Opposition walks out over Outameni
Daraine Luton, Senior Staff Reporter
Disregarding the ruling of Michael Peart, the Speaker of the House of Representatives, that questions tabled last week by Opposition Leader Andrew Holness were not yet due for answers, the Opposition walked out of yesterday's sitting, claiming that Prime Minister Portia Simpson Miller was being contemptuous.
Simpson Miller refused to budge despite attempts from the Opposition to have her respond to questions tabled in the House by Holness on the National Housing Trust's controversial purchase of property at Orange Grove in Trelawny.
The Standing Orders, which are the rules governing the conduct of proceedings in the House, provide that where questions are to be asked of the prime minister in relation to a matter of national importance, the response be given after seven clear days have elapsed.
"The legal definition for clear days does not include the day it was handed in, and it does not include the day that the answer is given, so it would not be due until tomorrow," Peart said.
But Derrick Smith, the leader of opposition business, said his side was "given a firm commitment that the questions would be answered today".
He said the Opposition carefully calculated the date and was "expecting the Government and the prime minister, by extension, to answer the questions this afternoon".
Said Smith: "There ought to be no reluctance because this matter is one of great national importance."
However, Phillip Paulwell, the leader of government business who is responsible for setting the agenda, noted that he was in China when the questions were tabled.
He said that upon his return, he checked with the clerk of the Houses of Parliament and was advised that the questions were not due for answer until Wednesday, November 26, a fact he said he communicated to Smith on Monday.
Smith, in Parliament yesterday, said there was precedence for the prime minister to provide answers before they were due.
Holness said the essence of prime minister's questions is to get a speedy response.
"In other jurisdictions, the responses are immediate, and I believe that other prime ministers have done so, responding immediately. This matter is of great public importance and the public is waiting for a response," Holness said.
Two weeks ago, Simpson Miller responded to questions tabled by Holness, even though seven clear days had not passed. Those questions were also related to the National Housing Trust issue.
Paulwell yesterday told The Gleaner that the prime minister at that time opted to present the answers early because the day in question was the second Tuesday of the month, which is the day reserved for Prime Minister's Question Time.
"We didn't want to cloud the matter with the debate on the Caribbean Court of Justice," Paulwell said of the decision not to answer questions yesterday.
Delroy Chuck, an Opposition MP, noted that Simpson Miller refused to depart from the Standing Orders by responding immediately to questions posed during the time marked as Prime Minister's Question Time. He said there was an understanding that the questions would be tabled on Tuesday and then be answered the following Tuesday by the prime minister.
Smith said the Government demonstrated a reliance on technicality and stressed that based on the precedence set for answering questions earlier than due, and the demand from the wider public, the answers should be provided forthwith.
"If the prime minister is not prepared to answer the questions today, the Opposition is not prepared to sit in the House today," Smith said.
The green card came when government MP Robert Pickersgill said, "Well, then, leave!", at which time the Opposition members left the chamber.
Holness would later indicate that the Opposition would remove itself from further social partnership discussions with the Government, and, depending on the prime minister's responses to the questions at the next sitting of the House, would determine additional courses of action.