Robinson-Regis: ‘None of them present said a word!’ Lee: ‘They want to turn Parliament into Balisier House!’

Leader of Government Business Camille Robinson-Regis: “[…] It was within the capacity of the Opposition to request that the prime minister stand down… None of them present said a word… Mr Rudranath Indarsingh, who for some time appeared to be texting, merely continued doing so…”

Opposition Chief Whip David Lee: “[…] We will not condone the actions of the government who clearly intend to transform our Parliament from a place of regulated debate into a Balisier House platform.”

The following statements on the conduct of members of the House during debate on the Tobago Island Government Bill 2021 were submitted to Wired868 by Leader of Government Business and Arouca/Maloney MP Camille Robinson-Regis and Opposition Chief Whip and Pointe-a-Pierre MP David Lee:

Photo: Leader of Government Business Camille Robinson-Regis speaks in Parliament on 30 June 2021.
(Copyright Office of the Parliament)

Camille Robinson-Regis: As the mover of the motion, in my capacity as member for Arouca/Maloney, I had the right to speak again in reply, under standing order 46(1). 

As the mover, I was required to be called in reply, once no other member wished to speak. The speech of the member in reply terminates the debate and ordinarily no other member can speak following such reply.  

However, under our rules, standing order 46(2) allows a minister the right to reply even after the mover has done so once the ‘debate on a motion is critical of the government or reflects adversely on or is calculated to bring discredit upon the government or a government officer’. The debate on Tuesday qualified, in my opinion, for 46(2) to be invoked—as a debate so critical of the government.

During the sitting, I sought the advice of the Speaker of the House Bridgid Annisette-George as to whether the right of reply under 46(2) would be available to the government, insofar as in moving the motion I did so in the capacity of the member for Arouca/Maloney. 

The speaker’s advice was that that given that as member for Arouca/Maloney, I am also a government minister, the standing order could not be applied. The Speaker was of the view that that would amount to two ministers responding and may be considered an abuse of process.

Photo: Speaker of the House Bridgid Annisette-George on her legs in Parliament on 30 June 2021.
(Copyright Office of the Parliament)

It was in those circumstances that I decided to forfeit my right of reply. This allowed Standing Order 46(2) to be invoked by the government and the Speaker was so advised. The Speaker was also advised that the minister to reply would be the prime minister.

At or around 2.50pm, the member for D’Abadie/O’Meara completed her contribution. The Speaker rose and scanned the House for the next speaker. We all anticipated that the Opposition will field someone. No one stood. 

Up until then, the debate had been proceeding in the usual fashion with each side fielding a speaker in turn. There was one Opposition member in the Chamber who had not yet spoken. Yet she did not stand. 

In order to speak, one must rise and catch the attention of the Speaker. Otherwise, the Speaker will call upon the member to reply and close the debate. There was silence while the Speaker scanned the Chamber. No member said a word to the Speaker. 

The Speaker called on the prime minister.

When the prime minister entered the speaking booth, the Speaker enquired whether he would be speaking under Standing Order 46(2), that is ‘the government’s right of reply’. He said ‘yes’. There was still silence on the Opposition bench. They said nothing.

Photo: Prime Minister Dr Keith Rowley.
(Copyright Office of the Parliament 2020)

Even while the prime minister signalled a desire for additional time given that he was utilising the government’s right of reply in circumstances in which the mover had ‘ceded’ her right, the Opposition said nothing. In response to the prime minister, the Speaker indicated that the House had agreed that the member in reply would be limited to 60 minutes.

All this time, it was within the capacity of the Opposition to request that the prime minister stand down to allow any one or more of their members liming in the conference room to be allowed to speak. None of them present said a word. None of them raised an objection. There was no indication of any interest to speak. 

Mr Rudranath Indarsingh, who for some time appeared to be texting, merely continued doing so; or doing whatever else was attracting his attention on his phone. 

But we were not surprised. Earlier in the day, when the member for San Juan/Barataria entered the booth to speak, he was chased out of the booth by the member for Oropouche East. And they both left the Chamber and did not return, other than to participate in the stage-managed raucous conduct that they were to display later on in the afternoon.

Photo: Couva East MP Rudranath Indarsingh.
(Copyright Office of the Parliament 2021)

So, the prime minster made his contribution. He spoke for an hour. However, when he was told by the Speaker that his time had expired, as leader of the House, I moved a motion that the prime minister be granted an additional 60 minutes—given that I had ceded my time and given the importance of the debate. 

This was not the first time a prime minister was granted extended speaking time. The former prime minister was not only granted extended speaking time on occasions but was often allowed to interrupt proceedings in order to deliver ministerial statements, since she was never able to arrive on time to do during routine business which takes place at the start.  

As an Opposition, we never created mayhem nor disrespected the Speaker, even when his decisions raised questions about procedural fairness. 

Although such a question is ultimately one for the House, a Speaker, in putting this question to the House, will consider whether additional time in the particular circumstance would be prejudicial to other members—particularly those yet to speak. 

The question was put and agreed to by a majority. The Opposition members voiced objections and voted against, as expected. That’s quite normal.

Photo: Leader of the Opposition and Siparia MP Kamla Persad-Bissessar.
(Copyright Office of the Parliament)

The prime minister continued.

It was in those circumstances, that the leader of the Opposition made a guest appearance a few minutes later, created an uproar alleging that that the additional speaking time granted to the prime minister was unfair to the Opposition and an abuse of process and then staged an immediate walk out.  

She spent less than two minutes in the Chamber, during which she revealed that she either does not understand parliamentary standing orders or that she is just reckless in her conduct as a member of Parliament.

All this demonstrated is that the Opposition leader is delinquent, intellectually dishonest, intent on misleading the population on all matters.

Photo: Opposition Chief Whip David Lee.
(Copyright Office of the Parliament 2021)

David Lee: The display of the Government in the last few days as they continue to mislead the nation on their actions within the Parliament that violated our democratic parliamentary principles has been nothing short of deceitful as well as unbecoming of high office holders.

Opposition members of Parliament led by the leader of the Opposition were justified to walk out and absent ourselves from the recent parliamentary sittings as the government showed total disdain, disregard and disrespect for the standing orders or rules which govern the procedures of our Parliament.

We could not condone the actions of the government who clearly intend to transform our Parliament from a place of regulated debate into a ‘Balisier House Platform’.

The government’s continued rants that it was legitimate to increase the speaking time of the prime minister by one hour are not only disingenuous but totally false. It is no surprise that they are still unable to highlight a single standing order that permits such action or instances when such action has ever been undertaken.

It was rather erroneous that the only example the prime minister could put forward was the procedure of the US Congress when our nation operates within a Westminster Parliamentary model. This was just a clear attempt to mask their hijacking of the debate as their actions had no plausible rationale but only aimed at eroding the procedures of our Parliament.

Photo: The Marshal of the Parliament takes the mace into the Chamber.
(Copyright Office of the Parliament 2021)

One must now ask, is the prime minister suggesting that members of Parliament can now speak for any amount of time despite the standing orders setting out the maximum limits?

These actions have brought our entire Parliament into disrepute as what the government has basically signalled to us is that they will be a law unto their own selves within the Parliament. These actions indicate that no longer will the government abide by the rules which were implemented to ensure democracy, equal representation and respect for the constitution but by their own self serving agenda.

We in the Opposition will stand up against this.

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