Speaker writes to PNC/R's Winston Murray
November 8, 2003
Dear Mr. Murray,
I am in receipt of your letter of October 27, 2003 in connection with the events of October 24, 2003 in the National Assembly.
You complaint is that I did not rule whether the Order and Motion were lodged with the Clerk on or before September 11, that is, ten days after being advertised in the Official Gazette, in accordance with Section 9 of the Customs Act.
You made legal submissions in the National Assembly as follows:-
1. Section 9 of the Customs Act provides that the Order and Motion must be lodged with the Clerk within ten days after the publication in the Official Gazette;
2. it further provides that upon failure to do so the Order expires;
3. the Order was lodged out of time and had expired;
4. it should be withdrawn by the Minister;
You submitted that it should suspend the sitting, investigate the matter and make a ruling.
The National Assembly, described as the highest court in the land, is not a court of law in which the Speaker is required to entertain legal submissions and rule on them. The Speaker's function is to "exercise only those powers conferred by the House, within the limits established by the House itself. In ruling on matters of procedure, the Speaker adheres strictly to this principle..." (House of Commons Procedure and Practice - Marlean and Montpetit). Your submissions related to the contravention of Section 9 of the Customs Act and not a breach of the Standing Orders which contain the powers conferred upon the Speaker by the National Assembly.
The rationale for this rule can be readily appreciated when you recall that the National Assembly has in the past been presided over by a school teacher, a priest and a trade unionist who was a train conductor in early life. In fact, a large number of Speakers to rule on legal matters. The fact that I am a member of the legal profession does not entitle me to operate outside the rules.
Under the Standing Orders, I can only suspend a sitting upon a Motion properly moved, seconded and supported by a majority of members or if there is a disruption. I cannot do so on the mere request of a Member.
However, having noted the seriousness of your allegation and as it was close to 16:00 hrs, I suspended the sitting under the Standing Order which permits me to do so that time. I sent for the documents from the Parliament Building in order to determine the accuracy of your assertions. They arrived less than a minute before I was about to resume the sitting. I glanced cursorily at the Minister's note, saw the date September 5, assumed that the Order and Motion was properly before the House in accordance with the Standing Orders and that the legality of the Order was a matter for the Court. Your complaint that I did not rule is therefore incorrect. Your real grievance appears to be that I did not rule in your favour.
I set out the circumstances hereafter:
The significance of the receipt date of the documents of October 10 annotated by the Clerk on the Minister's note was not apparent at the time I inspected them for three reasons, namely:
1. your failure to give me advance notice of your intention to raise the matter and to provide evidence in support of your case;
2. the less than one minute I had to peruse the documents;
3. The lack of time to study and take advice on the Customs Act.
While I could not have "ruled" in your favour because of the reasons I set out above, if I had discovered that the Order and Motion were lodged outside of the prescribed time, I could have and would have expressed that view. I would have expected that the Minister would accept my view, in accordance with convention, and take the necessary steps.
I should point out that on Friday morning of October 25, when I got the opportunity to study section 9 of the Customs Act for the first time, I only then recognized the significance of the word "lodge" used in the section and the receipt date annotated by the Clerk. I immediately informed the Minister that the documents were lodged after the ten days and communicated my expectation that the public will be duly informed and that corrective steps will be taken.
I attribute this entire episode to your own failure to recognize your obligations as a Member of Parliament.
You were obliged to inform me beforehand of your information, the evidence and your intention to raise the matter. You had ample time to do so.
I am informed by the Clerk that you were told by him several days before that he had only recently received the Order and Motion. You therefore knew that they were lodged late and chose not to inform the Clerk, the Minister or me. If the Clerk did not recognize that there was a breach of Section 9 of the Customs Act, as he clearly did not, it was your duty to point it out to him; yet you waited until the debate in which you raised the matter for the first time without producing any evidence. In these circumstances I could have properly declined your request that I investigate the matter. As it turned out, you did not afford me enough time to undertake a sufficiently adequate investigation of the matter. Therefore you cannot now be heard to complain.
I note that you shared the platform with Mr. Deryck Bernard MP at the PNC/R Press Conference on Thursday October 30 when Mr. Bernard read a PNC/R statement accusing me of having "total disregard for the issue raised by Mr. Murray for the House to be adjourned for the purpose of checking on the legality of the Order." In the very next sentence the question was asked as to how I could "not have discovered this illegality after the House was adjourned for an extended period to, among other matters check on this issue."
Quite apart from this public display of disrespect for the Office of the Speaker by the PNC/R (not for the first time) of which I will have something to say at the next sitting of the national Assembly, this flat contradiction on the adjournment of the National Assembly approbated by you by your presence and participation in the Press Conference also contradicts your own comment in your letter that I "apparently adjourned the National Assembly at least partly to check on the claim by a PNC/R member that the Order did not conform to the procedural requirements."
These contradictions betray a high degree of confusion and misunderstanding of what transpired as well as your lack of appreciation of your own role in generating the outcome of which you complain.
On Sunday October 26 I met Mr. Robert Corbin, Leader of the Opposition and took the opportunity of briefly explaining the view I had come to on Friday October 25 and the circumstances.
I regret that I have to conclude that having regard to the PNC/R's statement, my explanation to Mr. Corbin, which he said that he accepted, was to no avail, and an exercise in futility. The statement impliedly rejected the explanation, the spirit in which it was made and the courtesies associated therewith.
In view of the importance of the issues herein and public comment of the PNC/R supported by you, I will circulate this reply to Members of Parliament.