The first virtual meeting of the Standing Finance Committee (SFC) ended in virtual comess when committee chairman House Speaker Bridgid Annisette-George brought the proceedings to an abrupt end on Monday night.
Sitting from their homes, United National Congress (UNC) members vehemently protested after Annisette-George cut off Couva South MP Ravi Ratiram in mid sentence and advised members to submit their questions to ministers in writing.
SFC had been considering a supplementation of appropriation of $2.9 billion spread across various ministries.
The Speaker had earlier indicated that 8.05 p.m. was the time she desired the meeting to conclude in order to allow staff—including persons from the offices that support ministers, as well as the parliament staff—time to get home safely within the 9 p.m. curfew.
The last ministry on the list of the supplementation Schedule was the Ministry of Social Development.
It was around 8.25 p.m. and the Speaker wanted to expedite the proceedings.
She called on Ratiram to ask his question, but Ratiram first sought to raise a complaint that he had had his hand up previously and the Speaker had ignored him.
“Madam Chair, I was speaking and my mike got muted, I raised my hand...,” Ratiram began.
A male voice said exasperatedly: “Ask yuh question nah man!”.
The Speaker then stated: “Honourable Members, I want to say at this time that any further questions should be sent to the relevant ministers in writing.”
There were sounds of disapproval from the Opposition MPs and Saddam Hosein, said: “Madam Chair, just for clarification, if we send the question (in writing), is there any guarantee that they (the ministers) will answer?”
The Speaker ignored the question and proceeded to put the question that the sum of money in the Ministry of Social Development be increased by a further sum of $40 million. “Those in favour say ‘aye’” she said, prompting “ayes” from the Government members.
‘They will mute this govt’
Opposition members began to object vociferously and Ratiram’s voice could be clearly heard above the din complaining that the Speaker was “stifling democracy”.
Oropouche West MP Dave Tancoo could be heard saying “Undemocratic! Where is the accountability?”
“This is unacceptable,” Ratiram rejoined. “This is absolute nonsense!”
“This is unfair. Unacceptable!”, shouted another Opposition MP.
“The public needs to see what is happening here,” another said.
While the Opposition voices were audible, the video remained focussed on the Speaker who was speaking but her words were inaudible amidst the Opposition hue and cry.
“Hiding and running from accountability,” a female voice stated. “This is public funds,” the voice added.
“Taxpayers’ money is being spent without accountability,” another said.
“Just now the population will mute this Government. They will mute this government. They need to mute this government. This is unfair. This is the seat of democracy and this is an erosion...,” a male voice shouted.
Monday night forum?
Asked for a comment on what occurred, leader of Government Business, Camille Robinson-Regis, said: “It seems as though they (the Opposition) were confusing the work of Parliament with the Monday Night Forum, hence their raucous and disreputable conduct, despite having been given much latitude and despite the appeal by Stuart Young and me for empathy regarding the staff.”
She said the SFC began at 1.30 p.m. and ended at 8.30 p.m., half an hour before the curfew.
She said ministers and the Speaker were operating virtually from their offices but with staff.
“Many of the questions posed by the Opposition members were either repetitive or irrelevant. However, they were still allowed to ask them,” she said.
She said the Speaker gave considerable latitude.
“When we asked [Opposition] members to be considerate of staff members of the Parliament and our own staff they showed little or no care,” she said.
Robinson-Regis said around 7.30 p.m. the Speaker indicated the SFC would end at 8.05 and that members could ask their questions in writing and we (the ministers) undertook to respond to these questions.
“Clearly this was by no means unfair in the circumstances,” Robinson-Regis said.
She was severely critical of the behaviour of Opposition members who she said “behaved as though they were in a fish market, gangster (type) behaviour, they were manifestly disrespectful to the Speaker, in total contravention of the Standing Orders. Even though the committee was meeting virtually, the Standing Orders of the House of Representatives still applied”.
“This would never have been the conduct of our former colleagues who sat opposite us [in government] in a former Parliament.
“This is the level of dishonesty and lack of decency that is synonymous with these snivelling, immature Kamlarites, almost as if they had been told to behave that way and were following a dictate (from their leader).
“Let me reiterate they had been asking all kinds of questions for seven hours, had been told that they could ask their further questions in writing and then descended into that disgraceful cacophony, which was deeply offensive, and an affront to the dignity of the House,” she said.