By Earl Bousquet
It all depends on who you ask…
Saint Lucia continues to make quiet parliamentary history of potentially global political proportions, but the attendant tragicomedy is being conveniently sidestepped, even ignored by too many, while others remain adrift at bay as to whether there’s a Leader of the Opposition (LOO), or not.
The answer is no. But the fact that the question is being asked, yet not pursued in the local media strongly suggests the answer is still in the air, blowing in the wind. It also means many historical lessons silently passing by, ignored today, only to be discovered in distant tomorrows by researchers.
Historical Fact #1: Actually, the position remains vacant nearly one month after the July 26 general elections – the longest ever since Independence in 1979 (if not since the island’s first elections in 1951).
The ‘leader of the opposition’, United Workers Party (UWP), former prime minister, Allen Chastanet, was conspicuously absent from the joint session of the House for the first session of the twelfth parliament on August 17.
Historical Fact #2: It was the first time (in living memory) that the leader of a losing party, who was elected, has failed to attend the first sitting of the new parliament.
There was no official party announcement, but it was confirmed by some in the know that Chastanet was ‘holidaying’ in Canada.
Party apparatchiks said he was taking ‘a much-deserved rest’ following the short but brutal election campaign that left his party badly wounded, losing nine of its eleven seats.
In the UWP leader’s absence, the party was represented only by Choiseul’s re-elected member of parliament, Bradley Felix.
With the seat of the leader of the opposition also empty, expectations were that (maybe) Chastanet’s absence was a tactical move to allow for Felix to be nominated.
But any such hopes were dashed by the legal/judicial/ constitutional requirement(s): the leader of the opposition is only appointed by the Governor-General after being selected following consultations between the members of parliament who didn’t win their seats on the ruling party’s ticket (Chastanet and Felix, as well as infrastructure minister Stephenson King and housing and local government minister Richard Frederick), to determine who among them have the most support.
Historical Fact #3: It’s the first time since Independence (and maybe ever) that 22 days after a general election, such consultations haven’t taken place.
Since such consultations between the two UWP’s and the two independent didn’t take place, the seat reserved for the leader of opposition business in the House of Assembly remained vacant at the first sitting.
Bousquet’s Bulletin indeed suggested that since Chastanet might have had difficulty getting the support of the two Independents, Felix might have been seen by the UWP’s hierarchy as a better bet, if the highly-diminished parliamentary opposition party wanted to have a member to grace the seat, even temporarily.
As it turned out, Felix, in fact and deed, did attract favourable hugs and hearty congratulations from nearly all the other 15 members of parliament, (including the two independents), both former fellow UWP Cabinet ministers and one a former party leader and prime minister.
Appointment of the leader of the opposition not on the parliamentary agenda that morning and with the upper and lower House of parliament having no other joint business, the parliamentarians elected and appointed to represent Saint Lucia’s citizens were left to endure the usual (for some painful) post-Independence colonial hangover of receiving ‘Her Majesty The Queen’s Throne Speech’ (from a local Governor-General).
And for the 12th time since 1979, all 17 members of parliament, 10 Senators, individually and collectively, swore ‘allegiance to Her Majesty’, as subjects of her realm across the British Caribbean Commonwealth.
It seemed and sounded lost on most providing the coverage that morning (outside the official broadcast) that Errol Charles, the Deputy Governor-General who delivered the 2021 Throne Speech, is the elder son the late Sir George F.L. Charles, the founding leader of the Saint Lucia Labor Party (SLP), after who the former Vigie Airport was renamed during the SLP’s 1997-2001 administration.
Ditto the general understanding of the fine but meaningful difference between an ‘Acting Governor General’ and a ‘Deputy Governor General’ leading to further confusion over how and when a Governor-General is appointed, alongside unnecessary press speculation over: ‘Who will be the next Governor-General?’
The new president of the Senate (the Upper House) Stanley Felix and new Speaker of the House of Assembly (the Lower House) Claudius Francis and members of the Senate had already been named in sections of the press.
The new president and speaker, both with roots and interests in Castries Central, will have nearly all eyes on their leadership of the two Houses, as the two Chambers continue to adjust to life with COVID, including the Delta variant having landed here, online parliamentary meetings might take flight earlier than expected.
Expectedly, Speaker Francis (also Senate president during the 2011-2016 administration) made some new pronouncements on his first day on the job in the lower house, including a fresh start to the end of citizens gathered in Constitution Park during parliament meetings being denied the traditional opportunity of being able to follow proceedings.
He also said setting up police barriers and barricades outside parliament while in session would no longer be. And the new speaker threatened to start House meetings on time ‘not one minute later’ (presumably, whether the prime minister is punctual or not…)
The Deputy Governor-General listed a string of welcome government intents, including special investigations of major national projects with phenomenal cost-overruns that never seemed intended to end, including the Hewanorra International Airport (HIA) and the St Jude hospital project.
Everything else said; the most glaring and overlying political factor that historic day was Chastanet’s underlying absence. But, never mind his more than the mere social distance from Saint Lucia, the UWP leader still makes himself conspicuously present (to this day), if only by and through distant inference.
From the day (soon after the elections) when he mistakenly announced on his Facebook page that he was now opposition leader, Chastanet had plans to make his presence felt and marked here, at the official office of the opposition leader in Castries.
How? By ensuring his private vehicle is parked and seen, every day since he flew to Canada, in the official parking lot of the leader of the opposition’s office in Castries.
That despite King having duly and publicly informed the UWP leader he was not the opposition leader.
Legal minds have Chastanet is officially disqualified from making accessing any of the privileges of leader of the opposition. Which led to yet another piece of history.
Historical Fact #4: Never before has an elected political leader of a parliamentary opposition party here, while abroad, gone so overboard to appear to be at home, when the whole world knew knows where he is.
But most local reporters’ eyes on a distant horizon, the former prime minister’s private vehicle parked daily in the opposition leader’s official parking lot while abroad – for presumable a month – is not news.
It also appeared some media houses had been duped into carelessly referring to the Chastanet as ‘opposition leader’ –confusing the parliamentary office with the political office.
To this day, there’s been no announcement from Government House (the Governor General’s official residence) or the Clerk of Parliament, regarding the position of opposition leader.
The recalled August 17 Bousquet’s Bulletin said Saint Lucia was on the cusp of creating another interesting chapter in Caribbean and British Commonwealth parliamentary history by crowning its earlier five-year achievement (no deputy speaker from 2016 to 2021) with the start of another five-year term, this time without an opposition leader.
I did the parliamentary arithmetic, even taxed my eternal memory of my primary school measurements to engage in addition and subtraction, multiplication and division, fractions and factions, even long division, to explore and explain why the UWPs consider their two members of parliament a bigger pair than the two independents and why they insist Chastanet ought to automatically be opposition leader.
Chastanet is enjoying his visible absence and implied presence, his invisibility still keeping him in the news at home, some reporters having crystal-clear preferential access to the suddenly elusive UWP leader during his Maple Leaf vacation.
But here again, Chastanet continues to create political history, this time with the opposition leader’s seat and office – only that the usual suspects continue to engage in selective amnesia, while willfully allowing their yellow blinkers to blind them to the fact that the colour scheme changed – before their very eyes – on July 26.
In the process, history silently passes by, ignored by some and unseen by too many, unlikely to be documented for sharing by today’s spectacled political operatives in the press, who show a continued preference for sharing Fake News – and majoring in minor matters.