This evening in Belmopan, history was made in the House of Representatives. For the first time ever - the "nay's" had it when the government side voted down a bill brought by the Prime Minister. We're talking of course about the supplementary appropriations bill for 95.6 million dollars to pay the Ashcroft Alliance compensation for the Universal Health Services debt.
Here's the vote which took place two hours ago at 4:15 - after a 5 hour debate. You'll only see the government side voting because, by then the opposition had walked out. More on that later, but first here's that vote:
PUP Debate, And Then Walk Out Before Vote
So, at the end it was 17 no's with 14 absences - 13 of those absences were on the PUP side which had walked out of the house about half an hour earlier. They did so after engaging fully in the debate and even extending it. Those who got up to debate for the PUP made it clear that they feel the UDP should vote to pay a debt it is responsible for. But, apparently lacking the courage to actually cast a yes vote to pay almost 100 million dollars to the Ashcroft Alliance, the PUP side inexplicably just up and walked out when the Prime Minister stood to wind up the debate.
When he walked out of the members room - the opposition leader didn't even want to talk to the press:...
Hon. John Briceno, Leader of the Opposition "This is a charade, this is a circus. How can you have a government brings a bill that they are going to vote against? We are not going to be a part of this. We know what they've been doing. It's just to put a show and people are tired of this foolishness."
Reporter 'Your presence is also a show. Why come if you are going to walk out?"
PM Comments On Making Dubious History
With that, the opposition leader turned his back on the media - like we had done him something - and leaving the very same show that his party had spent hours participating in.
Like we said, inexplicable, but the PM then went on to wind up the debate - and end the meeting. When he came out he spoke about the dubious history that his party made today:...
Reporter "A historic day in the house. I am not sure it's the type of history you would want to preside over. What is your emotional feeling? Obviously the word of this will go all over, that a government brings a motion and then votes down its own motion. It just doesn't happen in parliament."
Rt. Hon. Dean Barrow, Prime Minister "Not now really. That is true. But I think it is consistent with the legal advice we've received and with the constitutional requirement that in fact for any monies to be paid, there must be a parliamentary vote."
Reporter "It shouldn't have even brought forth. It didn't have the recommendation of the cabinet."
Rt. Hon. Dean Barrow, Prime Minister "That may have been an oversight, in terms of not mounting the words it has the recommendation of the cabinet. But I don't know that that is of any real moment, especially in view of the way the vote turned out."
Reporter "However, what do you make then of the PUPs position, in terms of they stayed? They extended the debate. What do you make of that?"
Rt. Hon. Dean Barrow, Prime Minister "Clearly, despite what they say, because if you went by what they said, you would have thought they were going to vote yes. But they obviously understand that despite all their interventions, the Belizean people in the main do not want this money to be paid and they also understand that despite their best efforts, nobody will be fooled into forgetting that this is their deal."
Reporter "At the end of the day you are the person responsible for the long term wellbeing of the Belizean people. Is it irresponsible to just simply kick the can down the down, so to speak, and leave it for someone else to deal with?"
Rt. Hon. Dean Barrow, Prime Minister "I don't think it's irresponsible. That's what we had to do with the super bond. Clearly, in the long run, the day may welcome when the judgement can be paid. Also, it may be that in perpetuity successive parliaments determine that they will not vote the money to pay. So this can go on perpetuity."
Reporter "Isn't that all pre-supposed? I don't want to get too deep into the philosophy of your governance. But isn't it all pre-supposed in the assumption that at all times members of parliament will act within the ambit of the law, the requirements of the law? The law states that if a debt is owed it must be paid."
Rt. Hon. Dean Barrow, Prime Minister "But the constitution says such a debt cannot be paid, except parliament votes to pay it. That is the higher law. Nobody can say to members of parliament "you must vote in a certain way." That goes against every notion of the independence of parliament."
PM Says No Vote Not An Affront to CCJ
And so Parliament spoke mightily today - and depending on your view of such things - it was either a bold assertion of parliamentary supremacy - and by extension, the people's will, or, a flagrant disregard of the law, and a flouting of the highest court in the land.
But, as we said earlier, the vote came after hours of debate - which the Prime Minister opened up just before 11:00 am. He set the stage for the "no" vote, saying each member on the government side was allowed a conscience vote - and a "yes" vote, would not mean ignoring the authority of the CCJ:...
Rt. Hon. Dean Barrow, Prime Minister "This side of the House, like that side of the House, is absolutely free to vote in accordance with the individual consciences of members and in accordance with what they conceived to be their instructions from those who sent them to this place, from those they represent. You can't vote monies for a p[purpose other than will serve the national interest. Will confer a public good. Will be to pay for goods and services for value received. Nobody in Belize, nobody in this great big wide world can show me any value that has been received with respect to this money that the court says is a valid judgement. If the House votes not to approve this supplementary. Again, because the rule of law is absolutely entrenched in our country under our constitution and is inviable. That does not vitiate or cancel or liquidate the debt. That does not take anything away from the judgement of the Caribbean Court of Justice. Their judgement stands. Their judgement remains valid. Their judgement would continue to mean that the sum set out in their judgment - the figure arrived at would be collectible in principle from the government of Belize. Notwithstanding the fact that the transaction that lead to that judgement is repugnant, is immoral, if rotten, is leprous - some future parliament may well decide well we have so much money, let us pay. But for now I would think that while this parliament will want to take full account of the fact that there is a valid judgement the CCJ. This parliament, these members, will look at things in the round. Will take into account some of the factors I have just identified, including that they would be voting if they said yes for monies to liquidate a debt which confers and could never have never have conferred any good on this country - which is not for anything of value had in receipt. I don't know madam speaker."
"If the context of the decision that members have to make. They vote no. That is absolutely and completely within their purview, within their province and in making their determination. I am sure that there will be guided by their sense of duty to the Belizean public and I am here to tell them, they need not be detained by any suggestion that of they do vote no, somehow that is disrespecting the CCJ. It is not. It is brought here by me as the minister of finance."
"I want to make once again absolutely clear. Not because I bring it here as minister of finance, in consonance with my duty so that the CCJ can see that we in fact sought the position of the House. Not because I bring it, anybody to make any mistake and think that I have to vote for it."
Briceno: “You Broke It, You Buy It”
The Leader of the Opposition responded to the Prime Minister - and he said that the Government is setting a dangerous precedent. He set out the party line for the day: that the PUP had disposed of this debt in 2008 - albeit by diverting grant funds meant for other purposes to the Ashcroft Alliance bank accounts. From there, the PUP argued, it is the Barrow Administration that basically "stronged" back that money - and set the stage for a huge and costly legal battle - which it lost - at the taxpayer's peril. Briceno said the UDP broke it, and should pay the bill for it :...
Hon. John Briceno, Leader of the Opposition "Now when you think back that we are at 95 million, it was only 36 million back then. We should have paid it back then. But now it's at 95 million, because they are fighting all over the place in courts, spend millions of dollars - to lose all of these cases and now we are 95 million dollars."
"This 36.8 million dollars debt was created by who was in government at that time? Who was in power? No other than our financial genius the prime minister and the UDP. It his government, they broke, they own, they must fix it. The precedent that the prime minister wants to set in this house today, that a parliament can decide what loan that they are going to pay and which one they won't pay - because they never supported it, because they were on the opposite side of the house when that agreement was made. That is a dangerous precedent. The CCJ says that it was legal. So you are a better lawyer than the chief justice true? I am a Belizean just like you. I love this country as much as you do. But when you are bloody wrong, you are wrong and you are wrong right now."
"Guess what, the fight continues. From the indications that I am feeling now - they are going to vote down their on bill. They bring a bill and they will vote against it. This must be the first time this is happening in parliament - that they bring a bill and they are going to vote against the very bill that they brought."
DPM Says There’s No Money To Pay
Deputy Prime Minister Faber held the UDP line: that they would love to obey the court, but government simply cannot find 95.6 million dollars to pay the Ashcroft Alliance:
Hon. Patrick Faber, Collet Area Rep. "We find ourselves in a final position where the court is saying that yes you need to pay this money. But I am sure in the same wisdom that the court is saying you need to pay that money in that very same wisdom the court will understand and sympathized with this honorable house and the Belizean people when we say that we absolutely cannot afford to pay. It will come at the cost of the human suffering of the people of this country. We absolutely cannot afford to pay. So, I want to say that I have the greatest respect for the Caribbean Court of Justice. But all due respect to them, I am unable to support this appropriation bill to pay that debt. We simply cannot afford it."
Rt. Hon Musa Says The Vote Is A Sham
One of the more interesting perspectives on the debate was from senior parliamentarian and former Prime Minister Said Musa. He is the architect of the private and secret Guarantee for Universal Health Services back in the early 2000's. He's also the Prime Minister who diverted grant funds from Venezuela and Taiwan to settle the debt.
So he is the originator of the problem - but he says he also cleaned up the mess before he left office. And that gives rise to the argument over whose mess is it, really? As you might expect, both sides spent much of the day blaming each other.
Rt. Hon. Said Musa "To compound what they called a mistake - what they called corrupt. To compound that they have committed the biggest corruption, because I say that when you look at the mess that the UDP prime minister has created through reckless misfeasance and I use those words "reckless misfeasance" saddling the Belizean people with a debt of 95.6 million dollars. I accuse you of incurring this 95 million dollars debt."
From there, Musa argued the point that the entire process of bringing the supplementary appropriations bill to the house for a vote was a charade - which, the PUP played its own part in:...
Rt. Hon. Said Musa "So if the prime minister wanted to follow the parliamentary procedure today, he should have indicated to the house that that bill has the recommendation of the cabinet. But the reason why he did not is obvious, because they had already made up their minds that they will go through this formality, this mockery of the justice system. That is what he did not say that it has the recommendation of the cabinet, because the cabinet has decided and in deed all of them - that they will vote no today. Well let them vote no, but let them face the decision after they vote no, because if as I suspect the prime minister has been playing a political game all along, knowing fully well that his members will vote it down. In which case he is define the judicial system and the rule of law and I don't care what he says otherwise. He might be a senior counsel, he might be a very good lawyer, but the fact of the matter is you will be define the rule of law and constitution of Belize, which is the supreme law of the country."