PARLIAMENT ended abruptly last Tuesday following heated debate on both sides and a few slip-ups by Prime Minister Allen Chastanet.
The 90-miunte session began on a tense note after the House failed to elect a Deputy Speaker. When the House last met about a month ago, Castries Central MP, Sarah Flood-Beaubrun, reluctantly took up the post, resigning shortly thereafter to become a government minister.
Throughout the three requests from House Speaker, Leonne Theodore-John, to nominate a Deputy Speaker, the House remained silent, following which Theodore-John remarked: “Honourable members, I will read from this silence that it is not convenient at this time to elect a Deputy Speaker and so I will proceed at this juncture with the business of the House.”
However, Leader of the Opposition, Phillip J. Pierre, chided the government’s side for failing to uphold convention in electing a Deputy Speaker due to the appointment of its 11 Members of Parliament to ministerial posts.
“The Opposition reserves the right to do whatever is deemed necessary and fit in the circumstances since the government has failed its obligation as has been a custom in this Honourable House.”
However, Prime Minister and Leader of Government Business, Allen Chastanet responded to Pierre’s comments, citing the constitutionality of the situation.
“(The Constitution) says it’s the responsibility of the House (to elect a Deputy Speaker). The fact that he’s speaking about convention, I’m not so sure – given their own track record – how convention applies on this particular matter. I want it to be noted that this House is guided by the Constitution of Saint Lucia and not necessarily the references the honourable member from Castries East has made.”
The House Speaker then reminded the parliamentarians that it remains the responsibility of the entire House to elect a Deputy Speaker. However, she warned the House members that the vacant post must not remain so indefinitely.
“At this juncture, I am prepared to accept that it is not convenient so to do,” Theodore-John cautioned. “I am hoping that it is not the intention of the Parliament and parliamentarians that this House continues its business without a Deputy Speaker.”
The House’s business did go on with the appointment of sessional committees for Parliament. The following members were nominated by the Prime Minister for the respective standing committees:
• Public Accounts: Guy Joseph and Bradly Felix
• Standing Orders: Ezechiel Joseph and Sarah Flood-Beaubrun
• House: Dr. Gale Rigobert, Lenard “Spider” Montoute and Allen Chastanet, chair
• Privileges: Stephenson King and Herod Stanislas
• Regulations: Edmund Estephane and Dominic Fedee
Leader of the Opposition, Phillip J. Pierre, nominated the following members to the respective committees:
• Public Accounts: Phillip J. Pierre, chair, Dr. Ernest Hilaire and Alva Baptiste
• House: Phillip J. Pierre and Alva Baptiste
• Standing Orders: Moses Jn. Baptiste and Dr. Ernest Hilaire
• Regulations: Shawn Edward and Dr. Ernest Hilaire
• Privileges: Moses Jn. Baptiste and Shawn Edward
Several papers were laid on Tuesday, including Statutory Instrument No. 58 of 2016 Excise Tax (Amendment of Schedule 1) (No. 2) Order, and Statutory Instrument No. 59 of 2016 Saint Lucia Parliament – Proclamation Dissolving Parliament.
The Prime Minister sought Parliament’s authorization for the Minister for Finance to borrow by means of advances up to $55 million from commercial banks over the next six months, which shall be charged upon and paid out of the Consolidated Fund.
The Prime Minister said that in order for government to legally access short-term borrowing to meet current requirements, such as facilitating the renewal of government’s overdraft facilities, the need for parliamentary approval for the resolution becomes essential.
“Given the current requirements and the short-term forecasts of government’s operating expenditure, including monthly salaries and the anticipated usage of the overdraft facility, the Ministry of Finance is of the view that the $55 million is adequate,” Chastanet explained.
Leader of the Opposition, Phillip J. Pierre, indicated that the Opposition had no objections. The motion was eventually voted on and passed.
But the motion put forward that Parliament authorizes the Minister for Finance to re-issue the sum of US$29 million through ECFH Global Investment Solutions Ltd. given government’s anaemic fiscal situation created a stir on both sides of the House. While Chastanet said the re-issuance does not amount to new debt, Pierre raised concerns, including the rates at which the bonds would be re-issued.
“The devil is in the details and we do not have any details to deal with,” Pierre said. “So in this regard, the Opposition could not have the information necessary so that we could make a proper determination as to whether the action of the Minister of Finance was correct or not.”
The motion was voted on and passed.
The Prime Minister also sought Parliament’s permission to raise EC$80 million and US$13 million to refinance existing debt.
Pierre again requested more details from the Prime Minister, including the source of such funding and rates of interest.
But Castries North MP, Stephenson King, interjected, saying that parliamentarians are very much aware that the parliamentary approval the government was seeking is nothing new. King argued that while resolutions and motions should be presented to the House with qualified background information, the principle for the exercise is straightforward.
“(Most of us) are quite clear on the purpose for such a resolution and the importance of being able to seek the authority of the House to be able to raise such funds to be able to roll over the debt and to finance it,” King explained.
However, Castries South MP, Dr. Ernest Hilaire, accused the government of doing just what it promised it would not do should it assume office: engage in heavy borrowing. While Chastanet indicated that rolling over the debt would not be new debt, Dr.Hilaire argued that it was indeed borrowing and is likely to increase the nation’s debt financing mechanism.
“A rollover, by its very nature, is an extension of debt,” Dr.Hilaire said.
Castries Southeast MP, Guy Joseph, shot back, saying that government needed to borrow given the prevailing circumstances in order to finance the fiscal budget prepared by the previous government, a policy statement for which he said the then Opposition had limited information.
“When we were asking for the information in the Budget Debate, nobody was forthcoming,” Joseph said. “While we were there eagerly anticipating a debate on the policy position of the government for the $1.4 billion budget that they had presented, what did they do? They called the elections.”
The motion was voted on and passed.
The Inter-Governmental Agreement (Saint Lucia the United States of America) and the Money Laundering (Prevention) (Amendment) were the two bills down for readings on the day. The former was read for a third time and passed.
However, Chastanet’s learning on the job was evident as he made a few blunders in presenting the second bill. After moving that the bill be read for a second time at the next sitting of the House, he subsequently presented the same bill to the House.
After being reminded by the Speaker that he had already moved to have the bill read for a second time at the next House sitting, Chastanet moved that the House be adjourned.