There remain, however, great differences between the opposition and the government about the need for the increase by 100% of those who would be “appointed” members and therefore not “elected” by the people, to enter the law-making body. At present there are three; two on the government side, (Richard Skerritt and Nigel Carty), and one on the opposition side, (Vincent Byron Jnr.).
On the other hand, there are 11 members who were directly elected to the parliament by the electorate of St. Kitts and Nevis. The current parliament has 14 members; 11 elected (representatives) and 3 appointed (senators).The proposed legislation of the Labour Administration of Prime Minister Dr. Denzil Douglas, calls for three more non-elected senators; again two for the government and one for the opposition. This would bring the total number of parliamentarians to seventeen (17).
It would also bring the total number of non-elected senators to six; while those elected representatives will remain as eleven. So if the Bill is passed, there would be 4 elected members and 2 appointed senators for the opposition; seven (7) elected members; 4 appointed senators for the government.
Prime Minister Douglas has sought to justify his government’s actions to increase the senators by indicating that, “The (Parliamentary) agenda is becoming very, very compact. The debates are taking longer and we believe that it is important to give the Parliament the opportunity to elect one of our senators as the Deputy Speaker of the House.”
The opposition has dismissed the rationale as deceitful because following the last elections in January 2010 and the opening of the Assembly in March, the same year, Government Senator, Richard “Ricky” Skerritt was nominated and subsequently elected to serve as Deputy Speaker. However in a rather dramatic move, the honourable senator resigned the post the very next day, serving a historic one day term. Since then the country has been without a Deputy Speaker.
In the subsequent years that have followed, members of the opposition benches in the House said they have argued that the Assembly was not properly constituted, if there was no Deputy Speaker. However, this position was rejected by Prime Minister Dr. Denzil Douglas, who was known to have expressed the opinion that there was nothing wrong with the composition of the House, even though no Deputy is in place to serve in the absence of current office holder, Curtis Martin. The government continued for three years therefore, holding their position that there was no urgency in appointing a Deputy Speaker and insisting that there was nothing wrong in there being none in place, said an opposition official.
However in a release issued by the Prime Minister’s Office on Friday 11th January, 2013, Dr. Douglas was quoted as saying, “It is because we have waited and we have continued to ask for the support and cooperation of the opposition, and it has failed so to do, that’s why we are in fact, resorting to this particular idea of increasing the number of senators, so that we would have one of the senators, if not on the opposition side, then on the government’s side become the Deputy Speaker.”
He reminded that before the present Parliament opened in March of 2010, “we met with the opposition as we have done in the past, trying to get a member of the opposition to also assist in the Parliament as the Deputy Speaker. None of them accepted it.”Though Skerritt was initially appointed to the position of Deputy Speaker in March, 2010, the ruling Labour Administration has tried to make the case that this course was only pursued, after Opposition Senator, Mr. Vincent Byron, of the People’s Action Movement, PAM, declined the invitation to take up the position. Therefore the government said Skerritt’s appointment was only designed to get the House in order, so that it could be properly constituted to conduct business in its new term.
But when the matter first came up in November last year, opposition senator Mr. Vincent Byron totally rejected the explanation being provided by Dr. Douglas. Byron also explained the reasons why back in 2010 he declined to accept the offer to be Deputy Speaker.
“Some days before the first sitting of parliament in March 2010, I was approached by the leader of government business and asked if I would have any interest in being the Deputy Speaker, and I declined. I declined because I felt that once you are the Deputy Speaker, and sitting, you would not have any input into the debate. The speaker is not supposed to have any say in the debate.”
Byron explained that the Speaker is something of a referee, balancing what happens in the House. “So as the Deputy Speaker, you are not involved in the debate and in my opinion and the opinion of those on the opposition benches, this would lead to an imbalance in what happens in the House. On the government benches there are already 9 members, and on the opposition benches there are (only) 5 members.” And so that was one reason, why Byron said it was unreasonable to think that they on the opposition benches would accept a position that ties them to the seat of Deputy Speaker, and unable, at times, to part take in the debate; while the government benches with far more legislators, had all their members available to represent, in the debates, the positions of the ruling party.
“The second reason had to do with the fact that I was part of a team who was challenging one of the members on the government benches. And in that regard it was my opinion that there was somebody who was not properly elected. And in no way was I going to be able to discharge my duties properly as the Deputy Speaker if I so took the job while I was challenging one of the members who would be in the House. I declined,” stated Byron.
Byron continued, “And so, you would recall, having appointed all nine members on the government benches to some portfolio, or the other, the Hon Ricky Skerritt resigned his portfolio and became the Deputy Speaker, but lo and behold within 24 hours he resigned as Deputy Speaker to take back up his portfolio. And so we have been without a Deputy Speaker since then.”
Byron has also criticized the position of the Prime Minister, with respect to the House being in order, or not, “Dr. Douglas has clearly stated, time and again that he is convinced that the House is properly constituted and that there is nothing wrong with the House. He has said so on more than one occasion. But if the House is properly constituted, why does he need a Deputy Speaker today?”
The position taken by Senator Byron, however, seems to be consistent with that of Prime Minister Douglas’ close ally, Prime Minister Dr. Kenny Anthony of St. Lucia, who is also a constitutional lawyer. Faced with a similar situation a few years ago, while in the opposition, Dr. Anthony argued strenuously with then Prime Minister Stephenson King, and also the Speaker of the House, that the St. Lucia parliament was not properly constituted because there was no Deputy Speaker. Anthony also did not rule out legal action if the situation was not rectified. The St. Kitts and Nevis constitution also states that whenever there is a vacancy in the seat of Deputy Speaker, this position shall be filled at the next most convenient time. Both the government and the opposition continued to argue over exactly what was meant by “convenient”. For the opposition, it certainly did not mean almost three years after, especially when the House had met on numerous occasions since March 2010, said the PAM official.
Though the proposed Bill to increase the number of senators never made it to the debate stage in the St. Kitts and Nevis parliament back in November, another meeting was scheduled for 7th December, 2012, but at the last moment the meeting was postponed.
If passed, it is already quite clear that the opposition has no intention of taking on the role of Deputy Speaker. There is some doubt though, said a PAM parliamentarian, that the government would find the votes to pass the bill, given recent political developments in the country that suggest that at least two government members are also expected not to vote for the Bill.