According to the constitution of the twin-island state, the National Assembly is required to have both a Speaker, and a Deputy Speaker. In fact, the constitution is pellucid in its requirement that before any business could be transacted in the House, at the opening of the new term of the parliament, both offices must be filled.
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 have argued that the Assembly is not properly constituted, if there is no Deputy Speaker. However, this notion has been rejected by Prime Minister Dr. Denzil Douglas, who is known to have expressed the opinion that there is 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.
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.
After some 32 months, the government recently announced that it intends to introduce new legislation that would increase the number of senators, by 100%, from 3 to six, so that one of the new parliamentarians could assume the office. Some on the government side have expressed the hope that someone on the opposition benches, such as Senator Byron, would have a change of heart and accept the post.
Byron meantime has been explaining 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 decline. 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 oppostion continue to argue over exactly what is meant by “convenient”. For the opposition, it certainly does not mean almost three years after, especially when the House has met on numerous occasions since march 2010.
Though the proposed bill to increase the number of senators never made it to the debate stage in the St. Kitts and Nevis parliament, it is anticipated that attempts will be made to do so when the Assembly meets again on 7th December.
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.