Coming up on four years since Dr. Hubert Alexander Minnis and the Free National Movement (FNM) were overwhelmingly elected to office, we have arrived at a point where the bad blood that exists between the executive and the Speaker of the House of Assembly D. Halson Moultrie is making it increasingly difficult for the Parliament to do the people’s business. There are signs that the rising tensions could culminate in a constitutional crisis.
Any pretense of mutual respect has long gone out the window. It is a most embarrassing, juvenile and unfortunate state of affairs.
On the one end is a speaker who has long proven that he is unfit for the high office he occupies, but whose crusade for a truly independent Parliament as envisioned in our nation’s constitution seems to be born out of a genuine, albeit ambitious, desire to finally achieve a true separation of powers.
Moultrie’s frustrations are clearly deepening and his “gloves off” approach toward the prime minister and the Cabinet is no doubt guided in part by whatever disappointment or angst he might be feeling over his diminishing political life, notwithstanding his puffed up public utterances that the Free National Movement (FNM) cannot win Nassau Village again without him.
On the other end is a prime minister and a leader of government business whose arrogance, dismissive attitude and lack of regard for the speaker and ultimately the citizenry have come glaringly into focus.
Caught in the middle are the Bahamian people, who continue to witness an administration that is stumbling and struggling to record more meaningful accomplishments before the hour glass runs out on what has proven to be a difficult term of unprecedented challenges and unfocused leadership.
We have come a long way since February 2018 when the Minnis administration thwarted a no confidence vote in the speaker that was brought by the opposition and instead amended it, with the House ultimately passing a vote of confidence in Moultrie even though he had behaved shamefully from the speaker’s chair when he launched seedy attacks on the former House clerk and on the opposition leader.
As there can only be one vote of no confidence in the speaker per session, the executive is in a tight spot as to what to do about the speaker, who resigned from the governing party in February 2021.
The prime minister has the option of proroguing Parliament to start a new session, or dissolving Parliament to prepare for an election.
This close to the end of a term, it seems unwise to prorogue and start afresh. Even if Minnis decides to prorogue the House and move a vote of no confidence in the speaker, he and his administration would be a laughing stock given their previous expression of confidence in Moultrie even after his dishonorable utterances from the speaker’s chair just over three years ago.
Moultrie’s resignation from the FNM seemed to be sparked by what had already been a widely known decision of the party not to renominate him to run in Nassau Village. The party has since nominated popular trade unionist Nicole Martin for the constituency.
The speaker has not said whether he intends to run as an independent.
Last October, he suggested he had made himself “indispensable and relevant”.
“If they choose not to nominate me, then I most certainly could predict that the party I’m affiliated with, if they don’t nominate me in Nassau Village, they most certainly will not win that seat,” he declared.
In the months since, he has upped his demands for Parliament to operate as an independent arm of government, though the Parliamentary Services Bill, which he shepherded early in the term in an effort to put Parliament directly in control of its budget and loosen the Cabinet’s stranglehold on the administrative function of the legislature, has been dead in the water.
“It is common knowledge that the continuing encroachment of the executive into the Parliament has effectively rendered the legislature impotent in its role as a check on the executive as envisaged in Article 72 of the constitution,” Moultrie said in 2019.
Similar observations were expressed by Dr. Kendal Major, who served as speaker before Moultrie, although Major’s relationship with the then administration though strained at times remained intact.
When Moultrie resigned from the FNM three months ago, some political observers opined that his dealings with the governing party would likely become even more acrimonious.
The signs of that playing out are clear.
Last week, after enduring the latest round of disrespect from the prime minister and leader of government business, Renward Wells, Moultrie lashed out, refusing to allow the government to proceed with its agenda.
The issue developed after the House clerk tested positive for COVID-19 and Moultrie was unable to communicate with the executive on how the House would proceed the following day.
This is unfortunate, and quite frankly disgraceful.
“The most challenging matter to me was yesterday in the process of dealing with this matter with the staff of this Parliament, I made numerous attempts to communicate the situation with the member for Killarney (Minnis) and with the member for Bamboo Town (Wells),” he said.
“Staffers of Parliament were assembled in these very chambers waiting for answers. We got one response in one word from the member for Killarney, and that was ‘noted’.”
The speaker said after he advised the staff to
quarantine, someone ordered one of the parliamentary staffers to return to work.
Moultrie characterized the situation as “the last straw”.
He determined he would show the executive who is boss of the Parliament, and so he declared that he is ready for war if that’s what the prime minister wants, and he abruptly adjourned the House, temporarily derailing the executive’s plans for that sitting.
The speaker used his perceived power under House rule 88(9) to shut down the House.
That rule reads, “In the case of disorder arising in the House, the speaker may, if he thinks it necessary to do so, adjourn the House without putting any question or suspend the sitting to a time named by him.”
Moultrie determined the executive’s behavior to be “a grave disorder”, and so he refused to allow the proceedings to go on last Wednesday. Parliament was adjourned to Monday past and went without incident, but the lingering action of the speaker and the refusal of the prime minister to address the matter showed a disregard for the people who put our leaders in office.
The refusal of the prime minister or the leader of government business in the House to communicate with the speaker after the critical issue of the positive COVID result received by the clerk speaks to the complete collapse of the relationship between the speaker and the executive.
It is a matter that was challenging, but simple enough to address.
That said, the speaker’s decision to use rule 88(9) to hit back seemed to be a stretch of the rule.
Former Speaker Major told us, “That rule is debatable.
“I think it was not intended to be used the way it was used. I think the intent based on the time when it was penned was to use it for ‘combruction’ or some pandemonium within the House because I’ve used it myself.
“But what you would do is you would suspend, or you adjourn, and you state the reason and you come back pretty much within that day, but for the speaker to actually use it and determine the agenda, which was the next sitting, based on a schism between him and the government, I thought was a stretch and I don’t think the Parliament was advanced with that.”
But Major said Moultrie was correct in his observation that the House and the office of speaker were disrespected.
“It was insensitive for the government to still want to do its work in light of all of the challenges health-wise that they were faced with,” he said.
Major said the “embarrassing scolding” of the executive exposed too much dirty laundry.
“It was not necessary and completely embarrassing to the national efforts,” Major said.
It is simply incredible that the relationship between Moultrie and the Cabinet has so intensely soured that it has become an ego battle.
It is clear that the speaker is determined to score as many political wins in Parliament as he can before he demits office.
It is also clear that the prime minister has little regard for his authority and will keep communication at an absolute minimum.
Wells, the leader of government business, will do as he has always done; he will follow Minnis’ lead.
If the prime minister decides to run out the term in an effort to get more things done, Moultrie could make it increasingly difficult for the Minnis administration in the conduct of the people’s affairs.
How can they go on like this?
“They cannot,” Major opined when he spoke with us last week.
“It seems as though the only answer realistically is to dissolve the House and call a general election and ask for a new mandate.”
On Friday, Minnis, who was asked by a reporter to respond to this issue, said he had more important things to worry about, like improving economic prospects for Bahamians.
The prime minister’s dismissive approach to the matter of the speaker did not improve the situation, but it was not at all surprising.
As his term wanes, Minnis is behaving increasingly like his predecessor in office, who became so comfortable with power and so blinded by hubris that he allowed minor and avoidable issues and conflicts to mushroom into national embarrassments.
With the executive showing no interest in mending the fractured relationship with the speaker for the national good, and Moultrie prepared for war, what we see here is an unprecedented state of affairs, an untenable situation that cannot end well.
We agree with Major. It’s time for a fresh mandate.