Debate over the formation and makeup of the Cayman Islands government has raged on radio airwaves and comment forums since the departure of former Progressives government members Anthony Eden and Alva Suckoo from the party fold in November and December.
The question of whether a ruling government must have at least 10 elected members physically sitting on its side of the Legislative Assembly aisle has been the focal point of that debate.
For now, it’s all academic. There are 10 sitting government members, not counting Speaker of the House Juliana O’Connor-Connolly, on the Progressives-led government side. However, there has been speculation that if another member were to leave, Speaker O’Connor-Connolly would be forced to depart her post and sit on the government benches in order for the Progressives-led coalition to maintain its 10-person majority.
Constitutional Commission Chairman David Ritch said Thursday that in the commission’s view, Ms. O’Connor-Connolly would not have to step down in order to maintain a 10-person majority.
“The Constitutional Commission is empowered to promote understanding and awareness of the Constitution and its values and we are pleased to respond [to the question] in fulfillment of this mandate,” Mr. Ritch wrote. “While the government would need 10 members for it to control an outright majority in the Legislative Assembly, there is no constitutional requirement for a government in power to maintain a majority consisting of its own party members, excluding the Speaker.
“That said, the business of the Legislative Assembly will still be required to comply with sections 74 and 75 of the Constitution.”
Those sections seek to establish how a quorum, the minimum number of elected members present, must be maintained. A quorum of an 18-member Legislative Assembly is 10 members. The 10-person quorum does not include the Speaker of the House.
Section 74 basically states that if a quorum is not present during a meeting and any member of the House objects to that, the Speaker should adjourn the assembly after a certain period of time if a quorum is not achieved.
However, Mr. Ritch pointed out that the constitution requires a member present in the House to object if no quorum exists. If, theoretically, nine government members were present, with no members on the opposition side, and no one objected, the meeting could continue, he said. Once an opposition member arrived, in that scenario, a quorum would have been achieved and the opposition member could not object.
Regarding actual votes on government business within the assembly, section 75 of the Constitution states in part: “All questions proposed for a decision in the Legislative Assembly shall be determined by a majority of votes of the members present and voting.”
“Provided there is a quorum, all votes in the House require merely a majority of those present voting in favor,” Premier Alden McLaughlin summarized. “It doesn’t matter which side they are on.”
He pointed out that such a situation had occurred when the former People’s National Alliance government – which consisted of only five elected members – ran the government between late December 2012 and March 2013, prior to the May 2013 general election.
In that scenario, no one had enough votes to command a legislative majority and the House divided into several disparate groups, all of which sat on the opposition benches, save for the five members of the ruling government. The then-opposition Progressives party had agreed with the governor to continue attending Legislative Assembly meetings, thereby establishing and maintaining a quorum.
Mr. Ritch agreed that the situation becomes more difficult with only nine members on the government benches. For instance, if one or two members of the government benches could not attend a House meeting, objections over a lack of quorum could then take effect.
Opposition Leader McKeeva Bush said that was just one of the potential technical problems.
“There are a lot of procedural problems a nine-member government would have,” Mr. Bush said. “But I’m not about stopping government at this point in time. We live in the Cayman Islands … the world watches us every day.”
The ruling government now has nine Progressives party members, including Speaker O’Connor-Connolly and new Progressives backbencher Roy McTaggart in the fold. They are joined by independents Winston Connolly and Tara Rivers.
Mr. Connolly, who was rumored to be considering a move from the government backbench last year, along with Mr. Suckoo, has formally denied that he has any such intention.
When asked about it by the Cayman Compass on Monday, Mr. Connolly said, “Whilst I’m still digesting the moves of [Mr.] McTaggart [to the Progressives] and Alva Suckoo, I am still with the government on the backbench.”
He added, “I also have no plans to join [the Progressives] and will remain an independent MLA until the people of George Town remove me or I decide not to run again, whichever comes first.”