Should Minnis Move On?

It will be most interesting to see if Opposition Leader Dr. Hubert Minnis maintains his defiance of House Speaker Dr. Kendal Major’s request to withdraw certain remarks Minnis made earlier about the relationship between Prime Minister Perry Christie and Lyford Cay millionaire Peter Nygard.

I say ‘relationship’ between Christie and Nygard because that is the word that has been used by all the newspapers, television and radio stations – and I am by no means suggesting anything improper or sinister by that word, so far as any relationship exists at all between the two men.

From what I have read and heard in the print and electronic media, Minnis had made certain remarks about the prime minister on the floor of the House of Assembly during debate on a bill dealing with stem cell research. The speaker ordered the remarks expunged from the record of the House, and further ordered that those remarks were not to be reported in the press. The speaker also called on Minnis to withdraw the remarks. But Minnis has refused to do so, arguing, in essence, that it was unnecessary since if they were already expunged from the Hansard (official record of the House) then there is really nothing to withdraw.

The speaker has a different view. He insisted that Minnis withdraw the remarks despite the fact that they were expunged from the record. He said it is a question of upholding the authority of the chair, and the dignity of the House.

I don’t know exactly what was said by Minnis to cause the speaker to feel that it was necessary to exercise his powers to have the remarks expunged from the record. I am only prepared to go so far as to say that they must have reflected rather gravely, in a personal way, on the right honorable member for Centreville, who must obviously have taken objection to what Minnis had to say. The statements were not reported and I am not going to speculate.

It should always be remembered that it is the speaker’s duty to maintain order in the House. He is given that responsibility by the rules, practices and traditions of the House. He, or she, has power to enforce orders made by the chair.

It must also be remembered that members should have an inherent right to speak freely on matters of public interest under the Westminster system which prevails in The Bahamas. But that fundamental right to free speech in the halls of Parliament is subject to certain conventions and restraints. One example is the sub judice rule, which limits and tempers debate on matters which are before the courts.

“Members must be able to speak the truth without hope of favor or fear of retribution,” according to Erskine May: Parliamentary Practice. “Imposed on this freedom is voluntary restraint of the sub judice convention; a procedure devised for the simple purpose of ensuring that proceedings before a court are not prejudiced by comments in the House which might influence a jury or prejudice the position of parties and witnesses…”

May also points out the speaker has a duty and responsibility to preserve order in the House. He puts it thus: “It is the duty of the chair to intervene where offensive or disorderly words are used either by the member addressing the House or any member present. When attention is drawn by a member to words used, the chair determines whether or not they are offensive or disorderly…”

It is clear that the determination of whether words are offensive or disorderly is for the chair.

“Once the chair determines that offensive or disorderly words have been used, the chair intervenes and asks that the words be withdrawn. It is generally understood that a withdrawal implies an apology and need not be followed by an apology unless specifically demanded by the chair,” May continues.

In the United States Senate, Senator Wood, the deputy Senate president, gave interesting guidance on the meaning of offensive words. He said in 1955: “… When a man is in political life it is not offensive that things are said about him politically. Offensive means offensive in some personal way.

The same view applies to the meaning of ‘improper motives’ and ‘personal reflections’ as used in the standing order (76).”

Here again, when a man is in public life and a member of this Parliament he takes upon himself the risk of being criticized in a political way.

May further points out that it has been regarded as disorderly to refer to the lack of sobriety of a member, to imitate the voice or manner of a member and to make certain remarks about a member’s stature or physical attributes.

Clearly Major has the right to decide whether remarks are offensive or disorderly and reflect on a member’s personal character and integrity, and to order them expunged from the record. This he has done. The issue is whether he can now order Minnis to withdraw those remarks after they have been expunged from the record.

I don’t have the answer, but it would seem to me that Minnis would lose nothing by withdrawing his remarks unless he is in position to substantiate what he said. Until such time, he should do the honorable and sensible thing and withdraw.

What if he refuses to withdraw? The speaker has powers at his disposal which he may or may not find it appropriate to exercise in these circumstances.

May, using Australia as an example, refers to Standing Order 303 which provides that a member may be named by the chair if he has “persistently and willfully obstructed the business of the House; been guilty of disorderly conduct; used objectionable words, which he has refused to withdraw; persistently and willfully refused to conform to any standing order, or persistently and willfully disregarded the authority of the chair.”

“The naming of a member is, in effect, an appeal to the House to support the chair in maintaining order,” May stated. “Its first recorder use in the House of Commons was in 1641.”

I recall an incident in the last Parliament when former Speaker Alvin Smith named Englerston MP Glenys Hanna-Martin, then a member of the opposition. I thought then that it was unnecessary to do so, and I don’t think Minnis should risk being named in this particular case.

But it appears that he may be under pressure, from a purely party perspective, to, as it were, ‘take a stand’.

It seems that there are certain factions in the Free National Movement that might be growing weary of Minnis’ leadership. They may feel that he is temperamentally and in other ways unfit for leadership of the FNM while in opposition.

I fear Minnis is being compared with rather more forceful political personalities who would have held the reins of leader of the opposition. Sir Cecil Wallace–Whitfield and former Prime Minister Hubert Ingraham spring immediately to mind.

But I’m afraid Minnis is neither. He reminds me more of a Sir Kendal Isaacs. What say ye, dear reader, of Minnis’ performance so far as a parliamentary orator? Has he made his mark as a skilful parliamentary debater?

Harold Wilson, one of Britain’s most brilliant prime ministers, in my view, once said of David Lloyd George, another great prime minister: “He was a politician’s politician, with a politician’s abilities and some of their deeper failings, larger than life in glorious technicolor…”

In my humble view, Minnis should simply withdraw whatever remarks were made, in the absence of proof, and get on with the business of the House. There is no need to grandstand, and certainly nothing to prove.

– Mark Symonette-Rolle