Cowardice. That is the label given to the actions of Premier Dr. Natalio “Sowande” Wheatley by the opposition following last week’s House of Assembly meeting.
In a press conference last Thursday, opposition members said they walked out of the HOA meeting because government has consistently ignored their offers to help and then last week relegated their 114 questions to the end of proceedings.
The decision to leave was unanimous, according to Opposition Leader Ronnie Skelton.
“Last Tuesday, we had no choice but to take the only action the opposition had or has at their disposal,” Mr. Skelton said. “That is collectively withdrawing from the assembly, and we did that.”
The opposition’s decision to leave came after Dr. Wheatley successfully proposed to reorder the agenda to move opposition questions to the end of the sitting.
At the time, Mr. Skelton and his colleagues objected to his motion, claiming that the government was being disrespectful by delaying the question-and-answer session.
The premier, however, replied that public officers needed more time to compile the answers to the opposition’s 114 questions, 63 of which had multiple parts or follow-ups.
After the reordering motion passed on a 7-6 vote, all six opposition members left the sitting, and government legislators proceeded to debate and pass a law to suspend the Trade Commission as well as amendments to jury legislation.
Later in the HOA meeting that night, government legislators returned to the question-and-answer session, but all opposition members were still absent. Speaker of the House Corine George-Massicote said they would need to re-submit their questions for a subsequent sitting.
Period for questions
At the press conference last Thursday, Mr. Skelton defended the opposition’s decision to submit so many questions.
“We take exception to the public service telling the speaker or telling us how many questions we can ask,” Mr. Skelton said. “If the government feels that there are an overwhelming number of questions, perhaps that is an indication that meetings should be held more regularly.”
According to the opposition members, they submitted all questions at least seven days in advance as required.
Asked if that was enough time for ministers to process questions, Sixth District Representative Myron Walwyn responded, “absolutely.” The other members agreed.
During the press conference, the opposition members also complained that they received no advance information about the plan to delay the questions.
“There was no mention at that time whether the questions will be answered in that sitting. There was of course no indication as to when another sitting will take place,” Deputy Speaker Stacy Mather said. “As the public is aware, we do not have a schedule [of sittings]. Hence, we are now at the end of October going into November, which would bring up outstanding finance and preparations for the budget. So when would our questions be answered?”
Asked if they believed their questions would have been answered that day if they had stayed in the HOA, they responded with a collective “No.”
No advance notice
Mr. Mather noted that the premier could have discussed the rearrangement of the order papers with the opposition in advance of the Oct. 31 meeting — as he had done on a previous occasion.
“At the sitting of Oct. 13, the premier, before the sitting commenced, informed the members of the opposition of his intentions to make adjustments to the order paper,” Mr. Mather said. “It was received without contention, and I appreciated his approach.”
Prior to the Oct. 31 sitting, however, there was no discussion with opposition members on reordering the topics of the day, despite all 13 legislators having congregated 30 minutes before the House began, Mr. Mather said.
“At that time, the premier could have had an open and frank conversation with the members of the opposition,” Mr. Mather said. “He could have stated intentions to reorder the order paper and explain why. And the conversation [would have] probably had an explanation and timelines for answering those questions. … I am certain we would have a different outcome.”
It was only after three hours and a lunch break that the motion to rearrange the order paper was introduced — and then there was no mention of when the questions would be answered, Mr. Mather said.
Opposition members also claimed that they frequently offer the government to help processes along and work through legislation to better streamline good governance.
“You have an opposition who is at every step of the way trying to extend the olive branch to support the advancements of our country, given the amount of things that people are facing, … but yet you decide to take this move for your interest,” Second District Representative Mitch Turnbull said. “Change must come, whether they want it by will or by force.”
Mr. Walwyn also attested to the opposition’s continued attempts to assist government.
“I can say unequivocally that this opposition has been privately and publicly offering its assistance to the government on the multitude of issues confronting us,” he said.
Mr. Walwyn and Third District Representative Julian Fraser both encouraged the government to tap into the opposition’s experience.
“The premier is someone who has served one four-year term so far,” Mr. Fraser said. “When he sits and looks across the aisle, he sees the leader of the opposition, who has served four four-year terms. And he’s coming down and sees the member for the Second District, who has already served two four-year terms. The member for the Eighth District has served three four-year terms, the member for the Sixth has served two four-year terms already. … And then he comes to me. I think I’ve served six of them. You don’t take that for granted.”