“Constitutional Conventions and Political Controversies”

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.

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.” 

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 fact that St. Vincent’s Constitution stipulates that a motion of no confidence in the Government must be considered by its parliament  within 14 days  is not a denial of the convention that such motions ought to be accorded priority on the parliamentary agenda, but rather it is a manifestation of that convention, which is unwritten elsewhere in the Caribbean.

Even if in the early 1980’s the PAM/NRP Government failed to accord such a motion the priority which the convention required, this provides no excuse for our Speaker and Government not to do the right thing now.   Moreover, the present situation is very different to that in the 80’s, in that now (unlike then) a majority of elected members of parliament have publicly declared that they will vote in favour of the no confidence motion.  Their right so to do ought not to be denied or deferred.

The proper constitutional alternative to the National Assembly’s consideration of a no confidence motion is the calling of an early general election.  Such an election could be the solution to many of our current constitutional and political controversies in St. Kitts and Nevis.  

Even if one accepts that the Prime Minister may be genuinely concerned about electoral observer missions’ criticism of the existing constituencies as having widely unequal residential or voting populations, it is also easy to make a case for the deferral of such a politically sensitive revision to approval by whatever Government emerges after an early general election. 

Although it may be legally possible and politically opportune to get parliamentary approval of a new boundaries Proclamation without such having the support of the majority of elected members of parliament, doing so will convey an image of political opportunism, if not desperation. With his lengthy record of political leadership, Prime Minister Douglas should avoid any such negative political perception.  

If Dr Douglas again heads the Government after a general election, he could finalize the constituency boundaries matter then.  A few months delay in that regard will do no harm in the present circumstances.   Such boundaries revision delay will also not favour any political party since, as Dr Douglas himself has pointed out, his party has won four elections on the existing boundaries; and both Nevis parties have also won and lost leadership on the existing boundaries.

Court proceedings, past or present, do not prohibit the Speaker from having the no confidence motion scheduled and voted on in the National Assembly.  The Prime Minister understandably does not want any vote in parliament on the no confidence motion, as the Opposition MPs’ public declarations have made it clear that the motion will succeed.  The calling of an early general election will be a proper constitutional solution and the Prime Minister should, with respect, consider setting an early date to establish whether his leadership can, yet again, garner elected parliamentary majority support, or whether his long and significant era of leadership has passed.  Democracy demands no less at this time. “

 

J. Emile Ferdinand


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