Feisty Debate Over Seventh Amendment Bill

[Linked Image] And if all that talk of attorneys fees has your head spinning - it seems to have done the same for Albert Area representative Mark Espat. We'll have his comments in a few, but first, the background. At the top of the newscast we told you about the controversial Education and Training Bill which was passed by the House of Representatives today after a robust three hour debate. The other big ticket item was the Seventh Amendment to the Constitution. It didn't require three hours of debate - but the back and forth was still feisty.

And that's because even though the amendment package has been stripped of its most controversial amendment which was the proposal to make it so that those holding dual nationality can sit in the House and Senate. That met strong resistance when the House Committee went on its national tour and so it was scrapped. But, the Barrow Administration kept the slightly less controversial proposal to make it so that attorneys who are neither in the House or Senate cane serve as attorney general - and that's what stirred the debate today. Present attorney General Wilfred Elrington said he welcomes it.

[Linked Image] Hon. Sedi Elrington, Attorney General

"I can tell you that it is not possible for one person to do a job as Attorney General, Minister of Foreign Affairs, and Minister of Foreign Trade, you have to be a kind of superman to be able to discharge all those responsibilities. The truth is that if the Prime Minister to bring in independent people, people who had already done well who are competent, who are capable, experienced as Ministers then we wouldn't have a problem with corruption. The Representatives will be given an occasion in my mind to look after their constituents but the real work would be done by these people who are skilled and trained. The truth is that most of us have no knowledge or experience in the air in which we are expected to preside over."

Rt. Hon. Said Musa, Fort George Area Rep.
"The Attorney General in the final analysis like any other Minister must be answerable to parliament if it is to be a parliamentary democracy. He has to be able to do deal with questions raised. He has to be able to deal with issues raised in the parliament, whether in the House or through the Senate but that would not apply if he is appointed from outside because there is no amendment within the constitution that would allow for that. The only amendment I aware of is when a Senator is a Minister he may be able to attend a sitting of the House to answer specific questions but that would not apply to a member appointed from outside. So where is the Representative Democracy? Where is the parliamentary democracy once you appoint an AG from outside?"

[Linked Image] And while former PM Musa said it was not in line with the principles of a parliamentary democracy, Albert Representative Mark Espat had another criticism. He said that the constitutional amendment to bring in an unelected attorney who is not a member of either House or Senate is what he characterized as a "carve-out" for a special club of which both his former PM and the current PM are leading members. Who's in that club? We'll let him explain.

Hon. Mark Espat, Albert

"This amendment will create a third class of Ministers in addition to the two that we already have. They are elected representatives who become Ministers, there are Senators who become Ministers. Now we will have a Minister who is neither an Area Representative nor a Senator. Second, such a Minister would not be required to submit himself or herself to what the Prime Minister has called colourfully the hurly burly of politics. But hurly burly is absolutely fundamental to our democratic way of life. The Prime Minister's Attorney General will now not answer to the rule of the House, to the rules of the Senate, and most importantly will not answer to the Belizean people.

The way I see it this amendment is all about catering to a tiny but a powerful elite, the lawyers, members of the Bar, let's call them the club; a club that already enjoys a monopoly on the practice of law in this country.

[Linked Image] What makes the members of this club so special, so unique, so superior to the rest of us ordinary citizens? In a multicultural democracy there is no place for superiority for one profession over the other and before you get the impression of some irrational prejudice, I have the best of relations with many lawyers.

What appears to be the case is that the existing carve out in the constitution, the special exemption for the club that guarantees them a seat in Cabinet no matter which party is in Belmopan, as unfair as it already stands, that is insufficient. Now the club will be allowed to completely bypass the National Assembly. Would we not find it scandalous if it were proposed today that we amend the constitution to allow for the Minister of Works to be appointed outside of the National Assembly and require that such a Minister be a member of the Engineers' Association of Belize? How would the member from Port Loyola feel about that? How would the member for Corozal Bay react today if we were passing a law to require that his post be held by a member of the Medical Association who is neither elected or appointed to the Senate or that the Minister of Finance must be an economist or a certified public accountant? That is exactly what we are doing here today for the members of the club.

But the bottom line Mr. Speaker is that this amendment is another plum to a special interest group that will in my view widen the divide between the people of this country and those who accept public office to serve the people's interest. If a Minister, any Minister is not subject to election by the people as should be the norm or in the exceptional case appointed to the Senate, this creates a dangerous double standard."

[Linked Image] Hon. Dean Barrow, Prime Minister
"He went on a tear against lawyers. It was okay when the course of the presentation he took a dig here, he took a dig there but it was more than a rift. It was an extended dilation and in a very negative fashion on lawyers as members of what he called denigratingly this club. I am no psychologist or psychiatrist but I am wondering what it is the member has against lawyers and I am put in mind of Ernest Hemingway. Ernest Hemingway whose malice, according to Go Vidal was always divine, suggested that other writers take up a collection in order to send John O'Hara to Harvard. I want to suggest that the lawyers in this country take up a collection to send you to law school. You obviously feel greatly disadvantaged by the fact that you're not a lawyer otherwise why this tear against the `lawyers."

It is also notable that the Seventh Amendment to the Constitution also establishes the Caribbean Court of Justice as Belize Final court of appeal replacing the Privy Council.


Live and let live