Prime Minister Dr. Ralph Gonsalves is of the view that Dr. Godwin Friday’s most recent expulsion from the halls of the Vincentian House of Parliament was due to no fault but his own. The Opposition Leader’s impassioned objection to the presence of government Senator and Deputy House Speaker Ashelle Morgan was met with equally vehement opposition by House Speaker Rochelle Forde.
Morgan, who was not scheduled to address the House which was convened to debate the $118M volcano relief Supplementary Appropriation Bill, is currently being investigated by the local constabulary for her alleged role in a shooting incident which occurred here several weeks ago.
Prime Minister Gonsalves remembered seeing Senator Morgan “in the precincts of the Parliament from the morning,” but since he had to leave the House in pursuance of other duties, he surmised, “I suspect it’s when I left… ” that Senator Morgan entered the Parliament chamber.
Almost 3 hours had elapsed with preliminary House business before the New Democratic Party’s contribution to the day’s agenda was derailed. Several days after the very heated exchange between the newly minted Speaker of the House and the Opposition Leader, PM Gonsalves told Asbert News Network,
“The Speaker ruled and in my view the Speaker ruled correctly for the reasons that she gave. If the Leader of the Opposition wanted to act sensibly and maturely as distinct from being just an emotional and politically partisan manner this is what he could have done to make his point – even though I don’t think he has a point and I could come to that:
“But having heard the Speaker, the way to have dealt with it sensibly, maturely and in the context of what was at stake with the Supplementary Appropriation Bill and the Supplementary Estimates is to say, ‘Madam Speaker, I have respectfully to accept your ruling but equally respectfully I disagree with it but I have to accept it and I’m going to stay but in protest because I have important work here to do today;
“For us to make our contributions to the debate on the Supplementary Estimates, the Supplementary Appropriation Bill and on matters which are so vital to the lives and living of the people. The matters before the Parliament are existential.’
“And to say to the Speaker, “But I assure you Madam Speaker if Senator Morgan, who is the subject of my complaint gets up to speak, I will not stay to listen to her I will go out and when she finishes I will come back’.
“So that was a way – maturely, sensibly, productively in all the circumstances – to deal with it.”
Meanwhile, MP St. Clair Leacock who also serves as one of the NDP’s Vice Presidents, told media audiences on Wednesday morning, “well we were evicted because the Speaker, rightfully, concluded that the Leader of the Opposition was in breach of the House rules and she acted accordingly to suspend him.
“But his breach of the House rules was not accidental. We figure that the matter involving the Deputy Speaker of the House was sufficiently egregious that we could not stay in the House with her or she could not appear in the House while we were present without proper explanation being given.
“We thought that she should have been asked to be excused from the House while matters relating to her conduct outside of the House were properly investigated and before she made that return.
“So we had a planned activity that once she was present we would take action that would bring the attention of the matter to the Speaker and to the nation….”
But as far as Dr. Friday is concerned House Speaker Forde’s response was ultimately the wrong one. He too voiced his opinion while phoning into a separate radio station on Wednesday morning.
He said, “what she did wrong, she had the discretion to exercise her position – she put me out of the House didn’t she? – to urge the member to leave the Chamber.
Dr. Friday went on to reiterate a precedent he’d cited in Parliament to which the Speaker advised him that her Parliament is not bound by precedents.
According to Dr. Friday, George White, a West Morland MP was asked to remove himself from the Jamaican House of Parliament after Opposition members objected to his continued service given an unnamed allegation that is hanging over his head.
“The government supported the position that he should not be sitting in the House; he wasn’t sitting, the government they expelled him from their Chamber and took away all of his duties. Eventually he sat independent and the Speaker and others urged him to leave.
“So he went on leave. He’s a member, he’s elected so they can’t kick him out – he’s elected but he went on leave because that is the decent thing to do until the matter is resolved because it would be disruptive to the functioning of the House and that is what we are asking and we continue to ask.
“And so the Speaker, in this case, failed to exercise her discretionary powers in the proper way and the way in which we were treated – certainly I was treated – I found it very demeaning and condescending and certainly an affront to the principles I was seeking to uphold.
“Imagine, here I am asking for the decent thing to be done and I’m the one being treated like a criminal. You send 10 or 12 police officers upstairs threatening to manhandle me to get me out of the Chamber. I am not somebody who is accused of any offense. I am not a person who people characterize with any sort of behavior of a violent nature.”
Prime Minister Gonsalves noted, in the Asbert News Network exclusive interview, the Opposition Leader’s apparent appeal to a higher law. Dr. Gonsalves said, “when he lost the argument with the Speaker he said he ain’t wah hear nothing about no Standing Orders, he don’t want to hear anything about any rules of the House. He doesn’t want to hear anything about the application of those rules by Erskine May’s or anything.
“He’s appealing to a higher law but I don’t know what law in which he’s appealing to because the higher law is the constitution and the constitution has entrenched in it among other things the presumption of innocence and procedural fairness to be shown by independent authorities.”
Prime Minister Gonsalves referenced the government’s response to two separate allegations that were levelled against NDP senators.
“I know over the last couple of years there was one senator on the NDP side on which there were charges pending. I never asked why she doesn’t resign or be made to leave the House. I didn’t write the Governor General asking that this matter be dealt with or to persuade Friday or Eustace to revoke the appointment or to bring any issue in the House to say it’s a matter of urgent public business.
“I accept the issue of presumption of innocence and procedural fairness and because I’ve lived long enough and seen many battles – let the thing play itself out and we’ll see what happens.”
Dr. Gonsalves, who also has Parliamentary oversight of the persecutorial services, further remarked on the fact that the Assistant Director of Public Persecution, Karim Nelson, another co-accused in the shooting incident allegation “on his own volition decided to take leave as soon as the investigation began. But,” he said, “that’s a different situation than Ashelle Morgan because the Assistant DPP is located in the office of the DPP and she [the DPP] has to make the decision when a file comes… ‘on the basis of this do I persecute or not?’….
“To me it’s not a complicated issue. Of course in one sense I was pleased that I wasn’t there because I am sure if that representation was made, as Leader of the House, the Speaker may have asked me, ‘do you have anything to say on this?’ And if I’d said anything and she’d agreed with me, as I’d said in the House the evening when I made reference to it, persons would say, ‘well wappen Rochelle is following wah Ralph say?’ But I wasn’t there. Nobody from the government side spoke she didn’t ask anybody anything….
“I don’t find it’s a complicated business… the whole issue. The point is this. We will know pretty shortly – I would expect – that the police would finish their investigations and it will go to the next stage with the DPP. The next meeting of the House is scheduled for June 29 so I suspect [it may well conclude before that] ….”
PM Gonsalves noted that he does not get involved in any police investigations beyond the precursory check-up as to whether “the investigation has been completed and has the file been transmitted to the Director of Public Persecutions.” He is confident, though, that the battery of “experienced and responsible persons involved in the investigation” will see the process through to its natural conclusion.