Legislators who turned up at the Legislative Chambers on 27 November for the day’s House of Assembly sitting were turned away after it was decided that the sitting was ‘illegal’.
The situation of the illegal sitting of the House of Assembly was brought to light as the Speaker of the House of Assembly, Hon. Ingrid Moses read a letter that was sent to her by Leader of the Opposition, Hon. Andrew Fahie.
The letter was sent to the Speaker on 22 November, and in it the Leader of the Opposition expressed his concerns about what he termed was an ongoing violation of sections 8:1D, 8:1E as well as section 10:2 of the Standing Orders of the House of Assembly.
Section 8:1D of the Standing Orders states that the Clerk (of the House of Assembly) shall post or otherwise dispatch notice paper of a sitting to each member not less than ten days before the date of such a sitting. While, Section 8:1E states “to prepare for each sitting an order paper containing the business for that sitting copies of which has been posted or otherwise dispatched to each member not less than five clear days before the House meets.” The other cited Section10:2 in the Standing Order states “a sitting of the House shall begin at 10:00 am or at such other time as the Speaker may from time to time determine”.
In his letter Hon. Fahie stated that the contravention of these Standing Orders poses the risk of weakening the standing of the House: “The integrity of the House of Assembly cannot be allowed to be compromised and all times integrity of our institutions must be upheld,” he said.
Even more significantly, in his letter the Leader of the Opposition explained to the Speaker that the validity of the sitting comes into question as the days of notice are beyond the confines required by section 8:1 of the Standing Orders which calls for notice to be given at least 10 days before a sitting. It was this requirement that eventually led to the cancellation of the sitting.
As the matter was being hashed out the Speaker announced that she is concerned about points raised by the Leader of the Opposition: “The issues raised are of much concern to me as well and notwithstanding the challenges posed due to the lack of proper office for the House of Assembly I have expressed these concerns to the Premier on numerous occasions with a view to having them permanently redressed.”
Regarding Tuesday’s sitting and the breach of Section Eight of the Standing Orders, the Speaker explained that the fact that the House held a special sitting on 15 November to pay tribute to departed Fifth District Representative, and former Deputy Speaker of the House Hon. Delores Christopher contributed to the short notice.
Hon. Moses said that no other substantive matter was dealt with during that special sitting and as a result those matters were forwarded to Tuesday’s sitting. She said that one of the items that was supposed to be on the 15 November Order of the Day was the Auditor General’s report of the Elmore Stoutt High School perimeter wall.
“As a result of the placement of this report on the Order Paper it was likely to be the subject of a debate. The Office of the Auditor General’s special report on the Elmore Stoutt High School perimeter wall was received very late on the afternoon of Tuesday 13 November. The reason for its inclusion on the Order of the Day was because the report had to be laid in the House of Assembly by the 27 November in accordance with the Audit Act 2003…as a result and on the possibility that a Motion was going to be moved to have the report debated it was agreed in accordance with Standing Order that the House would deal with the tribute to the late Hon. Delores Christopher and then recess until another day to deal with the other items,” the Speaker explained.
“Having asked the Premier multiple times on 15 November, reminding him every day after that he advised on Monday 19 November 2018 that the…sitting of the House of Assembly needed to be held on the 27 November 2018 as the Office of the Auditor General Special Report Elmore Stoutt High School wall had to be laid by that time,” Hon. Moses further stated.
The Speaker also explained that notice of the sitting was dispatched on the 19 November and she said that the breaches were noted: “In all instances I have advised the Premier as Leader of government business of the potential and actual breaches to the Standing Orders and the need to comply so as to ensure that the standards of the House of Assembly are always maintained. She also said that she was hoping for no reoccurrence of this.”
Standing on a Point of Order in the sitting Hon. Fahie in response to the Speaker’s explanation said: “Madame Speaker you will have to put your foot down when dates to hold sittings are given to you that are under the ten days. So whoever is giving you those dates they have to be told that they are violating the laws and those dates cannot be accommodated because you cannot have laws and violate them also.”
He also explained that the sitting should not be held as in the future any member of the public would be able to challenge any decision made if the sitting was not lawfully being held.
Third District Representative, and Opposition Member Hon. Julian Fraser was very strong in his contribution of the discussion on the validity of the sitting as he boldly declared that the sitting was “illegal”.
In making his point Hon. Fraser declared: “I rise on a point of order that we are in violation of the Standing Orders to have this sitting today and this claim that I saw that this document (Auditor General Report) has to be laid before a certain date what artificial date what artificial date is that that someone set.”
“I don’t possibly see Madame Speaker how we can convene this sitting in violation of the Standing Orders which clearly states that 10 days is the requirement for a sitting – 10 days of notice…I don’t see why we should continue to be in violation of or even begin to entertain violating the Standing Orders if they are supposed to mean anything,” Hon. Fraser said.
In further criticizing the explanation that the sitting was necessary to facilitate the presentation and possible debate of the Auditor General’s report on the Elmore Stoutt High School Wall, the Opposition Member said: “I have seen reports created by the Auditor General that never seen the light of day. I have seen some that went to Cabinet and never came to this House of Assembly or they came months or years later. So what is it about this particular report that we as 13 members of this House of Assembly elected to serve this Territory has to be guided by. This is the tail wagging the dog Madame Speaker.”
Similar to Hon. Fahie, Hon. Fraser also told the Speaker to not be swayed to call sittings that contravene the Standing Orders. “If the Premier makes a request to have a sitting and he is not within the guideline he should be made to know that. He can’t force you to have a sitting outside the guidelines. Evidently that is what is happening right now and the Premier should know better. He shouldn’t be doing this. This is not a private school that he has, that he can just decide to call meetings when he wish and dismiss. I am ashamed, shame to be part of this institution …right now we are just going backwards.”
Premier Embarrassed, Opposition Leader Disappointed
The sitting was cancelled; however, Hon. Fahie who brought the matter forward via his letter was guest on the Honestly Speaking radio programme later that day and shed a little more insight into the matter.
Particularly, Hon. Fahie said that he was disappointed that the matter got to the point where the sitting had to be cancelled and the Premier embarrassed. He said that the office of the Premier ought to be respected and he said had the Speaker responded to his letter prior to the sitting the matter could have been addressed in a private manner.
“The Speaker did email me and told me that she received my correspondence and was going to get back to me with a response …However I never heard anything until today when I went to the House and the Speaker got up. In the beginning she read my letter, but then she also read her letter to the House of Assembly which is a little long.”
Hon. Fahie said that the letter he sent was addressed to the Speaker and copied to the other members of the Opposition. He said that that the Speaker however chose to respond to him publicly. “She said that it is a matter that concerns all members. I must say for the record that I find that unprofessional and disrespectful too. Someone writes you, you write them back. If you want to consult with them and say listen given the nature of this I have to make it public – whether I agree or not that would be up to you, but at least don’t let me hear for the first time your response to my letter in front of the other members because there might be other areas that I need to have further clarifications and queries,” Hon. Fahie said.
Next Sitting Will be?
In a radio interview following the sitting Premier Smith noted that he was surprised and a bit perplexed about the turn of events. “The House [of Assembly]has had meetings from time to time on short notice over the years especially when there is important business to be taken care of because we realized that we are there to look after the business of the people of the Territory. I am really saddened that this seems not to be the case at the moment,” he said.
In recapping the resons why the sitting was dismissed the Premier said: “They objected to the time for notice which was six days, but like I said there have been many meetings over the past years where meetings were called on shorter notice than this and there has always been total cooperation of everyone, but I am not sure what’s going on.”
The Premier further said he was not pleased that legislators were at the House and were unable to do the people’s business: “Going in there and spending a few hours and not discussing what was important to the people is not looking after the people’s business.”
Hon. Smith also disclosed that the House has been adjourned until he calls another meeting. “I shall call another meeting as soon as possible. I am going to London for a meeting… the Ministerial Conference, I leave on Saturday and I will call the meeting at the next appropriate time as soon as I get back.”