Alliance for Change (AFC) members Dominic Gaskin and Khemraj Ramjattan abstained from voting for duty-free concessions for two officials of the Financial Intelligence Unit (FIU) on Monday because they had unanswered questions on the legality of the move.
The abstentions have given rise to speculation that they were meant as a sign to the APNU section of the government that the AFC can apply pressure in this manner. The abstentions enabled the opposition PPP/C to defeat a government motion for the first time since 2015.
“I didn’t feel that I should support a motion like that, on the grounds that it was in variation of the statutes that gives the power for duty-free concessions to the Minister of Finance and the GRA boss Mister (Godfrey) Statia,” Ramjattan told Stabroek News on Tuesday evening when contacted.
“I just didn’t see the point of the motion. After it was put to the house I didn’t see how it could be used to achieve its intended effect given the law,” Gaskin separately said, when asked for an explanation for his abstention.
The motion, which was brought to the House by Minister George Norton on behalf of the Committee of Appointments, was defeated by a vote of 28 to 26 after Gaskin, who is Minister of Business and Ramjattan who is Minister of Public Security, both of the AFC, chose to break ranks and abstain on the vote.
Minister of Foreign Affairs Carl Greenidge of the AFC’s coalition partner, A Partnership for National Unity (APNU) also abstained while Minister of Finance Winston Jordan left shortly before the votes were counted and returned just after.
Absent from the sitting were APNU members Attorney General Basil Williams, Minister of Indigenous Peoples’ Affairs Sydney Allicock and Jennifer Wade.
Ramjattan said that Jordan told him that he would not support the motion and this fact also guided his decision.
He explained, “The circumstances that prevailed in the parliament was, when I asked the Minister of Finance he indicated that he is not supporting it and he went out as you know. Then, I asked the Chief Whip (Amna Ally) and she indicated that Minister Norton should withdraw it (the motion) and he did not. I then decided that if that be the position then I am going to abstain and I did that.
“There is no way that I am going to try to bypass the statutes for motions in parliament to grant special concessions. As a lawyer who knows that you can’t bypass a statutory section or cautionary clause by motion, that is why I did what I did,” he added.
The current Chairman of the AFC said that he did not speak to other AFC parliamentarians before the vote and as such could not say what guided their voting.
For Gaskin, he made clear that he did no prior consulting but on his own reasoned that the motion made no sense as it would not achieve the purpose for which it was laid and left him with unanswered questions. It is for that reason he said that he did not vote outright for or against the motion and decided to abstain.
“I didn’t consult with anyone. I was just sitting at the back and could not either because I am a backbencher,” he said.
“I didn’t think I knew enough to vote against or for. I don’t think I was persuaded in the other direction either, as such I thought the sensible thing was to not vote on this. I couldn’t see the merit for,” he added.
He said that observers and party supporters should not read much into his actions because it was not planned and the decision came impromptu, based on the facts he had at the time.
“There is no plan and there was no plan. If there is no plan then there is no clear understanding as to the usefulness or merit of a certain course of action and we have to reply on the presentations to the House. In this case, I was not persuaded …
“It has nothing to do with future or past voting. I wouldn’t read anything into it if I were you that is above and beyond. I see it as very straightforward. There is nothing there really. It just is what it was. It is one-off. It was something that wasn’t planned. I think we were all probably caught by surprise,” he added.
Asked if his “one-off” statement means that he will not break party voting ranks again he replied. “I can never say that and I don’t think any MP would want to say that they would support everything. That would be undermining our own intelligence and common sense.”
But he cautioned from reading much into especially his actions.
Leader of the AFC, Raphael Trotman, who voted for the motion, believes the actions give more depth into what democracy can afford a nation and from his own reflections thinks it demonstrated what democracy brings to a government.
“I can say that last night (Monday) was messy and the whole outcome is regrettable. Last night as I weighed what had happened, I had to smile to myself and accept that democracy is a multi-splendid thing. We got a reminder that though it was unplanned and unscripted, the abstention strengthened our parliamentary democracy and added new depth and character to it. We got the right outcome from an unwanted episode,” he said.