It was early in the year 1997 when Mr. Rupert Griffith and Mr. Vincent Lasse defected from the Opposition PNM and embraced Prime Minister Basdeo Panday to join his government, and in the case of Mr. Griffith, the UNC party as well. While the PNM was outraged with the action of the two Members of Parliament and petitioned the Speaker of the House for counsel on whether seats ought to be declared vacant, as recompense for the perceived betrayal, thereby triggering a by-election, the problem was that the very individual who sat in the Chair of the House at that time was none other than Mr. Hector McClean, another former PNM MP who had previously joined the ranks of the UNC, and who was selected to sit as Speaker after failing to capture the Tunapuna seat in the previous general election. Of course, Mr. McClean discharged the business of the House in a manner not unbecoming of the office he held at the time, and given that there had been no clear rules set out in the Constitution at that time, his ruling reflected that reality and both Mr. Griffith and Mr. Lasse were allowed to serve out the rest of their terms on the opposite bench to which they were elected.
That having been said, whether you agree that the motives which prompted these gentlemen to switch sides mid-term were in fact noble and based on their own conscience, you cannot deny that to the voters who elected to office, their decision must have been considered a little dishonest. This prompted the Parliament to resolve that no one would be able to perform such a stunt in the future and thereby amended the Constitution to reflect such. This Constitutional amendment triggered a by-election in the constituency of St. Joseph in 2013 when Mr. Herbert Volney resigned from the United National Congress after being dismissed from his Cabinet portfolio. While the Prime Minister at the time, Mrs. Kamla Persad Bissessar, decided to remove Mr. Volney from the Ministry of Justice as a result of the leading role he played in the Section 34 fiasco, the notoriously ill-tempered retired Justice took the decision as an affront to his character and promptly resigned from the UNC out of protest. This decision invoked the Speaker to declare the St. Joseph seat as being vacant based on the aforementioned Constitutional amendment and a by-election was held in which Mr. Volney was voted out. of Parliament by the same electors who gave him their confidence only three years prior.
Whether you agree with the reasons which prompted the Parliament to enact this Constitutional change, the fact remains that not only does it exist, but there is precedent for its use. That being the case, however, I have always held the opinion that the manner in which it is scripted, this one sub-section, consisting of one sentence, and made up of only twenty-one words, is the single most dangerous amendment ever introduced into the Constitution of this country. As phrased in Section 49(2) of the Constitution, it states:
“A member of the House of Representatives shall also vacate his seat in the House where:
(e) having been a candidate of a party and elected to the House, he resigns from or is expelled by that party.”
As any keen-eyed reader might be able to deduce, nothing in the wording of this amendment tends to the issue of changing allegiances. Instead, it is worded in a manner that appears to only exist to aid political parties in preventing any dissension among their ranks. Hence, this amendment is triggered not only by a Member of Parliament resigning from a political party but also, interestingly enough, if that member is expelled from the party, something in which the Parliament has no role or function whatsoever. Because while the issue of Parliamentary recall has been a hot-button topic whenever the issue of Constitutional reform rears its head in public debate.
So what does all of this have to do with Watson Duke?
With all the drama that has been ongoing in the THA and the PDP, it was interesting that the first real strike in this war of words came when Mr. Farley Augustine was revoked as Deputy Political Leader of the PDP. Because it was this act that prompted me to consider what might happen if in fact Mr. Augustine suddenly found that he was no longer a member of the PDP, the party whose ticket elevated him to the THA, and subsequently to the Office of Chief Secretary. Now I hear you saying, while that is all well and good, the Constitutional amendment only makes provision for the House of Representatives in Parliament and does not extend to the THA, and you would be correct, except that there is an even more interesting section of the THA Act which addresses this very issue.
Within the Tobago House of Assembly Act, specifically in Section 70(3) which deals with the Rules and Standing Orders of the Assembly as it relates to Privileges and Immunities, it states quite plainly:
“In other respects, the powers, privileges and immunities of the Assembly, Members and committees of the Assembly, shall be such as may from time to time be prescribed by Parliament and until so defined shall be those that apply to the House of Representatives and to its members and committees.”
As such, if defined powers conferred upon the House of Representatives are not yet defined in the THA Act, then the Assembly is free to abide by those rules until such time as it has been codified. I, therefore, put it to you that if Mr. Farley Augustine was to be expelled from the PDP during his current term in the THA, a PDP-led assembly may have the power to declare his seat vacant and trigger a by-election in the district of Parlatuvier/L’anse Fourmi/Speyside.
It is only a matter of time until a political leader comes along in Trinidad to take full advantage of this Constitutional loophole but given the current state of affairs in Tobago, this might be a cleaner solution for Mr. Watson Duke to utilize as opposed to a vote of no confidence which requires the other Members of the Assembly to choose sides. Of course, the fact that this amendment isn’t as clearly defined for Tobagonians as it is in Parliament means that either way, Mr. Duke will be taking a gamble if he truly wants to end the political career of Mr. Farley Augustine.
Ravi Balgobin Maharaj