Political power plays. “Sickening” pettiness. Disrespect for the office of speaker.
These are the scenarios the country’s 54th House Speaker Halson Moultrie asserts were at play in a relationship between him and the executive branch that had so deteriorated, it culminated in his resignation from the Free National Movement (FNM).
Moultrie is now the first independent speaker in an independent Bahamas, and the first in 53 years since the ascension of Sir Alvin Braynen, who was elected speaker as an independent, following the 1967 general election that ushered in majority rule.
In previous articles, including last October’s piece, “The People’s House”, we have delved into how the Bahamian people and the democracy benefit when Parliament functions as the country’s system of government intended.
In an interview with Perspective, Moultrie pointed to a series of circumstances that ultimately highlight ways the country can suffer, when personalities and internal politics take precedence over the people’s best interests.
An offer he would refuse
Moultrie’s resignation from the FNM came in the midst of his party’s candidate selection process.
Though his move to become an independent undoubtedly caught his former party off guard, an independent House speaker is rooted in the ongoing tradition of the British legislature, wherein the speaker, once elected, is required to immediately resign from his or her party.
Previously the FNM’s standard bearer for the Nassau Village constituency, Moultrie revealed that Prime Minister and FNM leader Dr. Hubert Minnis recently met with him, and presented him with an offer in exchange for his agreeing not to seek renomination.
Moultrie disclosed, “The prime minister made me an offer which I am not prepared to make public, but if he is prepared to make it public he is free to do so, but I didn’t think that the offer was one that I could accept.”
But well before the nomination process, it was clear that all was not well in the relationship between the speaker and the executive.
Though evidence of Moultrie’s views on the separation of powers existed long before joining the FNM or becoming elected, we put to Moultrie our view that the tenor of his advocacy pointed to a breakdown in relations between himself and the executive – a view he agreed with.
When asked where the relationship soured, Moultrie said, “The fundamental flaw I would say, in the relationship between the executive branch and the speaker, was a matter of disrespect for the chair and the office of speaker.
“For some reason, it seems that the executive branch and the prime minister himself, have a major issue accepting that the speaker, the prime minister and the chief justice are coequals in the separation of powers, and the Parliament is the first arm of government.”
The House speaker pointed out that as an offshoot, he no longer wanted to be in a position “where certain requests or instructions would be coming to me from the party that could have the effect of persuading me in a particular direction.”
He cited as an example of this, the recent tabling of a bill for an act to repeal the Ocean Industries Incorporated (Aragonite Mining Encouragement) Act 1971 by Pineridge MP Frederick McAlpine, where House leader of government business Renward Wells challenged the tabling, arguing that McAlpine did not give requisite notice of his intent to introduce the bill.
Moultrie did not agree with Wells’ challenge, and Wells could be heard yelling across the floor at the clerk of the Parliament in anger over the speaker’s ruling.
The speaker decried as a “political power play”, the apparent determination of the executive to deny any request of the speaker so as “to teach the speaker a lesson and to show the speaker that ‘we have the power’.
This, he argued, has resulted in Parliament staffers being hurt in the process.
Moultrie stated, “I have been pushing for the clerk of the Parliament to be the administrative officer of the Parliament, and to be given the level of respect deserving of that position, and to be remunerated accordingly.
“We have staff members who are working an inordinately high number of hours in terms of overtime and working on weekends, who are not being paid for those hours.”
Moultrie said the government’s failure to pay his former personal assistant, who has since resigned and who recently took her plight to Eyewitness News, also played a fundamental role in his decision to resign from the FNM.
He revealed, “I had major issues in getting a personal assistant approved by the Cabinet. I explained to her that there might be a delay in the execution of her contract because the same occurred with my driver and my first personal assistant.
“It got so bad that I had to instruct my law firm to advance a loan to her to help carry her over until the government had concluded the contractual arrangements to have her paid, and to this day, I’ve been making inquiries and have not yet been advised by the Cabinet Office that she has been paid.”
Moreover, Moultrie noted that the House of Assembly’s former chaplain, Rev. Angela Palacious, has not been paid since demitting the post nearly one year ago, and that his requests to have the yearly chaplain’s stipend of just over $3,000 increased, have been denied.
“From my perspective, the speaker is being challenged by the Cabinet on every level,” he added.
“Sickening level of pettiness”
With an office lacking proper bathroom facilities and otherwise deemed a security risk by the Royal Bahamas Police Force, Moultrie petitioned government behind the scenes for much needed renovations.
He described the condition of the speaker’s office as “a disgraceful situation” for the country, in part, because officials from other jurisdictions who wished to make courtesy calls on the speaker and who needed to use the restroom, would have to be sent down a corridor to a public facility where they might have to tow a line.
When Minnis announced multi-million-dollar capital works plans for government buildings that did not include renovations to the speaker’s office, Moultrie advised from the chair that he would turn in the keys to the office if works would not commence.
He opined, “Everything went downhill after turning in the keys. A very senior FNM official told me when I turned in my keys, that there will be consequences for turning in my keys. So I anticipated that there would be some challenges on the party level.
“I don’t know how to explain the level of pettiness that I have experienced since that has happened, where the Cabinet Office would descend to the level of when James Oswald Ingraham was lying in state in the House of Assembly and they were preparing his funeral arrangements, the Cabinet Office decided that the former speaker was not deserving of the title of ‘honorable’, and they actually stooped to the level of demanding that [the family] remove ‘honorable’ from his name [on the family’s draft program], otherwise the government would not print the funeral booklets.
“It is sickening, the level of pettiness.”
In order to work to provide a safer environment for legislators in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, Moultrie pointed to his presenting of a resolution to move to virtual sittings, and his efforts to have proceedings move to Baha Mar, which offered the government convention facilities for free, with a floor design that enabled all parliamentarians to enjoy social distancing beyond existing protocols.
Both initiatives, according to the speaker, were shot down.
He continued, “Despite the efforts of the speaker to maintain the physical distancing, the Cabinet Office instructs to have extra chairs [for parliamentarians] brought in, and we are now like sardines in a can again.
“I took the position as speaker that if you want to risk your own life by breaching your own protocols, then go ahead.
“Most of those challenges were to say to the speaker, ‘we are in charge, you sit low and you relax, and just do what we say’.”
Removing the speaker
The Parliament does not belong to a political party, and the House of Assembly is not the property of the executive.
The constitution does not recognize individual political parties, and the speaker is not appointed by the government, but rather is elected by House members.
Though deteriorating relations between the speaker and the executive played a role in current events, an independent speaker is foundational to the impartial adjudication of the House of Assembly.
The speaker is the guardian of the rights and privileges of all parliamentarians regardless of party lines, and it is not the role of the speaker to ensure that the government has its way without regard to rules and conventions.
Parliament is the birth child of Westminster conventions, and parliaments under the Westminster model operate via their established rules and legislation outlining powers and privileges, which in The Bahamas includes powers for the speaker that are “like powers” to those held by the speaker of the House of Commons in the United Kingdom (UK).
The speaker also adjudicates the House of Assembly by interpreting rules set out in the “bible” of Westminster Parliaments, Erskin May Parliamentary Practice.
Much has been said about the government’s inability to remove the speaker of the House.
The constitution of The Bahamas makes no provision for the removal of the speaker and deputy speaker, just as it makes no provision for the removal of the governor general.
Article 50 of the constitution states that the speaker or deputy speaker shall vacate the office on the dissolution — not prorogation — of Parliament.
The speaker and deputy shall also vacate office if he or she is appointed minister or parliamentary secretary (to protect the separation of powers), or if he or she resigns from the post.
This constitutional provision follows from the Westminster convention that the speaker, once elected, continues in that office until Parliament dissolves, or upon his or her resignation or death.
Should a motion of no confidence against the speaker of the House of Commons succeed, the motion itself does not compel the speaker to vacate the chair, but he or she would be expected to offer resignation based on the convention that the legitimacy of power rests in the confidence of electors as expressed by a vote.
The Bahamas conforms to the same convention.
Section 9(1) of the Powers and Privileges Act, which sets out the immunities, powers and privileges of the Senate and House of Assembly states:
“Subject to the provisions of this act, the speaker shall have the like powers as are exercised and held for the time being in the United Kingdom by the speaker of the Commons House of Parliament and, without derogation from the generality of the powers conferred by this section, in particular shall exercise and have such powers as are provided hereafter in this act:
“Provided that in respect of any matter in relation to which in the United Kingdom any power derives from Standing Orders of the said Commons House of Parliament, the speaker shall have only such powers as are expressly conferred by any rules.”
With respect to the allowance of any House motion — including a motion of confidence or no confidence — that has already been either carried or rejected within a given session, Rule 60(15) of the Rules of Procedure of the House of Assembly states: “The speaker or chairman may, in his discretion, disallow any motion or amendment which is the same in substance as any question which, during the same session, has been resolved in the affirmative or negative by the House or committee.”
The opposition’s motion of no confidence and the government’s amendment thereof to a motion of confidence, were resolved in the current session of Parliament.
So steadfastly do Westminster parliaments adhere to the convention of the speaker’s tenure, that only two countries have removed their speaker — Trinidad and Tobago in 1995 as referenced by Perspective last October, and Malaysia last year.
Malaysia’s constitution allows for the removal of the speaker via a no confidence vote, but Trinidad and Tobago’s constitution did not, and in its standoff with then-speaker Occah Seepaul, the Patrick Manning administration went as far as declaring a state of emergency to put Seepaul under house arrest, so it could amend the constitution to remove her.
Seepaul previously refused to resign amidst government pressure and an attempt at a no confidence vote, which some observers say was due to Seepaul’s falling out of favor with the prime minister because she could not be dictated to or controlled.
The standoff led to a series of events that ended in the administration’s defeat at the polls.
When it comes to putting the nation’s work in Parliament on pause to exact vengeance on the speaker, the government would do well to count the cost.
Moultrie said he suspects there will be “an initiative by the government to move the speaker”, but such an initiative, if pursued, has little to no chance of yielding a positive outcome for government.
Government could prorogue Parliament simply to engage in a standoff with the speaker because he is no longer an FNM, but there is no constitutional or statutory provision that compels the speaker to resign, should a no confidence motion against him succeed.
The speaker must still choose to resign if he is to vacate the chair prior to the House’s dissolution.
Moreover, to prorogue Parliament solely to battle with the House’ presiding officer not only works to derail government’s legislative agenda that is already well behind where it ought to be, but creates a credibility problem for the government, since it in glowing terms and with a large majority vote, affirmed its confidence in the speaker back in 2018.
The government’s resolution to affirm confidence in the speaker, said Moultrie, had, “Restored the honor, dignity and respect due to the high office of speaker of this House, consistently displayed fairness, and has interpreted the rules of the House generously having due regard for the rights of the minority party.”
Ironically, Wells defended actions by the speaker that triggered the opposition’s motion of no confidence, asserting that his actions were justified because he was being repeatedly provoked by the opposition’s “flagrant disrespect and disregard for the established authority of the Parliament”.
Two years later, disrespect and disregard for the speaker and his authority is now the accusation being leveled at the government by Moultrie.
Wells further adopted the position that the effect of the opposition’s motion of no confidence would be the derailing of the government’s legislative agenda — the same effect that would come to bear if government prorogued Parliament simply to introduce such a motion.
Moultrie told us he would “likely accept the wishes of the Parliament”, should the House be prorogued and a no confidence motion against him succeeds.
But proroguing the House also opens the prime minister to a fresh motion of no confidence against him, which Moultrie said he would have no problem bringing should he choose to resign and take a seat as a backbencher.
Wells admonished the opposition to “just move on” and “leave vengeance to the Lord.”
Will Wells follow his own advice?
The FNM said of the matter, “We have received Speaker D. Halson Moultrie’s resignation from the FNM and look forward to continuing to work with the Nassau Village MP to uphold democracy, transparency and accountability, all of which are core values of the FNM’s agenda.”
But whether government will move on, remains to be seen.
Sowing seeds for change
The next sitting of the House could be an unusually tense one under the circumstances, but Moultrie said he is unmoved by the possibility.
The speaker stressed, “I will enforce the rules such as we have, and anyone who crosses the line will be dealt with based on the rules. I expect that there are going to be some initiatives to challenge the authority of the chair, but believe me, I am prepared to use Rule 88 to bring that under control.”
Rule 88 empowers the speaker or chairman of committee to maintain order in the House through mechanisms including ordering comments to be expunged, and ordering members to withdraw from the precincts.
As to whether he is prepared for what might be bitter political backlash or attacks from elements of his former party, particularly with elections on the horizon, Moultrie surmised, “Life is the interval between the womb and the tomb, so between the womb and the tomb, let no man presume that D. Halson Moultrie was sent here to be consumed, because such an assumption is a rebuttable presumption.
“And members of the Cabinet need to stop paying persons to put voice notes out in social media attacking their own, that’s what they need to stop doing, including attacking the speaker and attacking the former minister of health. They need to stop doing that.”
Moultrie’s tenure as speaker has had its share of high and low points, but we agree unreservedly with the position that the separation of powers in the country’s democracy must be honored and protected.
The speaker concluded, “I am absolutely convinced that The Bahamas needs to move toward an independent speaker. I don’t know if we have the political maturity yet, but I believe that the seeds of that movement should be sown, and that was fundamental to my decision as well.
“Sometimes, the sower of the seed is not the person who reaps the harvest, but I believe that in the best interest of the country, the seeds need to be sown.”