Sun | Jun 13, 2021

Editorial | Dalrymple-Philibert can still rescue her speakership

Published:Monday | May 17, 2021 | 8:01 AM

Unhappily, Marisa Dalrymple-Philibert has not distinguished herself as Speaker of the House. But she still has time to turn things around – if she starts now. She is only eight and a half months into the job and her tenure is for five years, unless Prime Minister Andrew Holness calls an early election.

But if Mrs Dalrymple-Philibert is to make a go of it, she first has to cross the crucial psychological hurdle. She must understand that the person who ascends to the Speaker’s chair undertakes to transcend party and the partisan fray when protagonists joust in the chamber.

That Mrs Dalrymple-Philibert has, thus far, been unable to extricate herself, as Speaker, from the politician who was elected to Parliament on the ticket of the Jamaica Labour Party (JLP) was obvious last week with her ruling, with disputed interpretation of the Standing Orders, to end the House’s long-standing practice of automatic divisions – a roll call of, and clear ‘yes’ or ‘no’ vote by MPs – once a member calls for it.

As significant as the decision itself, is the backstory to it, which suggests a pattern of the Speaker reversing herself on rulings and/or interpretations of the Standing Orders (the rules by which Parliament conducts its business) on matters over which the government side was peeved, or after they have had an opportunity to make strategic or tactical manoeuvres. Her handling of the George Wright matter is a case in point.

Mr Wright is the Central Westmoreland MP, currently on leave of absence from the House, who has been the subject of controversy after claims that he is the man seen in a viral video battering a woman with fists and a stool. Despite the very public allegations against him, and an inconclusive police investigation, Mr Wright has not denied that he is the man doing the beating. Neither has he confirmed the allegations.

There is, however, an opposition motion for him to be taken before the Parliament’s ethics committee and suspended from the House. A week before Speaker Dalrymple-Philibert allowed that motion, she short-circuited the attempt to table it. She argued that not only could the persons on video not be definitively identified, but the police had not charged anyone and the Standing Orders do not allow matters of the kind going to the ethics committee unless a criminal or civil proceeding has begun against a member. “... I can’t allow it at this time because the laws and the Standing Orders do not permit it,” she said.

EYEBROWS TO ARCH

Assuming that the ruling was right, Mrs Dalrymple-Philibert did two things during that sitting to cause eyebrows to arch. She referenced the George Wright motion with the failure to take any similar action against other member(s) of the House who were before the court, and wanted to know whether the approach taken to Mr Wright has established a new standard going forward. That had a whiff of tit-for-tat equivalency. Secondly, at least twice during the discussion, Mrs Dalrymple-Philibert asserted that “this Government and this Parliament” did not condone domestic violence, betraying, by the order of her words, some people felt, a default, or instinctive defence of the administration, while appearing to speak on behalf of Parliament almost as a secondary obligation.

A week later, the Speaker allowed the tabling of the motion against Mr Wright. The police had done nothing further in their investigations. What was new was that the JLP announced that the Government whip would be removed from the MP and that he was being encouraged to take a leave of absence from the House, which was granted – and announced by the Speaker at the same sitting.

Then the current event.

Under Jamaica’s parliamentary procedure, decisions are usually taken by voice vote. Members chorus either ‘aye’ or ‘nay,’ and the Speaker declares, ‘I think the ayes have it’, or vice versa. However, Standing Order 45 says : “...But any member may challenge the opinion of the chair by claiming a division”. The rule appears to offer no qualification.

However, in her statement last week, Mrs Dalrymple-Philibert insisted that divisions were intended only for circumstances where there was uncertainty about the outcome of the voice vote. A divide, therefore, was at the discretion of the Speaker.

“.. If there is a preponderance of ayes, there is no way [that] there is need for a divide,’ said Mrs Dalrymple-Philibert, arguing that its use in such a circumstance “is just disruptive”. While agreeing with Opposition Leader Mark Golding on the historic automaticity of the divide once called for, Mrs Dalrymple-Philibert asserted: “...The practise doesn’t make it correct”.

SUBJECT TO PRIOR DISCUSSIONS

Any move to alter such a long-standing and fundamental parliamentary procedure, which has been used by the two parties over decades, ought to have been subjected to prior discussion between the Government, Opposition and the Speaker before Mrs Dalrymple-Philibert’s declaration. Or better yet, its consideration should have been part of a broader, and seriously debated, review of the Standing Orders to make Parliament a far more dynamic and inclusive institution. Moreover, it is not this newspaper’s sense that the device has been abused. And in situations such as ours, it has the utility, as Mr Golding explained, of allowing the Opposition to highlight its depth of feeling on a particular issue and to record their votes “for posterity”.

With respect to the Speaker, the greater worry to us was the trigger for Mrs Dalrymple-Philibert’s reinterpretation of the Standing Order on division. The day before she, to the upset and chagrin of the Holness administration, had allowed a division on the Government’s decision to grant the contract for the Montego Bay Perimeter Road to China Harbour Engineering Company, without going to public tender. Overnight, Mrs Dalrymple-Philibert came to the conclusion that she was wrong.

We are sure the Speaker would not fault anyone who claims to discern a pattern and feels that the phenomenon of Jacob and Esau may have been at play.