While early morning rains poured on yesterday’s Tobago House of Assembly elections, few problems were reported up to afternoon by participating political parties.
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‘Missing MPs’ in rush to vote for extension
Ten government MPs scampered back into the Parliament chamber yesterday to support the extension of the speaking time of Dr Tim Gopeesingh during the debate on a bill to amend the Libel and Defamation Act. The MPs had vacated the chamber during Gopeesingh’s contribution and when his 45 minutes original speaking time had expired an additional 30-minute extension was requested by Mayaro MP Winston “Gypsy” Peters to Deputy House Speaker Nela Khan.
It is the norm for such a request to be approved with any fanfare. However, at that stage, the Opposition taking note of the vacant seats on the Government benches, objected to the extension and requested a vote on the matter. During the vote count, around 3 pm, there were only ten government MPs seated in the chamber and ten Opposition members.
Government MPs, including Works and Infrastructure Minister Dr Surujrattan Rambachan, Legal Affairs Minister Prakash Ramadhar, Health Minister Dr Fuad Khan and Public Utilities Minister Nizam Baksh were seen rushing to their seats to support the request to extend Gopeesingh’s speaking time. Two Opposition MPs, Colm Imbert and Paula Gopee-Scoon, also returned to their seats.
At the end of the count the Government had 21 votes for Gopeesingh’s time to be extended; the 11 Opposition MPs present voted against the extension (San Fernando East MP Patrick Manning, who attended the previous two sittings, was absent yesterday); and Chaguanas West MP Jack Warner abstained.
Gopeesingh was the first to contribute to the continued debate, presented by Attorney General Anand Ramlogan last week Friday. The bill seeks to abolish the criminal offence of malicious defamatory libel by repealing Section Nine of the act. During Gopeesingh’s first 45 minutes, several government ministers, including Leader of Government Business Dr Roodal Moonilal, left the chamber.
Gopeesingh’s continual references to treatment of the media by former PNM Government ministers caused Opposition Leader Dr Keith Rowley, Opposition Chief Whip Marlene Mc Donald and Laventille East Morvant MP Donna Cox, to tell the Deputy Speaker repeatedly that the minister was being irrelevant. They were overruled and Gopeesingh was told to link his point as he resumed.
Gopeesingh began his extended time by describing the attempt by the Opposition to deny him extra time to speak in the Parliament as “a living example of the viciousness of the PNM in their constant mode to erode the democracy and freedom of expression.” The minister said such action inside the Parliament was “shameful and disgraceful, they should hold their heads in high shame.”
He said if the PNM were ever to be returned to government, there would be “thuggery, we would be handcuffed, we will be muzzled and we would never be able to say anything.” There was frequent desk thumping as he started his extended speaking time. Cox then raised a point of order, claiming that Gopeesingh was being irrelevant, but the Deputy Speaker, who was presiding for absent Speaker Wade Mark, overruled her and told the minister to continue.
Minutes later Rowley got up again claiming the minister was being irrelevant. “We have a bill before the House. “The member is making a wholly irrelevant speech attacking us. I ask your ruling, please,” Rowley said. Deputy Speaker Khan said she had ruled and asked the minister to resume. Before Gopeesingh could finish his next statement Rowley said the minister was being irrelevant. Khan told Rowley he would have his chance to speak in the debate and told Gopeesingh to continue.