Opposition Leader Arden McLean led a walkout at the Legislative Assembly Wednesday after he flagged concerns over the omission of opposition motions and questions from the order paper.
Premier Alden McLaughlin called the walkout “unforgivable” given the serious nature of the legislative changes before the House relating to the financial services industry.
McLean had also raised concerns over House Speaker McKeeva Bush signing off on House business for the meeting of the assembly.
“What is my purpose here?” McLean said as he took issue with the fact that only government’s business was set down for the meeting of the House while private member’s motions and opposition questions were left out.
McLean raised the issue as a procedural point at the start of the meeting, saying that while he understands the majority must have its way, “the minority must have its say”.
He said the Opposition understood and worked with government on the last sittings of the House to pass the needed changes to the standing orders and COVID-19-related legislation. However, he said for this present meeting of the House, the opposition should have been able to get its business done after cooperating with the government.
“What the government has done here is wrong and they should be ashamed of themselves,” McLean said as he raised the issue with Deputy Speaker Barbara Conolly.
McLaughlin, responding to a request from the Compass for comment on McLean’s statements, explained that the House last adjourned on 24 April and resumed Wednesday.
“Although no date was set for this meeting, the reality is the Opposition have had almost four weeks to submit parliamentary questions and motions for this, the upcoming meeting. But no motions were filed until last Friday,” he said.
“I’m not sure what motivated the Leader of the Opposition’s temper tantrum this morning and his subsequent walkout. I hope it was not related to the fact that it is now possible to fish all day,” he added.
He stressed that Cayman is still battling the COVID-19 crisis.
“They seem to have forgotten that we are still in a public health emergency and that the government is very stretched,” he said. “We are doing our very best to keep things moving along. What is the Opposition doing, aside from throwing obstacles in the way?”
McLean: It is unfair
McLean, in his remarks, said he and his Opposition members have a duty to represent their constituents and raise matters of concern to them, but by shutting out questions and motions they cannot do so.
“We are going down the wrong track,”McLean said. “We are walking on thin ice and I hear it cracking. It is wrong, it is unreasonable, it is unfair, and it needs to be corrected… the government knows this.”
He said he was not only disappointed, but also concerned about the action taken.
“I thought, not only from a moral responsibility, but certainly from a parliamentary responsibility, that I have to bring this to the chair… It needs to be corrected,” he said.
Conolly, who was presiding over her first sitting, said she considered McLean’s concerns and pledged to give ample notice when meetings are held.
McLean read out the letter notifying members of the meeting, questioning why the government “denied” the official opposition members the opportunity to put their motions forward.
“Why are we all deprived of the right to do our business, to conduct the people’s business?” he said.
Conolly said she was new in the chair and the notices were issued by House Speaker McKeeva Bush, adding that she could not give an undertaking on what was done prior to her first sitting as Deputy Speaker.
McLean said, as the presiding officer, Conolly should be the one to issue the notice since Bush was on a leave of absence and should not be “directing the House”.
Conolly said she will ensure, once she is presiding, that she will be the one approving all business going forward; however, she also reminded McLean that “motions and questions can be filed at any time and does not have to be triggered by a sitting of the House”.
McLean also pointed out that it has been customary that the Opposition be allowed to submit their motions outside of the five- and 10-day requirements when sittings are called.
George Town Central MLA Kenneth Bryan, who said he was an Independent member, joined his voice with the Opposition, saying the situation also “disenfranchises” his constituents.
After making his points, McLean left the chamber.
Conolly moved on with the sitting of the House.
Opposition members Bodden Town West MLA Chris Saunders and Newlands MLA Alva Suckoo also later left the chamber, and were eventually joined by West Bay North MLA Bernie Bush and Savannah MLA Anthony Eden.
North Side MLA Ezzard Miller and Bryan remained in the chamber.
Premier: Walkout is unforgivable
McLaughlin, who also chairs the business standing committee, addressed the Opposition walkout in the afternoon session during his contribution to the debate on the Virtual Assets Bill.
The premier said it was not his intent to surprise members with the short notice for the meeting, but he had been reminded by Attorney General Samuel Bulgin that he had to present his Caribbean Financial Action Taskforce assessment report on 25 May and the laws being debated had to be passed and gazetted.
He said he scrambled to call the meeting.
“I really wish the circumstances could have been different and I regret that,” he said.
He said nothing precludes members from filing motions and questions at any time.
Cayman, he said, is in an “economic crisis”, with the collapse of one of the two pillars of the economy – the tourism industry – making financial services important and the law changes being debated critical.
He said the only motion the Opposition was pushing to have dealt with was a motion of no confidence in House Speaker Bush, but it could not proceed.
“The matters complained of in the motion are sub judice, they are before the court,” McLaughlin said.
“The intemperate remarks of the Opposition Leader and the childish withdrawal of the official Opposition from the chamber and from the business of the House at a time like this, when what’s before the House are critical pieces of legislation to help bolster the financial services industry on which we are more reliant on than ever, cannot possibly be justified or warranted,” he argued.
He admitted that he “dropped the ball” in giving sufficient notice and said he does not blame “anyone for being aggrieved”.
However, he said, “it is unforgivable that the members are not here to do their work.”
He accused the Opposition of “mixed-up priorities” saying they were trying to find a political platform and were actively trying to get an election date.
Opposition defends action
On Wednesday afternoon, the Opposition issued a statement on their “boycott” of the Legislative Assembly, saying it was in defence of Section 71 of the Cayman Islands Constitution Order 2009 and the Standing Orders of the Legislative Assembly.
In the statement, the MLAs said they walked out of the meeting in protest of the Unity Government using its majority to prevent the Opposition’s rights to raise motions and questions.
“Although notified regarding today’s meeting, no opportunity was given for private members’ business to be allowed, per their rights to do so. Instead, the Government decided to only discuss amendments to several bills required ahead of the upcoming Caribbean Financial Action Taskforce inspection,” it said.
The Opposition, the statement said, was in the process of filing several motions and questions on issues. The topics included the impact of the curfew on smaller businesses; the disparity in retirement age between the private sector and the civil service; delay in accessing pensions and the National Pension Report, which is 10 years overdue; and the lack of action by Ofreg when most people will be getting their largest bill ever from CUC, despite oil prices being at their lowest.
Those were “some of the issues that we needed to urgently discuss”, the statement added.
“We are clearly walking on [a] slippery slope regarding our constitutional democracy, and its deeply regrettable that the people entrusted to uphold these principles at all cost, are prepared to sacrifice them in the name of political expediency,” McLean said in the statement.
He said the Opposition takes the responsibilities entrusted in it, by the people, seriously and “will not participate in any proceedings which will curtail the rights of the minority by the majority”.
Deputy Opposition Leader and Newlands MLA Alva Suckoo said in the statement that walking out of the Legislative Assembly was not an easy decision, but it was the right one.
Bodden Town West MLA Chris Saunders accused the government of not wanting to be held accountable.
“This level of arrogance by the Government and their bad management cannot be allowed to go unchecked. Democracy is not easy, but it’s a far better system than a banana republic. I appreciate the Premier is on his way out, but we cannot allow him to insulate his leadership actions from scrutiny, especially as it’s clear that his Cabinet does not have the fortitude to do so in the first place,” he said.
Savannah MLA Anthony Eden said it is regrettable “that the government does not wish to engage on those topics that matters the most to residents”, while Bernie Bush, MLA for West Bay North, said the Opposition had no choice but to make a stand.
“The government cannot make up the rules as they see fit,” he added.
Read the full statement: Opposition boycotts LA 20 May 2020