Former West Bay lawmaker Benson Ebanks is often credited with describing parliamentary democracy in the Cayman Islands by stating: “the minority must have its say, but the majority will have its way.”
Premier Alden McLaughlin said last week that is precisely what occurred Wednesday, when an attempt to hold an emergency Legislative Assembly meeting with less than a majority of 10 legislators failed. Mr. McLaughlin and Education Minister Tara Rivers objected, at different times, to the lack of a 10-member majority House attendance, and eventually Speaker Juliana O’Connor-Connolly was forced to delay the meeting until April 25 when a regular assembly meeting has been set.
The fact that a legislative meeting was able to be called by fewer than a majority of members, however, is something Mr. McLaughlin said his government is looking into.
“We’ve been unable to find any other Commonwealth parliament where the minority [elected membership] can call a meeting,” the premier said.
The regulation that allows seven members to call a special legislative meeting [in Wednesday’s case, it was eight members] is something of a hold-over from the 1970s and 1980s when Cayman’s Legislative Assembly consisted of just 12 elected members. Seven, in those days, was a majority.
As time has gone on, and Cayman’s parliament has grown in size, the rules the House operates under – known as the standing orders – have not kept up, Mr. McLaughlin said.
For instance, one rule calls for at least eight members to attend assembly meetings to make up the required membership or quorum. On Wednesday, Attorney General Samuel Bulgin said that rule was out of step with the 2009 Constitution Order, which clearly sets out that 10 members now constitute a legislative majority.
Similarly, the rule enabling seven MLAs to petition the House Speaker contained in the standing orders allows the minority membership to essentially order the calling of a legislative meeting, even if they do not have enough members to carry through with it.
George Town MLA Roy McTaggart has been leading a review of the legislative standing orders, but recommendations from that review had not been made public as of press time.
Last week, East End MLA Arden McLean disagreed with the premier’s assessment, noting that if the government had its majority already, there was no reason to skip on attending the specially called meeting.
“You don’t boycott parliament because you have the majority,” Mr. McLean said.
The opposition independent lawmaker suggested that the ruling Progressives-led government had a number of options in dealing with the motions he and Opposition Leader McKeeva Bush had put forward. For instance, Mr. McLean said the government could have amended the motions to suit its purposes or simply voted them down if it opposed them.
In practice, however, the current nine-member government bench could not have done that on Wednesday. At least two government members, Financial Services Minister Wayne Panton and George Town backbencher Joey Hew were off island and unavailable to attend. This would have left government, even if all its other members were technically present in Cayman at the time, with a maximum seven members available to attend the emergency meeting. In that scenario, the opposition-independent motions might have carried the day on an eight-to-seven vote.
Both Mr. McLean and North Side MLA Ezzard Miller characterized the government’s decision not to attend last week’s meeting as an affront to democracy in the Cayman Islands. Mr. Miller warned attendees in the public gallery at Wednesday’s meeting that their democratic institution was “under threat” and Mr. McLean warned of a political price to be paid for such “strong-arm” tactics.
Mr. McLaughlin characterized such statements and the attempt to hold an emergency meeting in government’s despite as “pure opposition politics” rather than an attempt to salvage democracy.