by Shawn Cumberbatch
Predictions that Parliament’s new session will be a closely-fought and contentious one became unexpected reality tonight, with a presiding officer forced to issue a deciding vote for the first time in recent memory.
The drama unfolded on conclusion of the Estimates Debate, as members of the House of Assembly discussed a series of supplementaries, which together were worth more than $96 million.
In an unexpected development after discussion on a controversial resolution for millions of dollars in support for the Barbados Water Authority, Chairman of Committees James Paul had to use his casting vote, allowed under Standing Order 41(6) of the House, to break a 14-14 deadlock between the Government and Opposition benches.
With an equal number of votes cast, Clerk Pedro Eastmond advised Paul, “Mr. Chairman the results of the division (is) 14 Honourable Members voted aye, 14 Honourable Members voted no, it is up to you.”
Moments after, the Chairman told members, “Honourable Members Section 41(6) is clear in which as soon as the votes have been collected the Chairman has the right to give a casting vote; mine is aye, and I think the ayes have it… The motion has been carried.”
After a division was called those voting “aye” in favour of the supplementaries were Prime Minister Freundel Stuart, Leader of the House John Boyce and the 12 other Government MPs able to vote; Adriel Brathwaite (St. Philip South), Ronald Jones (Christ Church East Central), Denis Kellman (St. Lucy), Donville Inniss (St. James South), Dr. Denis Lowe (Christ Church East), Dr. David Estwick (St. Philip West), Michael Lashley (St. Philip North), Chris Sinckler (St. Michael North West), Stephen Lashley (Christ Church West Central), Mara Thompson (St. John), Richard Sealy (St. Michael South Central), Steve Blackett (St. Michael Central).
This was countered by “no” said 14 times by Leader of the Opposition Mia Mottley and the BLP representatives — Owen Arthur (St. Peter), Edmund Hinkson (St. James North), Kerrie Symmonds (St. James Central), George Payne (St. Andrew), Cynthia Forde (St. Thomas), Dale Marshall (St. Joseph), Gline Clarke (St. George North), Dwight Sutherland (St. George South), Dr. Maria Agard (Christ Church West), Trevor Prescod (St. Michael East), Jeffrey Bostic (City of Bridgetown), Santia Bradshaw (St. Michael South East), and Ronald Toppin (St. Michael North).
Minutes earlier there was no sign of the eventual controversy, although there was some disagreement over the BWA, as Minister responsible for Water Resource Management, Estwick explained why the funds were needed.
The BWA needed the money, he said, because of a shortfall that had resulted from a less than expected intake from higher water rates, the impact of increased electricity rates, and the fact the organisation was losing $1 million monthly because of defective meters.
While Mottley voiced concern about the state of the authority’s finances, and said it was a reflection of the difficulties not only state agencies, but private enterprises were facing, Symmonds raised questions about the status of the planned new BWA headquarters at The Pine, St. Michael, including its financing and a report on the matter issued by accounting firm Deloitte.
“Government only needs … to look at the circumstances of the Water Authority … to understand what almost every enterprise in Barbados is going through — reduced revenue, increased fixed rate costs, especially as it relates to electricity, and increased burden of debt servicing, and an inability to remain solvent,” Mottley said.
As for Symmonds, he stated in part: “All of those issues, Sir, which require some clarity should have been ventilated before this House when once this supplementary came, because the larger point in all of this must be that a minister, who went through an election exercise and who must have heard that these were questions raised by the Opposition night after night and he did not condescend upon the public of Barbados to once break his silence on this matter.”
But dismissing the Opposition calls for him to elaborate on the concerns, Estwick said: “The member (Symmonds) started out by saying that Deloitte that we hired had great concerns about the project. I will make a document of the House Deloitte’s final report to demonstrate that the Honourable Member has been totally misleading to not only the House but Barbadians and I will have nothing else to say to the member.
“Deloitte in their review of the final submission has concluded that ‘We have not seen any substantive issues that would preclude moving to the next stage of the process. We believe that there may be room to negotiate around some of the financial inputs presently in the proposal and already recognised as such’, which is soft costs etcetera… This does not demonstrate Deloitte, a reputable institution indicating that they have had any real problem with the project. And that is the only thing I have to say to you tonight.”
It was then that the controversial vote on the matter took place, with Government scoring a narrow victory. The next sitting of the House of Assembly, its fourth, will be on May 7, with the House now on Easter recess.
by Shawn Cumberbatch