NASSAU, BAHAMAS — Speaker of the House of Assembly Halson Moultrie has again expressed disappointment with the government’s resistance to move parliamentary proceedings to a larger venue or allow virtual proceedings amid the coronavirus pandemic.
“It is putting more parliamentarians at risk because that resolution has provided for the opportunity to meet in a hybrid form with face to face and virtual or exclusively virtually or even in a new location or different location where we can get established the specific requirements of the COVID-19 protocols,” he told Eyewitness News.
“But I was and still remain disappointed that as a Parliament, we are waiting on the executive to put us in a position that is in everyone’s best interest, particularly in respect to our health.”
Two House of Assembly staffers tested positive for the virus in September.
At least five parliamentarians, including two Cabinet ministers, have contracted the virus since March.
When Parliament debated the extension of the emergency orders to the end of the November, 24 members were absent.
The majority of the Cabinet was in quarantine after Minister of Public Works Desmond Bannister tested positive for the virus.
The resolution passed with 14 MPs voting in favor.
Moultrie pointed out that while any parliamentarian can bring a resolution or bill to Parliament, the executive, which comprises more than 50 percent of Parliament, has the votes to support or shut down the resolution or proposed legislation.
Moultrie said: “So, if the executive branch decides not to move on a particular matter and you decide to bring it to Parliament, if they remain resolute in that decision, there is no way you can succeed in moving that resolution or succeed in moving a bill,” Moultrie said.
A September 9 draft resolution obtained by Eyewitness News, pointed out that the Houses of Assembly, constructed in the 19th century, has limited capacity to allow for the required physical distancing because of its numerical composition.
According to the document, with new health protocols requiring a minimum 14-day quarantine for anyone infected with or exposed to the virus as a result of being a contact “the implementation of the new protocol could deprive honourable members of their constitutional right, and parliamentary privilege, to assume their seat”.
Noting that all members of Parliament have a constitutional right to attend proceedings, the draft resolution recommends the House “agree to a hybrid arrangement for the sittings of this House in the events of pandemics, emergencies and disasters, to accommodate the participation of members”.
British MPs supported proposals for virtual Parliament in the United Kingdom in April, hundreds of years of tradition to allow members, 50 members, to be present in the chamber while 120 join remotely via Zoom video conferencing service.
Several other Caribbean countries have made similar steps.
For example, Bermuda established virtual sittings in April.
In Trinidad, Parliament began preparing for a move toward virtual meetings as committee meetings were suspended in March.
The transition was made in May.
Jamaica also held its first virtual Parliamentary meeting in April.
At the outset of the pandemic, St Lucia limited the number of members in the chamber to meet a quorum and rotated members so each could have an opportunity to speak.
Senator Ranard Henfield, vice president of the ParlsAmericas Open Parliament Network, spoke to the issue during an online meeting on ‘Virtual Parliamentary Sittings during the COVID-19 Pandemic for Presiding Officers and Clerks of English-Speaking Parliaments in the Americas and the Caribbean’ in May.
Henfield said: “To perform our constitutional duties to the nation, we as forward-thinking legislators and transformative national leaders must adapt our legislatures to keep the democratic system alive in the hearts and minds of our electorate, of our backbenchers and senators, our media, our NGOs, academia, and the private sector…”