House erupts over report
Guardian Staff Reporter
Published: Feb 16, 2017
A contentious debate on the Constituencies Commission report erupted in the House of Assembly yesterday, not long after Speaker of the House Dr. Kendal Major read into the record a letter penned by St. Anne’s MP Hubert Chipman, claiming the document he signed was not the one that was tabled by Prime Minister Perry Christie last week.
Major also formally informed Parliament that Fort Charlotte MP Dr. Andre Rollins and Montagu MP Richard Lightbourn have initiated a legal action challenging the constitutionality and legality of the commission’s report, which they submit violates a provision in the constitution that states that a report shall be completed once every five years.
The speaker first read Chipman’s letter in which he expressed “extreme displeasure at the complete and utter variance between the contents of the document shown to me and the document actually tabled in Parliament”.
“The document I signed is not the same document tabled in Parliament on Wednesday February 8, 2017,” stated Chipman, the opposition’s representative on the commission.
“In particular, as mentioned during our telephone conversation of Friday, February 10, 2017, I had no prior knowledge of the changes relating to Montagu, as announced by the Right Honorable Prime Minister, when the draft report was tabled in the House of Assembly on February 8, 2017.
“Therefore, I am bound to express my profound disappointment that the document produced to me withheld material contained in the actual draft report laid in the House.”
When he tabled the report last week, the prime minister advised the House that the government accepted the changes of the Constituencies Commission, but Montagu’s name would be changed to Free Town.
Much of what was historically Montagu has now been added to the St. Anne’s constituency.
There will now be 39 seats contested in the election, up from the current 38.
St. Barnabas is the new seat being added.
In his letter, Chipman also claimed “the draft report does not comply with the requirements of article 70(1) of the constitution and is probably void”.
Article 70(1) states the commission “shall in accordance with the provisions of this article, at intervals of not more than five years, review the number and boundaries of the constituencies into which The Bahamas is divided and shall submit to the governor general a single report either (a) stating that in the opinion of the commission, no change is required, or (b) recommending certain changes, and the governor general shall cause such report to be laid before the House of Assembly forthwith”.
The last report is dated November 16, 2011.
The application filed by Rollins and Lightbourn on the constitutional point is scheduled to be heard before Justice Ian Winder today at 9:30 a.m.
Major called the Chipman letter “extraordinary and very much unprecedented”.
Marathon MP Jerome Fitzgerald, who was also a member of the commission, said he was not only surprised but outraged by the “ridiculous” allegations in the letter.
He called the allegations “serious”.
“I want to make it clear that, that letter as it relates to the fact that there were any changes to any boundaries after they unanimously signed that boundaries commission report, there was no change to any boundaries whatsoever. And I’m sorry the member for St. Anne’s is not here, so he could face us, face to face,” Fitzgerald said.
“The second point, Mr. Speaker, is that at the end of the day the only change that was made… was at the discretion of the prime minister, and that was a name change from Montagu to Free Town.
“That was the only change; there was no other change. And I want that to go on the record.”
Chipman, the shadow minister for foreign affairs, was attending CARICOM meetings in Trinidad and Guyana at the invitation of Minister of Foreign Affairs Fred Mitchell.
His letter was repeatedly referred to during debate on the report yesterday.
In that letter, Chipman also said there is no justification for an increase in the number of seats, particularly where voter registration has been “alarmingly abysmal” in 2016 and 2017.
He also accused government members of gerrymandering.
Fitzgerald questioned the motive behind Chipman’s letter.
“I don’t know what duress he was under. I don’t know what pressure he was under, but I have known the member for St. Anne’s for many, years and I am not only surprised, I am outraged as a member of that committee,” he said.
“That all of us, five of us, including a Supreme Court judge (Senior Justice Stephen Isaacs, the commission’s deputy chairman) would sign a document where we unanimously agreed to the boundaries one day and then the next day to receive a letter to say that we changed it after we signed it, ridiculous; it didn’t happen.”
A back-and-forth ensued between Fitzgerald and Rollins as the Fort Charlotte MP defended Chipman in his absence.
“The fact that the member for St. Anne’s is absent today, as you (the speaker) recorded an apology on his behalf, it is highly improper for the member for Marathon to make the kind of defamatory statements about the member for St. Anne’s,” Rollins said.
Free National Movement Leader Dr. Hubert Minnis sided with the Official Opposition, saying he and his party members would find it difficult to support the report, given the allegations.
“These are serious allegations, and [in light] of the letter submitted by the member for St. Anne’s and the defense brought forth by the member for Marathon, I think this matter needs to be investigated before a debate even commences,” he said.
“A conclusion must be derived in respect to these allegations because the FNM will find it very difficult without a resolution to support the boundaries commission report.”
Chipman said in his letter that he has consulted the MPs who support the Leader of the Official Opposition Loretta Butler-Turner and based on the constitutional import of their concerns, “we do not and will not support this report dated February 8, 2017”.
The last commission, headed by former House Speaker Alvin Smith, adjusted and eliminated several constituencies ahead of the 2012 general election, prompting renewed calls for an independent Constituencies Commission.
The then opposition Progressive Liberal Party strongly objected to the boundary cuts.