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PURELY POLITICAL: Tit for tat


Albert Brandford

PURELY POLITICAL: Tit for tat

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For some observers of the local political scene, it seemed a case of deja vu all over again (with thanks to Yogi Berra, the late American baseball legend).
But that’s how some people regarded the boycott of sittings of Parliament instituted last Tuesday by the Opposition Barbados Labour Party (BLP) to protest what it charged was Government’s delay in calling the 2013 general election, having reached the fifth anniversary of the 2008 poll.
The action immediately evoked memories of a boycott of Parliament by the Democratic Labour Party (DLP), then in Opposition – from December 4 until the House of Assembly was dissolved on December 20, 2007 – ostensibly to protest a ruling by Speaker Ishmael Roett, but in reality to push the Owen Arthur-led BLP into calling the general election.
The BLP did, for January 15, 2008, and lost after 14 years in office. The previous general election had been held in May 2003, and Arthur announced the poll on December 20, 2007 – eight months ahead of the constitutional due date.
The DLP’s boycott had its genesis in a no-confidence motion tabled by the then Leader of the Opposition David Thompson against the BLP’s Minister of State in the Ministry of Finance, Clyde Mascoll, himself a former DLP Leader of the Opposition, over his involvement in a Government-sponsored, low-income housing project known as Hardwood Housing Factory Inc.
In November, Thompson gave notice of a private members resolution – essentially a no-confidence motion in Mascoll, his former DLP colleague – along with other issues including integrity legislation and the declaration of assets.
Thereafter ensued a cat-and-mouse game between Thompson and the Government benches led by Deputy Prime Minister Mia Mottley, who tried to pin down the Leader of the Opposition into commencing debate on the motion, and Government even introduced a counter-motion of its own.
But Thompson would not be rushed, declaring that he and he alone would determine when to debate his motion. He maintained that the Government would not dictate the Opposition’s agenda.
“I will not debate it on the instructions of the Member for St Michael North-East (Mottley), it is not her resolution,” he told the House on November 27. “Let us debate the Hardwood resolution that the Government brought.”
Mottley indicated that Government would not call any Government Business on Tuesday, December 4, and was prepared to debate the no-confidence motion which she said should take some precedence under the parliamentary convention.
She said that although the motion had not been signed by the Leader of the Opposition and was not on the Order Paper, Government MPs would not object to the House departing from the rules to allow it to be signed, tabled and debated immediately.
“Mr Speaker, I gave him the assurance that we will call it every Tuesday until such time as he finds confidence in what he clearly has as no confidence in his own no-confidence motion,” she said.
When on December 4, 2007, the motion was finally debated, the proceedings were marred by Thompson leading out his fellow DLP MPs in protest of the Speaker’s decision to suspend debate just after 4:30 p.m. and revert to the normal day’s proceedings on the Order Paper – resumption of debate on the Public Service Bill.
Thompson and the other five members of the Opposition bench immediately walked out of Parliament and held a Press conference at the Opposition Leader’s Office, stating they were ready for the debate but that Government was not, and hence the switch to Government business.
“The normal process when dealing with a no-confidence motion is that a day is set aside to deal with the issue,” he told reporters, “but after calling for the motion to be debated for two weeks, [Government benches] were not prepared, only coming with personal attacks.
“We are further seeking an apology from the Speaker of the House for the way in which he handled matters,” he added, suggesting that the time had come for an “Independent Speaker” with no political association in the chair.
Thompson said he had accepted the Speaker’s decision not to allow him to produce witnesses to support the no-confidence motion brought with regard to Mascoll’s relationship with Hardwood Factory Inc.
“I went along with that and decided to get on with the debate, even though not even my colleagues knew I had been denied this request. Then to face this. I am totally aghast as to what went on in this House today. Clearly, democracy is under threat.”
But Mottley, who dubbed the boycott a “most unfortunate set of circumstances”, said she felt Thompson had trapped himself in a no-confidence motion which did not have total Opposition support.
As it was, when the House convened on Tuesday, December 11, maverick DLP St Lucy MP Denis Kellman was the only one to show up, spending less than two minutes in the Chamber where he was greeted by loud table-thumping from Government benches and shouts of “Kellie”, “Kellie”.
“I have made a vow not to miss Parliament when I am in the island,” he later told THE NATION. “Whenever there is Parliament, I will be there.”
He also told a mass meeting in Heroes Square the same week, by way of responding to charges he had defied his parliamentary colleagues’ wishes, that “Lucy’s Son” – a nickname he has often given himself – had a mind of his own and nobody could include him.
At a mass meeting on Sunday, December 9, at St Paul’s Avenue, Bayville, St Michael, Thompson, who had pledged to take the political fight to the streets, reiterated that he was fed up with the way the Speaker was handling matters in the House.
He added that as far as he was concerned, “the work of the current Parliament has effectively ended. There is nothing more for Barbadians in the continued existence of Parliament”.
“Were it not for Hardwood and the cost of living issue, Parliament would have been dissolved long ago and the DLP would have been elected to office by now.
“So as far as we are concerned, there is nothing compelling about our returning to that Parliament.”
At the same meeting, then Senator (now Prime Minister Freundel) Stuart said if the decision was his, he would not return to the House the following Tuesday.
“But I am a team man,” Stuart added, “so I will abide with whatever decision the parliamentary group makes.”
Apart from the Thompson no-confidence motion on Hardwood, there was a pending world economic recession that started to take root in the latter half of 2007. In those circumstances, Arthur called the election eight months early and surprisingly raised concerns about the economy in the campaign.
The action by Arthur is in stark contrast to Stuart’s delay in the calling of elections in the face of obvious economic difficulties. It is argued that such a delay simply postpones the inevitable with respect to unpopular policies and programmes needed to truly address the known concerns of the international organizations.
In the current circumstances Stuart does not have to be a team man, but some of his candidates may be longing for him to call the election.
While Thompson’s timing of his no-confidence motion was opportune, political scientists seem to be speaking with one voice on the negative consequences of Stuart’s failure to call the election.
• Albert Brandford is an independent political correspondent.

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