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Hamel-Smith in hot water
Acting Attorney General Roodal Moonilal has described as “a fairly serious matter” a report that Senate President Timothy Hamel-Smith may have e-mailed people and organisations seeking their endorsement for the Government’s controversial Constitution (Amendment) Bill 2014 to be referred to a joint select committee.
Moonilal said he and People’s Partnership (PP) Senate leader Ganga Singh will speak to Hamel-Smith on Monday. Moonilal is the Lower House leader and is acting in the absence of Attorney General Anand Ramlogan, who is on vacation overseas. Moonilal spoke after former public service head Reginald Dumas called on Hamel-Smith to recuse himself from presiding over the August 26 debate on the bill if Hamel-Smith did in fact send an e-mail last Sunday, urging that the bill should be sent to a committee.
The e-mail also urged that the recipients should make the call to the media as a “matter of urgency.” Dumas said he’d seen an e-mail from Hamel-Smith sent to a number of people dated August 10 and sent after 4 pm. He refrained from commenting on whether it followed that day’s meeting of the Congress of the People (COP), to which Hamel-Smith belongs.
That COP meeting, ahead of Monday’s Lower House debate on the bill, had called for it to be postponed. During the debate, however, the Prime Minister allowed a conscience vote and COP ministers Winston Dookeran and Carolyn Seepersad-Bachan voted against the bill, Prakash Ramadhar and Dr Lincoln Douglas voted for it, while Rodger Samuel abstained. The bill was passed despite the lack of full COP support.
In the Senate debate on August 26, the bill will require the support of at least one Independent Senator for passage. Dumas said as a result of the emergence of the e-mail, Hamel-Smith’s fitness to continue holding the Senate presidency will be in question, depending on his response.
Dumas has raised the question of whether it was proper for Hamel-Smith to take such action and—if it is in keeping with the principles of good governance and the need to be impartial on Senate business—how sound it was for the Senate’s presiding officer to take a public partisan position on a matter and lobby over an impending debate. Yesterday, two former Senate presidents concurred.
The T&T Guardian learned yesterday that the people the purported e-mail was sent to were not COP members and at least one of the people to whom it was sent had responded. A follow-up e-mail to one of them included the Senate President’s cell number. It is also understood some concerned quarters notified COP’s Dookeran of the e-mails a couple days ago.
On where the matter is heading, Moonilal said, “I read the (e-mail) story and in a couple days I, along with PP Senate leader Ganga Singh, intend to hold discussions with the President of the Senate. “The Senate leader may want to have discussions on this matter, given the serious concerns raised by Mr Dumas’ letter...it’s a fairly serious matter.” He said he hadn’t seen see the e-mails.
Moonilal said, “We’re looking at the facts, and we also have to hear his side of the story. But if any member is conflicted in a matter of (parliamentary) debate, the member will do one of two things: they would either indicate their position and, given the nature of the conflict, may also decide to recuse themselves from a debate.”
He said in the case of a parliamentary presiding officer, it is a “much more serious position, given the practical arrangements of the Parliament, where a presiding officer may have a casting vote in matters. So if that person is sufficiently compromised or conflicted, that person ought to recuse himself from any such debate.” Moonilal said he didn’t want to prejudice the situation and the impending talks with the Senate President, but would gather all information necessary to examine the situation, including legal advice.
On Seepersad-Bachan’s call for the Senate debate on the bill to be postponed for a month, rather than two weeks, for fuller consultation, Moonilal said she was in Singapore and he hadn’t a chance to speak with her. “But she’s made her views known and there are also the Government’s views. So we’re proceeding on August 26 and look forward to a lively debate and to take it to another vote.”
Dumas: still waiting for reply
Reginald Dumas said while he saw Hamel-Smith’s reported response in yesterday’s press, “I still await a response from him that is slightly more informed, so I’ll respond after he responds with more substance. “On his point that he didn’t know which e-mails were being referred to and he sends out a lot, his memory cannot be so bad to forget what happened in a few days before, so I await. “All he has to say is yea or nay whether he sent it out.”
In yesterday’s newspaper report, Hamel-Smith had said he didn’t “know which e-mail was in question and would not be able to comment on it.” He’d confirmed he was a COP member, but didn’t participate in any political meeting or decision-making or anything like that, or form part of any committees.
Hamel-Smith was reported as saying he was a T&T citizen and examined the Constitution like anyone else and confirmed he had views. His views were carried in presentations at UWI and the Port-of-Spain Rotary Club on “Re-engineering the Constitution.” He said, however, at that time he had “no idea a bill was coming,” but felt entitled as a citizen to express his views on reforming the Constitution. He questioned whether Dumas thought he shouldn’t express his views at all.
Dumas maintained yesterday: “His was not a view on constitutional reform as such, because his message urged people to go to the media with statements. “A presiding officer shouldn’t be in the political arena.
“I’m also not in favour of taking the Constitution (Amendment) Bill to a joint select committee, unless that team travels throughout T&T to discuss the matter with people who can give impartial views, on the runoff poll issue especially. But it should also speak of a fairer method of voting which could include the runoff poll, but not be limited to that. “Also, the first error in this was having a cabinet minister as chairman of the Constitutional Reform Commission, and that shouldn’t recur.”
No reply from Hamel-Smith
Hamel-Smith has neither confirmed nor denied sending the e-mail. Questions sent to him by the T&T Guardian yesterday received a reply from a Parliament official that the Senate president had said it was “inappropriate for him to comment at this time and (he) would not be commenting on the matter.”
The e-mail message read: “I am writing to request your endorsement of the Constitution Amendment Bill to be referred to a Joint Select Committee of Parliament. This would allow for all stakeholders to make representations and the bill to be debated in, say, late September.
Such a delay will not negatively impact the Government but rather allow it to get a broader cross-section of support and take into account other views that might indeed improve the bill. I urge you and [organisation] to announce this to the media as a matter of urgency.”
Former Parliament officers say no
Former People’s National Movement (PNM) Senate President Dr Linda Baboolal said, “I don’t know about other parties, but in PNM, once we are made presiding officers, we have no connection or part in what the party does. “We resign from the party before becoming a presiding officer and therefore take no part in any meetings or make suggestions or similar input, even to suggest to members of Parliament or others what to do. We have to remain neutral in every way
“So if he was in fact suggesting or giving his personal position on the outcome of the bill, I definitely think he compromised himself and I would agree he would have to recuse himself from the debate on the bill.”
Former PNM Senate president Danny Montano said, “If true, Mr Hamel-Smith has put himself in very awkward positions. As far I’m aware, it had been a long-standing practice for presiding officers to resign from the party they came from, and I did in my tenure. I discussed with Mr (Patrick) Manning and PNM’s Dr Lenny Saith at the time.
“One has no business discussing such matters with members of the Government, though one can discuss matters of procedure and managing the Parliament. In the same way, one can’t have a judge in a matter discussing it with a minister involved. “So Mr Hamel-Smith’s in a peculiar position. Most unfortunate. “I know him and have the greatest respect for him as a professional colleague, but I’m not happy about this at all. He’s put himself in a difficult position.”