Castries, Saint Lucia, Sunday, November 21, 2021:– Speaker of the Saint Lucia House of Assembly Claudius Francis continues to be the butt of criticism from the opposition United Workers Party (UWP) and Opposition Leader Allen Chastanet, over his decision to put the Micoud South MP’s parliamentary salary on hold.
But “Mr Speaker” is offering no apologies for what he insists was only the right thing to do, to preserve the integrity of the island’s parliament and ensure it’s not disrespected by any MP.
The Speaker ruled at the 4th session of the new Parliament on November 16 that Chastanet, as Member of Parliament (MP) for Micoud South, had not earned his monthly parliamentarian salary that would have been due if he’d taken the Oath of Office and attended the House of Assembly meetings.
Chastanet has since indicated he’d informed the Office of the Speaker — each time by electronic mail and telephone calls — of his inability to attend.
But the Speaker said while his office did receive the electronic notes of absence, no reasons were offered that satisfied him (Mr. Speaker) that Chastanet had good reasons for his continued absence.
As a result, Speaker Francis’ position was that since Mr. Chastanet opted to remain on holiday for over 100 days before taking the oath, he didn’t qualify for pay.
Chastanet’s interpretation of the Standing Orders, however, allows him to feel that once he took the oath, he should be automatically paid retroactively for the entire period he was on holiday.
Since the Speaker’s action on Tuesday morning, public discussion and debate on the issue have been mainly along partisan lines: UWP supporters lining up and following the Leader to constantly finger the Speaker with accusations of partisan bias.
The Speaker has been pilloried by his UWP critics with every imaginable political insult they could coin or spin, but Francis sounds unperturbed.
He told MPs on Tuesday that he took “no pleasure” withholding Chastanet’s parliamentary pay and was simply doing his “duty” as required by the Constitution and the Standing Orders.
As the presiding officer of the House, the Speaker explained he’d acted out of his “commitment to uphold the principles and practices” of the Saint Lucia Parliament.
However, Francis gave Chastanet until the end of this month to explain why he should be paid for parliamentary work not done. He’d opened the new parliament in August with adjustments that included restoration of the electronic viewing of proceedings for persons gathered outside the parliament – and permanently removing the police barriers that had become a fixture at Constitution Park during the past five years.
But given the noisy commotion stirred-up by his supporters before the Opposition Leader entered and took his seat in the House Tuesday morning, it became clear the Micoud South MP hadn’t planned a quiet return.
Tuesday’s sitting was a historic one for several reasons, starting with the choreographed entrance of the UWP Leader with transported supporters beating pots and pans outside, where Laborites once gathered.
Labour supporters did likewise with drums and placards where Flambeaus hitherto gathered — around the statue of UWP Founder Leader Sir John Compton in Constitution Park.
Also for the first time since the July General Elections campaign, which opened the way for the arrival of the Delta Variant (that landed here on July 25) and sparked the island’s Fourth COVID Wave, supporters of both sides of the political divide (again) threw protocols to the wind and broke Social Distancing rules, risking the start of a Fifth COVID wave before the holiday season.
Speaker Francis observed at the start of Tuesday’s sitting that with Chastanet finally taking his seat in the House, it now contained “four members who’d held the position of Prime Minister of Saint Lucia.” (The former Prime Ministers are: Vieux Fort South MP Dr. Kenny D. Anthony, Castries North MP Stephenson King, Micoud South MP Allen Chastanet and Castries East MP Philip J. Pierre.)
But immediately after acknowledging the historicity of the day, “Mr Speaker” lost no time informing the House he now had “to do something I will not be pleased about…”
The Speaker then presented a lengthy argument quoting legal and parliamentary precedents from the Caribbean and the UK, then laid his case for not paying the Micoud South MP.
He explained he’d duck Chastanet’s parliamentary pay as an MP, not for political or personal reasons, but “because my fidelity in this House is to no one and no party, but to the nation…”
The Speaker said his decision was in keeping with his “sworn and sacred duty, from which I will not shirk…”
And he closed his case saying: “Parliament has rules and I will not make exceptions…”
Before resting his case and making his final judgment, the Speaker also ruled that “the new rule” henceforth will be for MPs intending to be absent from House meetings to inform the Speaker, in advance and “with good reason” – and this shall apply to all MPs.
The Speaker said he “would not allow this House to descend into disorder” and urged members on both sides to “Let’s at all times treat parliament with the dignity it deserves.”
Meanwhile, Chastanet remains crafty but careful in his responses to the Speaker’s action, telling DBS News Maker Live host Timothy Poleon on Wednesday he never had a clue that his “note” to the Clerk of Parliament didn’t satisfy the Speaker.
He also claimed the Speaker was ducking his salary as Opposition Leader, despite Francis insisting his ruling related only to his emoluments as a Member of Parliament (MP) – and did not affect his constituency allowance, on which his office staff depends.
But the MP would bow to the Speaker.
Chastanet told Poleon: “I respect the fact that it’s the Speaker’s prerogative and I would adhere to whatever ruling he decides,and once he’s established a ruling, I’ll listen without prejudice and see where it goes.”