Know your role
The Minnis administration missed a golden opportunity to remove Nassau Village member of Parliament Halson Moultrie as speaker of the House of Assembly in February of last year.
Having made a fool of himself and his party and debasing the venerated office he holds with his unbelievably inappropriate and disgraceful address from his chair while explaining why he named and suspended Englerston MP Glenys Hanna-Martin the week prior, the majority should have swiftly removed Moultrie.
Lest we forget, Moultrie suspended Hanna-Martin after she refused to sit there like a child while he lectured her about her supposed penchant for raising points of order without supplying sufficient evidence to support the claims.
She walked out while he went on and on.
The rest of the opposition walked out with her.
Moultrie ultimately suspended the entire opposition.
It was an incredibly petty thing to do that made no sense.
As opposed to considering whether he had been too heavy-handed, Moultrie apparently canvassed media reports of the opposition and went on a scathing attack on February 7.
The Progressive Liberal Party (PLP) then brought a no confidence motion.
The Free National Movement (FNM) should have been horrified by Moultrie’s remarks.
Instead, FNM members doubled down and praised Moultrie’s disrespectful and unparliamentary tirade.
It was embarrassing to watch.
The FNM then used Parliamentary maneuvering to move and pass a motion of confidence in the speaker.
Moultrie apologized for his bitter, pedantic, nonsensical, homophobic and xenophobic rant.
He pledged to be a better speaker.
He has failed that pledge on several fronts.
Though there have been some bright spots, watching the current budget debate with a plethora of uninspiring and irrelevant contributions by many MPs has been onerous enough.
However, Moultrie’s clear partisanship has made it excruciating.
His bias is clear in most debates and matters that occur in the House of Assembly, but it seems particularly glaring these past few weeks.
What it has done is hindered free speech during debates in Parliament, a place where speech is protected by privilege.
Though Moultrie pays lip service to “protecting” the voice of the minority in Parliament, he rarely does.
For example, Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Finance Peter Turnquest routinely interrupted contributions of opposition members and members not seen as “supportive” of the administration.
This is fine.
Turnquest engineered the budget and should seek to make clear what the facts are if members misconstrue them.
Moultrie has allowed Turnquest carte blanche at the expense of opposition voices.
Yet, he has failed to extend the very same courtesy to the opposition.
When Long Island MP and Water and Sewerage Corporation Chairman Adrian Gibson asserted that PLP Leader and Cat Island, Rum Cay and San Salvador MP Philip Brave Davis never put a single pipe in the ground in Cat Island, Davis sought to object.
Yet, Moultrie shut Davis down.
He shut down Hanna-Martin when she sought to object to Minister of Tourism Dionisio D’Aguilar’s assertion that a lease entered into by the former administration was a bad deal.
He also shut down Exumas and Ragged Island MP Chester Cooper when he sought to make a point about the government’s apparent waffling on free education for University of The Bahamas students during Minister of Education and South Beach MP Jeffrey Lloyd’s contribution last Wednesday.
That instance led to one of Moultrie’s familiar diatribes replete with puffery about things no one really cares about.
He took the opportunity to delve into minutiae about people who had visited the House of Assembly and the perceived disrespect that he believes he was shown from sitting opposition MPs.
That morning, Cooper had asked Moultrie to address the people. Moultrie appeared to acquiesce. Prime Minister Dr. Hubert Minnis was heard saying “no” from his chair. Moultrie proceeded to shut Cooper down. Cooper made some comments from his seat about members of the FNM directing a speaker, who is supposed to act independently, from their seats.
Moultrie, of course, could not let this moment pass an entire day.
“Earlier this morning when I advised the House that we had a group of persons here from various Family Islands and I called on the minister of education and the member for South Beach, who the chair had already recognized, I heard a number of comments of insulting remarks from both you, the member for Exuma and Ragged Island, and the member for Cat Island, Rum Cay and San Salvador being hurled at the chair,” he said in the middle of a budget debate that had materially nothing to do with what he was referencing.
“Now, the custom in this Parliament since I became the speaker, was that whenever any member wanted to make greetings, or bring greetings or make a remark, he gives the speaker notice one hour before the proceedings.
“I was here this morning from 8:30 in the morning and I received no notice from either of you. Yet, when the speaker calls on the member for South Beach, you and the member for Cat Island, and some rumbling from Pineridge, is being hurled in a disrespectful manner at the chair.
“Now, I’m putting you and the member for Pineridge, in the absence of the member for Cat Island, Rum Cay and San Salvador, [on notice] that the chair is not going to tolerate that kind of behavior from any member.
“Now…the chair has a responsibility to be as fair as possible. On numerous occasions when members notified the chair of their intention to bring greetings, the chair accedes to those notices and extends to the official opposition the opportunity to bring greetings as well.
“On numerous occasions when ministers notify the chair, the chair has extended to the official opposition the opportunity to bring greetings as well.”
When Cooper attempted to stand to clarify himself, Moultrie essentially told him not to waste his time.
“I have watched the videotapes of previous sessions of this Parliament and I have watched the way people deal with the speaker in a disrespectful manner. But I am putting you on notice that that is not going to happen to this speaker by any member.
“The chair believes in the independence and the autonomy of the Parliament. I take it as an insult when any member suggests that the chair and the presiding officer is being directed by any other member.
“I want you to know that I am prepared to risk everything to maintain order and decorum and respect for the rules and procedure of this Parliament.
“And I am not tolerating, while I am in this chair, any disrespect from any member that could bring this institution into disrepute.”
Moultrie’s condescending frolics of self-importance are a distraction and a bore.
They have hindered an already dull and largely uninformed debate.
Unfortunately, he allowed the government MPs to steamroll Pineridge MP Frederick McAlpine’s contribution.
Moultrie often speaks about defending the opposition’s right to speak.
But in reality, this is something he does not do in any significant way.
He plays full goalie for the government when even its own members are critical of it.
He also unevenly applies the rules of documentary evidence for members.
He once made Cooper retract that unemployment was up because Cooper could not immediately provide evidence of this widely known fact.
He appears to lack the discipline required of his position or the temperament to not take umbrage at every perceived slight.
It is maddening to observe.
When Centreville MP Reece Chipman’s sister stole the show with her outburst in the gallery of the House during the budget communication, it made national news and exploded on social media.
Reporters recorded the event on their cell phones and used the footage during broadcast news.
Many people in the gallery also recorded the outburst on their cell phones and posted videos of it on social media.
This led Moultrie to change the rules of cell phone use in Parliament under the guise of protecting the security of the House.
“With respect to reports and the broadcast of the events from this Parliament, the rules are clear that whenever a disturbance occurs within the precincts of this Parliament, the cameras, particularly those of the Parliamentary Channel, are to be directed on the chair and not roam the gallery and broadcast the events,” Moultrie said on June 5.
“Nor should there have been any cell phone recording of the event that took place and distributed on social media.
“The reports that I’ve received based on that breach of the rules and the broadcast on social media [have] resulted in my estimation to a very serious threat on the security of the Parliament of the Commonwealth of The Bahamas and on its senators and members.”
Moultrie essentially banned cell phone possession in the House by members of the public without his express permission.
“Technocrats” , members of the media and members of Parliament can bring cell phones to Parliament, Moultrie said.
However, he added, “under no circumstance should any recording of the proceedings of this Parliament by cell phone be broadcast without first receiving clearance from the presiding officer of the Parliament”.
Moultrie also sought to chastise the media on Monday over what they publish.
Referring tangentially to some report of “fake news” on social media about the speaker supposedly limiting Davis’ contribution time, Moultrie sought to make demands of the media.
“I want to put on the record of this Parliament so that no one can be falsely accusing the chair of [denying] any member of his rights in this Parliament,” he said.
“I want the media, in particular the mainstream media, who seems to be putting out fraudulent misrepresentations in their headlines that are inconsistent with the stories that follow to desist with that practice.”
No one employed at this media company has any inkling what Moultrie is referring to.
But Moultrie should know that media will report whatever happens in the House that is in the public interest.
He has no power over what the media publishes.
He also has less power than he thinks over the media’s ability to cover the House.
The proceedings are publicly broadcast, bills are publicly published.
He can attempt to limit access for media houses, not that he has demonstrated he wants to do that, but his options, should he decide to do so, are limited.
Perhaps one of the most glaring mistakes that Moultrie has made is in supporting a bad decision by former Speaker Dr. Kendal Major that defanged the once-powerful Public Accounts Committee (PAC).
In a 2015 ruling, Major said the Office of the Attorney General had advised him that the committee is confined to examining documents tabled in Parliament.
The issue that triggered that ruling was the PAC’s examination of the controversial Urban Renewal Programme.
Major ruled that the committee could not examine the matter until the auditor general’s report on the program was tabled.
At the time, the governing PLP celebrated that decision.
It has come back to haunt it in opposition.
Because the PAC is so limited in its scope now, it has gotten virtually nothing done in the past two years.
This led Chipman to resign from the committee in January.
In the wake of Moultrie’s decision, Moultrie told National Review that his hands were tied as the House follows precedent.
He said unless an interested party, an MP, makes an application to him for that ruling to be set aside then it would remain in place.
“If the aggrieved party accepts the ruling then that is the end of the matter; there is no appeal,” Moultrie said.
“And so, that is the position we are in right now despite all of the public discourse on the matter.
“The aggrieved party, which appears to be Her Majesty’s official opposition, they are the majority on the PAC, and they would be the party that is seeking to examine the accounts of the existing government to hold the government to account, and so that party should be the party that should be seeking to have that judgment set aside.
“Until they do so, the speaker is bound by that decision and the PAC likewise would be bound by that decision.”
Nothing binds Moultrie to Major’s decision.
As he decided to change the rules about cell possession in Parliament, he can use his discretion to consider the speaker’s ruling and change it.
But he will not, because as much as he talks about independence, the governing side does not want this to change.
His decision to not act appears just as partisan as Major’s decision was.
Hopefully, Moultrie will not see this as a personal attack.
Though that is doubtful.
He has unfortunately made the speakership about him, regardless of how he is damaging the institution.
Perhaps no one has told him this.
Perhaps he has not considered any of this.
Perhaps he does not care.
However, Moultrie is likely to be speaker for the remainder of the FNM’s term in office.
He should use that time to be a better speaker and seek to make the House of Assembly more transparent and serve the people of The Bahamas better.
His role is to move the institution forward.
He is currently doing the opposite.