The government’s move to debate amendments to the Antigua Port Authority Act
in the House on Thursday morning was overshadowed by an unexpected walkout
staged by the Leader of the Opposition, Jamale Pringle.
This was obviously an unplanned event, as it took even members of the Opposition
bench, as well as the government’s side and the Speaker, Sir Gerald Watt, all by
surprise. Such was the unplanned nature of the walkout, that some of the members
of the opposition – notably Richard Lewis, Anthony Smith, and Algernon Watt –
reluctantly followed the leader.
The issue arose when the mover of the Bill, Prime Minister Gaston Browne rose to
move for the suspension of the relevant Standing Orders to allow the House to
proceed with a ‘matter of urgent public importance.’ After the House gave the
greenlight for him to proceed, no sooner had the prime minister begun his
presentation, when the Leader of the Opposition raised an objection over the fact
that the amendment Bill had not been duly circulated among the members by the
‘five-day prior’ requirement.
“Mr. Speaker, according to Section 60 (3) dealing with the circulation of Bills this
ought to be done no less than five days before the debate. Mr. Speaker, it is more
than what the government is suggesting. We on this side cannot seriously debate
this bill based on what is coming from the other side. I recommend that this bill is
made available for us to have a consultation on this side and even to consult with
legal advice. We are now looking into Maritime Law. They cannot, just because
they have the numbers, come here on a matter where the vessel has been
abandoned for months. Why did they not come to the House before; it’s unfair, Mr.
Speaker,” he declared.
Attorney General, Steadroy Benjamin, who also advises the House, raised to
explain that while Pringle was correct regarding the Standing Orders requirement
for prior notice, the same Standing Orders do give the right for the government to
suspend the rules and to proceed with a matter considered to be of ‘grave urgency’
and that such a situation existed at the current time.
He journeyed back to the Magna Carta and the development of English Common
Law to indicate that there would be circumstances that would require the
suspension of the rules to allow for debate or discussion on a matter of ‘grave
urgency’. This he further explained, was the case with the situation that the
government brought to the House. “The House which regulates the proceedings of
the House can vote to suspend its own rules to allow for the consideration of this
matter,” he noted.
After the Speaker ruled that he was satisfied with the explanation and asked that
the prime minister proceed, Pringle was visibly unhappy with the ruling coming
from the Chair.
“The member for All Saints East and St. Luke is aware that this is not a frivolous
matter. It is a matter of urgent public importance and a national security matter,”
the prime minister began as he resumed his presentation.
Still unsatisfied, Pringle packed up his papers, stood up and declared his intention
to leave and he urged his members to follow. They did…although not all seemed to
agree with the move.