence to a vote in the National Assembly would, as then Chief Justice Sir Vincent Floissac said in the local case of Re Blake in 1994, … establish conclusively whether or not the Prime Minister in fact commands the support of the majority of the representatives.”
Despite these pronouncements the government and the Speaker remain defiant. It was just this past week that the prime minister was heard saying that left up to him, the motions would never be brought before parliament unless two of his former colleagues, who left his Cabinet, resign their parliamentary seats.
For the opposition this latest comment by the Prime Minister is just another excuse to delay required democratic actions.