Posted on


Albert Brandford


Social Share

One aspect of the 2013-2018 session of the Barbados Parliament that caught my eye is the refreshing willingness of new members in either House to seek rarely used or uncharted paths to a debate.
The House of Assembly and the Senate have separately adopted Standing Orders (or rules) for their own good governance.
And where those rules do not expressly prohibit a particular course, then depending on the mood and temperature of that House, members are free to pursue debate subject only to the approval of their peers.
This past week, an Opposition Barbados Labour Party MP triggered an unscheduled debate on the state of the Queen Elizabeth Hospital (QEH) by invoking the provisions of Standing Order 18 – Adjournment of the House on a matter of urgent public importance as the item was called in the Order of Business (S.O. No.10).
Given that there was some public disquiet about the QEH and rising concerns of health care professionals that led to the doctors’ body calling an emergency meeting the day before to highlight the critical shortage of medical and essential supplies, it was unlikely that the House would have denied the motion.
Shadow Minister of Health Dr Maria Agard, a practising dentist and first-time MP for Christ Church West, succeeded in persuading her peers that the situation was grave enough to warrant the public discussion.
In doing so, she placed an outstanding mark on the post-Independence parliamentary history of Barbados as the first MP to use the House rules in such a manner to get Government to suspend its business and address a critical national issue.
The previous attempt 41 years ago was also by a BLP representative, Elliott D. Mottley, the City MP, who tried to have a debate on January 23, 1973 about the pending closure of an electronics firm with the resulting loss of more than 300 jobs.
Mottley, father of the current Leader of the Opposition, sought leave to move the adjournment of the House for the purpose of discussing a definite matter of urgent public importance, as then styled in the Standing Orders, in relation to Plessey Memories Limited at Seawell Industrial Park.
Then Leader of the House, Edwy Talma, suggested the matter could not be considered urgent “inasmuch as a decision was taken and the plant will be closed from the end of January. Is that urgent?”
However, Speaker Neville Maxwell was satisfied the matter was “definite and urgent” and turned the matter over to “the pleasure of the House to see if it is unanimous, or nine members rise in their places to support the request”.
Talma responded: “Mr Speaker, we, on this side of the House, with one voice disapprove of this matter being dealt with at this stage or at any stage in that the matter is finalised and finished and nothing that happens here today can influence Plessey Memories Ltd.
The Cabinet, the Prime Minister, and the appropriate Minister have already done their bit. The position is that nothing can be done in capitalising on the misfortune of certain people.”
But the Opposition failed to get Government support and could only muster their five of the nine votes required: Mottley plus Tom Adams, Henry Forde, Burton Hinds and Lindsay Bolden.
In the case of the unelected Senate, which is restricted in dealing with budget and financial matters, Government senator, attorney-at-law Verla DePeiza, in June 2012 exploited the absence of a specific prohibition in the rules following the Budget by tabling a “take note” Private Members’ Resolution which gave the Chamber the unprecedented opportunity to examine the Budgetary Proposals.
Usually, senators reference the Budget in the course of examining other issues but not as part of a scheduled debate.
And Depeiza’s case would have been strengthened by S.O.76, which deals with rules in cases not provided for by the Standing Orders, “resort shall be had to the usage and practice of the Commons House of Parliament of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, which shall be followed as far as the same may be applicable to the Senate and consistent with the law of Barbados with these Standing Orders and with the practice of the Senate”.
It is to their credit and can only augur well for the future of Parliament that these new members and senators have apparently shaken off the cloak of timidity that seemed to inhibit their predecessors.
Parenthetically, Agard and DePeiza squared off in the 2013 general election with the former prevailing by 532 votes.
It may also be of some significance that their actions have taken place in a Parliament that just observed its 375th year, and could be a sign of acknowledgement of its pre-eminence in our system of governance, and hopefully, a new beginning in our quest for a more inclusive democracy.
• Albert Brandford is an independent political correspondent.