Earl Stephen Huntley
St. Lucia’s model of government is inherited from and based on the British system of Westminster Parliamentary democracy. Under this system, the government of the country is formed by the party whose members are the majority of the elected members of its legislature who utilise that majority to select the Prime Minister who in turn picks his Cabinet of Ministers from among that majority. In Britain’s legislature, the 650 member House of Commons, it is not a problem for a Prime Minister to pick a 20 plus member Cabinet knowing that those not selected will not be aggrieved; neither has it been a problem, for the last six hundred years, for the Commons to smoothly elect a Speaker of the House and a Deputy from among themselves.
What therefore does the practice of the selection of the Speaker and Deputy Speaker of the British House of Commons and their roles tell us about the unprecedented situation in Saint Lucia of its legislature- the House of Assembly- functioning without a Deputy Speaker, incredibly, for over one year? Does the Parliament of the former Mother Country provide any solutions for the impasse in St Lucia which came to a head on 31st October 2017 when the Speaker of the House of Assembly collapsed after a marathon House session and had to be hospitalized for a night and the business of Parliament suspended for one month because of the lack of a Deputy Speaker?
It is interesting that the provisions of the independence constitution which the British drew up for Saint Lucia are radically different to the practice of the UK Parliament on the subject of the election of the Speaker and a Deputy Speaker of Parliament. The Saint Lucia Constitution, section 35 (two) states that: “the Speaker may be elected either from among the members of the House who are not members of the Cabinet or Parliamentary Secretaries or from persons who are not members of the house.” On the other hand, under Section 36, the House “shall elect a member of the House, who is not a member of the Cabinet or Parliamentary Secretary to be Deputy Speaker of the House”. The Speaker therefore can be chosen either from within the house or outside of the house but the Deputy must be a member of the house (of course but not a member of Cabinet).
In the United Kingdom, although it is not written in the constitution because the British do not have a written constitution, the Speaker of the House of Commons and the Deputy must be members of that house. It is a convention that has been observed since 1377 when the House of Commons first agreed to have a Speaker. In the UK, the Speaker is elected when the Parliament convenes after a general election. The members of parliament vote for a Speaker from a list of candidates who present themselves for the post. Candidates are therefore from the various political parties in the House of Commons and not solely nominees of the majority party. However, once elected to be Speaker of the House, the successful candidate must resign from his/her political party and remain separate and above political issues. The Speaker, as the presiding officer of the House, must remain impartial. By convention, a person who is elected to be Speaker of the House of Commons is not opposed in the subsequent general election (s) by the major political parties who do not field candidates in the Speaker’s constituency. During the general election campaign, a Speaker does not canvass for support on political issues but presents himself/herself as the Speaker who is seeking re- election. When the Parliament convenes after the general elections, if the former Speaker is desirous of continuing in office then that person’s reelection is a formality; again, in accordance with convention, a sitting Speaker has always been re-elected and no new majority party in the House has ever changed the Speaker because he is from the opposition party.
As for the Deputy Speaker the UK Parliamentary Standing Orders provide for three deputies to assist the Speaker in chairing House debates and with other duties. They are to be elected “at the commencement of every Parliament or from time to time, as necessity may arise”. The Deputy Speakers are called chairpersons of the Ways and Means committee so that the candidate obtaining the most votes is known as the Chairman of the Ways and Means committee and the second and third – first and second Deputy chairman respectively. The Chairman is therefore known as the Deputy Speaker, and the others First Deputy Speaker, and Second Deputy Speaker. Similarly to the Speaker they must be politically impartial but unlike him they do not resign from their political parties. However there is a convention that there must be a balance between government and opposition parties in the allocation of these four presiding officers. This is confirmed in Section 2A (5) (e) of the Standing Order of the House of Commons.
“The ballot shall be counted under the Single Transferable Vote System with constraints that of those elected:
- two candidates shall come from the opposite side of the House to that from which the Speaker was drawn, the first of which candidates will be Chairman of Ways and Means and the second, Second Deputy Chairman of Ways and Means;
- one candidate shall come from the same side of the House as that from which the Speaker was drawn and shall be First Deputy Chairman of Ways and Means; and
- at least one man and at least one woman shall be elected across the four posts of Speaker and Deputy Speakers.
Of even greater interest with regard to the situation in Saint Lucia are the conventions on the sharing of duties and responsibilities between the Speaker and the Deputies. By convention the Chairman of the Ways and Means committee – the Deputy Speaker – always chairs the Budget debate and sessions of the Committee of the Whole House. A Commons information sheet states: “During debates of the House the practice in recent times is for the speaker to have three spells in the chair: 1430 to 1630, 1830 to 1930 and a period near the end of the day. For the rest of the time one of the Deputies will preside”.
There are two important lessons from the British practice of electing the presiding officers for their House of Commons. The first is this: convention dictates the mode of that election; and convention is strictly observed by all political parties. Some of the conventions have been codified in the Standing Order of the House. Has the St. Lucian legislature, since its creation in 1979, adopted any conventions on the election of its presiding officers, the observance of which would have precluded the anomalous situation of the lack of a Deputy Speaker in its House of Assembly for sixteen months? Indeed it has and its non-application is at the root of the problem of a Legislature operating without a Deputy Speaker- a problem which seemingly led to the illness of the Speaker of the House on October 31?
When new Prime Minister Allen Chastanet formed his Cabinet in 2016, he appointed all the other ten parliamentary representatives of his United Workers Party (UWP) as government ministers. This meant that the Deputy Speaker could not come from the Government side since a Deputy Speaker must not be a Cabinet Minister or Parliamentary Secretary. By so doing, he broke the convention, observed since independence in 1979 that the governing party always provides the nominee for the position of Deputy Speaker.
The only exception to this occurred at Independence in February 1979, when then Prime Minister John Compton, to promote national unity on the occasion of the granting of independence, requested that the Opposition St. Lucia Labour party (SLP) hold the Deputy Speaker spot in the new Parliament. With just a few months left before a general election, the SLP agreed and Kenneth Foster became Deputy Speaker to Wilfred St. Clair Daniel, a UWP founding member. Since then the Deputy Speakers and their political parties from July 1979 have been:
1979- 82: – Cecil Lay (SLP) – Government: SLP of PM Allan Louisy
1982 – 1987: – Eldridge Stephens (UWP) – Government: UWP of PM John Compton
1987 – 1992: – Allan Bousquet (UWP) – Government: UWP of PM John Compton
1992 – 1997: – Allan Bousquet (UWP) – Government: UWP of PM John Compton
1997 – 2006: – Cecil Lay (SLP) – Government: SLP of PM Kenny Anthony
2006 -2011: – Marcus Nicholas (UWP) – Government: UWP of PM John Compton and PM Stephenson King
2011 – 2016- Desmond Long (SLP) – Government: SLP of Kenny Anthony
The opposition Saint Lucia Labour Party (SLP) has refused to nominate one of its six MPs to be Deputy Speaker because it accuses Prime Minister Alan Chastanet of flouting the conventional practice of the governing party nominating the Deputy in his desire to reward all his victorious party members with ministerial positions. The SLP claims that it will not endorse the Prime Minister’s profligacy of the largest Cabinet in the country’s history. On the other hand Alan Chastanet espouses the position that there is no constitutional provision for the Deputy Speaker to be chosen from the ruling party and therefore there is no reason why the opposition cannot provide a nominee.
However, from the British practice, we have seen that in the absence of constitutional rules, convention is applied and strictly observed with regard to Parliamentary affairs. Consequently, the immediate and simple way forward out of the situation in Saint Lucia is for the House of Assembly to continue observing the convention of the Deputy Speaker emerging from the government side. This means that Prime Minister Alan Chastanet should nominate one of his ministers (essentially a junior one – one of the Ministers in a Ministry) to be the Deputy Speaker. If the benefit of a ministerial salary is what has caused the Prime Minister to appoint all his parliamentarians to the Cabinet, then this may be the opportunity to elevate the position of the Deputy Speaker by paying that person a salary commensurate with a full time role so that the person can function fully, like the Speaker and with the Speaker, in the business of presiding over House matters. That person would be a deputy in the true sense, fully knowledgeable and able to chair the House in the case of a long absence of the Speaker and not someone who merely chairs the House proceedings for ten minutes while the Speaker takes a break.
The second important lesson from the British is that the numerical size of the House of Commons facilitates the election of its presiding officers. The Speaker and the three Deputies must be members of Parliament. In a Chamber made up of 650 parliamentarians a political party can afford to have one of its members become the Speaker or Deputy and then become an impartial arbiter of its proceedings. Finding three persons to fill the deputy position is not problematic either given the large pool of MPs from which they can be chosen. In the new Parliamentary session in the UK in June 2010 nine were nominated for the posts. When one of the Deputies – Nigel Evans – resigned on 11 September 2013, seven candidates were nominated for the election replace him.
In Saint Lucia with a 17 member parliament and with just two parties in the House of Assembly, it is not surprising that the constitutional provision for the Speaker to come from the House has never been exercised. The constitution’s framers recognised the problem that a small parliament posed for the selection of a Speaker from within that chamber and so provided the option to go outside. No party, particularly the one in government, would want to lose one of its members to the “higher” calling of Speaker, especially if the composition of the House is nine seats for the government and eight to the opposition. Consequently the party forming the Government, which always nominates the Speaker, has consistently chosen someone closely aligned with the party but who is not a parliamentarian to be the Speaker. Although the Speaker is supposed to be impartial, history suggests that the Speakers in St. Lucia have tended to favour the government side in the chairing of the House of Assembly. For this reason also the convention has been for the Deputy Speaker to be chosen from the ruling party benches.
The contrast between the method of selection of presiding officers in the British House of Commons and that of the Saint Lucia House of Assembly is yet another confirmation that the Westminster style parliamentary system of government cannot properly function in a very small legislative chamber like Saint Lucia’s. In the Westminster system, the Cabinet or the Executive is part of the Legislature but the extremely large numbers in the British House of Commons allows for backbenchers and opposition voices to exercise checks and balances on the executive. In Saint Lucia this is not so. The Cabinet is a major part of the majority side in the House and so dominates the legislature. When Alan Chastanet appointed every member of his winning team in the Parliament to the Cabinet, not only did he reinforce this feature of the system, but he also unwittingly re-echoed the call by the citizenry, expressing in the 2013 Report of the Commission on Constitutional Reform in Saint Lucia, for a system of government where the executive should be separate from the legislature.
The inadequacy of a small Parliament like St. Lucia’s to fully follow the British Parliament’s style of choosing its presiding officers and the implications of this are obvious. If the small number of MP’s on the governing side of Saint Lucia’s House of Assembly precludes them from choosing a Speaker from the Parliament, and if further all the members on that governing side are to be members of Cabinet, therefore also barring them from choosing a Deputy Speaker from among themselves, if the executive branch is going to continue to so dominate the legislature that the Presiding Officers for the legislature cannot be chosen in accordance with the constitution, then the system of government should be changed so that the Cabinet is separate from the Legislature. In that way the legislature can choose its presiding officers from within its members and can function like a true legislative body.
The soap opera of the non-appointment of a Deputy Speaker in Saint Lucia’s House of Assembly, whose most gripping episode to date has been the dramatic illness of Speaker Leonne Theodore John following a one day session without relief from a Deputy, has highlighted the truth of the calypsonian Penguin’s refrain, “A Deputy essential”, and also clearly underlined once again the necessity for constitutional reform in Saint Lucia. That reform should focus on its system of governance – specifically the functioning of the executive and legislative branches and the relationship between the two.