Rules Broken, Rights Stolen

Monday 12th, August 2013 / 09:10 Published by

Killarney MP Dr. Hubert Minnis can return to the Monday, August 12 scheduled sitting of Parliament and be within the rules of Parliament in doing so – and that is because contrary to what everyone is being told, the Speaker failed to follow House rules regarding the naming and suspension of a Member, and thus in fact failed to have the Member suspended from the Parliament.

Wednesday’s action by the government through the Speaker was a clearly scripted event, but because of their failure to follow the rules that I will detail, they have not yet suspended the Killarney MP. His right to access the precincts have not been blocked via the current House rules because the required suspension vote for this was never held.

The suspension motion and vote that must occur during the process of naming a Member of Parliament is not a mere technicality; it is the procedural requirement of every single democratic Parliament in the world including ours. Suspension happens via set rules and procedure – not the simple wish or edict of the Speaker. If the Opposition chooses to ignore this major breach of House rules and violation of their rights, then their fight for democracy is a flawed fight.

This matter is important because the government through the Speaker, removed an elected Member by force from the Parliament on the basis of his “disregard for House rules and the Chair” – when the government and Chair broke the rules of that very same House in order to remove him.

It is also serious because notably, not a single Member of Parliament on either side knew that what had taken place Wednesday was in breach of House rules and procedure.
Dr. Minnis, based on his public statements to-date, does not know he is not yet suspended from the House and is therefore under no obligation via House rules to abstain from Parliament. The Speaker does not know he failed to have Parliament suspend Dr. Minnis.

The Opposition from its comments, does not know that police intervention in this matter was a violation of Minnis’ and their rights – not because they felt it to be unfair, but because House rules were actually broken to allow the police to intervene.

And because not a single member of the Parliament or the media knew that what the government through the Speaker did was in breach of House rules, you the Bahamian people were not informed or educated on just how deep a violation Wednesday’s events were and why it all matters. Here is what actually happened, and what it all means:

Naming & Suspension

I begin by pointing out that the information I am providing is not secret or reserved for the knowledge of a select few. Every Member of Parliament is given a copy of the current Rules and Procedures of Parliament, drafted and passed in 2005 by the previous Christie administration.

Every reporter in this country also has free access to this booklet. There is therefore no excuse for sitting Members of Parliament and the media not to know what the rules of our Parliament are about the process of suspending a Member of Parliament.

Reporting by every single media house in the country showed that none of them knew the rules governing what took place. The Rules are also accessible to the general public, should they choose to seek a copy from Parliament or Government Printing.

The Parliament belongs to you – not the Party in power. When a Member is removed from the Parliament, the voice of his/her constituents is silenced during that time period. So if it is done, it must be according to the rules, otherwise the government and/or Speaker has violated the Bahamians represented by that MP and by extension all Bahamians regardless of constituency.

“Naming” is the process in parliamentary procedure of ultimately suspending a Member from the House, but naming – contrary to media reports – is not by itself the actual suspension of a Member from Parliament.  In other words, naming and suspension are not one and the same. Naming comes first, and then the Speaker has to ask the Parliament to vote on whether to have the Member suspended.

This is because the Speaker by himself cannot suspend a Member, he can only name a Member. It is the Parliament that suspends a Member and it does that through a motion and then a vote to suspend that Member. When the Speaker names a Member, the naming is simply step one in the suspension process.

The Speaker has to seek a Motion of Suspension from House Members to have a Member suspended and subsequently ordered to withdraw from the Parliament for a specified period – and the Speaker failed to do this, hence failing to have Dr. Minnis suspended as per House rules and procedure.

Section 87, Subsection (4) of the House Rules of Procedure states that if a Member commits designated violations: “he may be named by the Speaker. If the offence has been committed by a Member in the House the Speaker shall forthwith put the question on a motion being made, no amendment, adjournment or debate being allowed, that the Member be suspended from the service of the House.”

(5) “A Member who is suspended under the provisions of this Rule, shall withdraw from the House and its precincts.  The suspension shall last for up to 2 sitting days on the first occasion, for 4 sitting days on the second occasion, and for 8 sitting days on the third occasion or any subsequent occasion.”

(6) “If a Member, who has been suspended from the service of the House refuses to obey the direction of the Speaker to withdraw, the Speaker shall call the attention of the House to the fact that recourse of force is necessary, if that is so, to compel obedience to his direction. The Member shall thereupon without any further question being put, be automatically suspended from the service of the House for the remainder of the session.”

(10) “The Leader of the House or, in his absence, the Member acting for him, shall be responsible to the House for moving immediately any motion required by this Rule for the suspension of a Member.”

These are the House rules but the Speaker did not follow them. After reading a Communication seemingly prepared by someone else for him to read as though he is a puppet of the government rather than the presiding officer of the Parliament, the Speaker named Dr. Minnis, but then erroneously proposed a motion and vote for him to be named – not suspended.

There is no such thing as a motion to be named in our Parliament or any other Parliament. The Speaker made a major blunder. The motion he was supposed to put that Leader of the House Dr. BJ Nottage was required to move according to the rules was a Motion to Suspend, not name Dr. Minnis. That didn’t happen. Instead, Dr. Nottage, who also apparently didn’t know the rules, rose and erroneously moved a “motion to name” Dr. Minnis.

A vote was then taken on this non-existent motion. The reason a “motion to name” does not exist is that no Member can move a motion or vote on another Member being named because naming a Member is something only the Speaker of the House can do –no House Member is permitted or able to be involved in the execution of that specific privilege of the Speaker.

All members, FNM and PLP, took part in this bogus vote. After the majority vote on the non-existent motion was taken, the Speaker ordered Dr. Minnis to withdraw from the Parliament as though a suspension vote was held – but no suspension motion ever got moved or voted upon. He was thus never suspended by the Parliament.

After Dr. Minnis refused to get up and leave, the Speaker suspended Parliament and the Parliamentary Channel operated by ZNS cut the live broadcast – so the public was unable to see what took place once the House was ordered suspended for 15 minutes.

But two amateur camera phone videos shot by persons in the gallery and posted to social media sites showed what happened – scores of senior police officers took to the floor of Parliament and surrounded Dr. Minnis to have him forcibly removed from the floor. One video showed FNM MPs clashing with police in the Minority Room of the House before Minnis and they were ultimately escorted outside Parliament.

This police intervention was a breach of the rules in two areas: the first and principal one being that a Member has to be suspended for such an intervention by the police to arise, and he wasn’t suspended. The second is that the Speaker is supposed to make a statement to Parliament that force would be required to remove the Member before such force is utilized.

But the Speaker never did that; he simply suspended Parliament, the live coverage was cut and the next thing that happened was senior police swarming Dr. Minnis and getting into it with other FNM MPs who urged police to refrain from resorting to physical contact to remove them from Parliament.

In a nutshell, the Chair this time became the rule breaker against an elected Member of Parliament, and used members of the Royal Bahamas Police Force to aid in the execution of breaking those rules.

Whether the Opposition chooses to allow their rights to be stolen via the breaking of the rules on naming and suspending a Member is of course up to them. For my part, I’ve chosen to inform the public of the precise nature of what occurred Wednesday because without knowledge, the public’s hand is weakened and they are less able to realize that what was done is more serious than simply a fight between two political parties.

The Current House Rules

As a point of context, the current rules passed by the Christie administration in 2005 made amendments to the previous rules for a principal reason – to make the Parliament a less democratic place where the Opposition would have a harder time having its say and getting protection from the Chair.

They did this in part by increasing the number of actions by the Speaker that are not allowed to be challenged in any way, thus giving the Speaker the ability to become more of a dictatorial figure in what is supposed to be a democratic Parliament.

When the PLP was voted out in 2007 and had to then become subject to the same rules they put in place to stifle the Opposition, they bitterly complained. They made the new rules to narrow Opposition rights – and then could not live with those rules once they became the Opposition.

Whoever becomes the next government of The Bahamas needs to take a researched look at how we govern the proceedings of the House, so as to provide a more modern, efficient and effective service to the Bahamian people parliamentarians are elected to serve.

Sharon Turner
Tribune Column

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