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Dr Jefferson Davidson

Dr Jefferson Davidson, who served as the second chairman of the Tobago House of Assembly (THA), says the Progressive Democratic Patriots (PDP) deputy leader Farley Augustine is right in referring to the national Constitution when the Presiding Officer issue could not be settled at the January 28 Plenary Sitting.

Dr Davidson, now 92, was appointed chairman in 1986 to serve a four-year term immediately following Arthur NR Robinson’s departure from the Assembly to become Prime Minister of T&T. Davidson, however, did not complete the term in office and was replaced by Lennox Denoon. Back then, the Chief Secretary was called the Chairman and the Assembly’s clerk performed the duties of the Presiding Officer.

On January 28, 2021, shortly after President Paula-Mae Weekes swore in 12 Assemblymen at the Magdalena Grand Beach and Gold Resort, they headed to the Assembly Legislature building, Scarborough, to choose a Presiding Officer.

Augustine proposed the Assembly draw lots to elect the Presiding Officer after four rounds of voting—two secret and two public—did not result in one being elect one. Drawing lots involves using a random selection process to determine the outcome. It gives both parties an equal opportunity to win. Some methods of drawing lots include flipping a coin or drawing straws.

Augustine cited THA Act 40 of 1996 Standing Order 92(1) which says that where the THA Act falls short, Parliament’s Standing Orders (House of Representatives revised (2015) Sub-section (7) and (10) applies.

However, the session ended after the Assembly’s Clerk Merna McLeod said the session had “exhausted” all options to elect the officer.

Commenting on the sitting, Dr Davidson said: “In our democracy, you cannot choose to agree or disagree with the Constitution to suit your fancy. You must follow the law. Farley was correct.”

Where the THA Standing Orders are silent on any issue, you can look to the Standing Orders of the House of Representatives for further guidance.

Davidson said, “The law states that when the THA Act #40 of 1996 is silent on an issue, you look to the National Parliament’s Act. If that fails, then you look at the British Parliament. The other party (PNM) cannot decide they are not accepting the law.

“Going forward, a decision must be taken by all; the President, Prime Minister, and Assemblymen. The President is needed here as the Prime Minister is the national leader of the PNM, and the PDP may not be comfortable with him as an arbitrator. This situation calls for the maturity of all the individuals involved.

“I would like to see the whole thing settled, and a Presiding Officer is chosen, and the legislative arm of the THA begins to function. The legislative arm is a necessary part of our democratic system and a mechanism that checks and balances our system of government. The existing Executive Council needs to be accountable for their spending and other actions.”

Dr Davidson was one of seven former assemblymen who endorsed the PDP before the August 10, 2020, general election.

According to the THA Act, the Presiding Officer has a casting vote and can decide Tobago’s next Chief Secretary. The Chief Secretary picks the secretaries and assistant secretaries. The secretaries form the Executive Council. The Council sets policy and controls the island’s resources.

Farley: We must follow the law until we change it

Meanwhile, speaking to Guardian Media on Saturday, Augustine said he does not like the prospects of having the Presiding Officer selected by drawing lots.

“If that is what the law says, then we must follow it until we change the law.”

He added, “I wish the other side (PNM) would have been willing to meet and discuss a compromise of sorts, but Mrs Davidson-Celestine earlier in the week was on CNC3 declaring that there will be no accommodation or deal of any sort. So, we are left with no choice but to stick to what the law provides for.” They will be heading to the court.

The PDP and People’s National Movement (PNM) had each proposed two separate officers. The PDP nominated Julien Skeete and the PNM nominated Ingrid Melville. The two parties, who had six votes each, voted along party lines resulting in a tie.

They both had an equal number of votes, having won six seats each in the January 25 THA elections.