When bad rules come back to bite

Recent abuse of power complaints by opposition leader Philip Davis against House Speaker Halson Moultrie are a classic example of how bad rules made while in government can be onerous while in opposition.

More importantly, they arise from undemocratic House rules that stifle the voice of the minority and that ought to be flagged for amendment by the House Rules Committee should that sessional committee ever get around to carrying out its work.

The current Rules of Procedure of the House of Assembly came into effect back in 2005, and govern the conduct of the Parliament.

During debate on the opposition’s motion of no confidence in Prime Minister Dr. Hubert Minnis, the governing side flipped the motion to a motion of confidence; materially changing the motion but doing so consistent with what the rules permit.

Davis decried the speaker’s decision to allow this, even though Rule 60(1) permits a question or motion to be amended by “omitting words, omitting words in order to insert other words or by inserting words” with the requirement that the amendment be relevant to the original question.

What Rule 60 does not do (and ought to do) is include a prohibitive clause as exists for example in the British Parliament, whose procedure is that an amendment to a substantive motion “must not achieve the same effect as voting against the motion”.

Flipping a motion is the equivalent of amending it to achieve the effect of voting against that motion, and it is an undemocratic mechanism which violates the rights of MPs to bring a motion to the House.

Rule 60(6) specifically limits a minister to making amendments that do not alter the intent of a bill, but a bill and a substantive motion such as a motion of no confidence are different parliamentary instruments.

Rule 60 does not go far enough to prevent what occurred with the opposition’s no-confidence motion, and this should change in the interest of fair and just procedure.

Davis further contended that the speaker abused his power when he did not permit him to wrap up debate on the motion, arguing that “convention has it, the rules of Parliament have it, that there must always be a summing up, a wrap up by the mover of the motion unless he directs that someone else does it in his stead”.

On the contrary, Rule 30(9) states: “Other than on a motion of censure or no confidence or which is critical of government or of an officer of government or a public corporation, the final reply of the mover of the original motion closes the debate.”

On the face of it, this rule is intended to prevent the opposition from having the final say in a debate on any matter it raises that is critical of the government — a glaringly unjust rule, but the standing rule nonetheless, which counters Davis’ assertion that he had a right to close the debate.

Another glaringly undemocratic procedure is laid out in Rule 33(1), which enables a member to move for closure of a debate even if another recognized member is on his or her feet making a presentation at the time.

The effect of this rule is that it can enable the governing side (which ordinarily has the majority of members to consent to such a move) to abruptly shut down a debate that it believes is not progressing in its favor — hence silencing the opposition.

Subsection 3 empowers the speaker to block a motion for closure if he or she believes the motion is an abuse of the rules or an infringement on the rights of the minority.

Since the speaker is typically a member of the majority side, it is unlikely that he or she would consistently rule against that side in favor of the opposition, no matter how fair a speaker he or she wishes to be.

It is why rules like Rule 33(1) should not exist as written; it is easier to successfully abuse unjust rules than just rules, particularly when the presiding officer is not independent.

Davis is on the rules committee. He should agitate for changes and the committee should move for changes guided chiefly by principles of democratic governance, and not by ways a government can suppress the opposition at every turn.

There is no democracy if the voice of the minority is not protected.

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