Prime Minister Kamla Persad-Bissessar has announced her intention to employ a little-used mechanism in the Commonwealth parliamentary system to mount an attack on Opposition Leader Dr Keith Rowley.
Unlike a no-confidence motion in the prime minister, which is a normal tool to condemn the performance of a government/prime minister across the political spectrum by an opposition, there are only two instances—in Australia—of such a motion being brought by the government against the opposition leader.
Parliamentary Practice, 23rd edition (Australia), states a motion of no confidence or censure of a member such as the leader of the opposition, “not being a member of the executive government, is not consistent with the parliamentary convention that the traditional purpose of a vote of censure is to question or bring to account a minister’s responsibility to the House”.
It states further, “Given the relative strength of the parties in the House, and the strength of party loyalties, in ordinary circumstances, it could be expected that a motion or amendment expressing censure of an
opposition leader or another opposition member would be agreed to, perhaps
regardless of the circumstances or the merits of the arguments or allegations”. It adds it is acknowledged, however, ultimately, the House may hold any member accountable for his or her actions.
A motion of no confidence filed by the Government against the Opposition Leader has an inbuilt success based on the Government’s majority. Political analysts, however, contend it would be
a dubious or pyrrhic victory because it has no effect.
The Opposition Leader, by definition, does not command the support or confidence of the majority of members of the House of Representatives. Indeed, under the Constitution, his appointment is based on the fact he is willing to serve and has the support of the minority in the House.
Section 83 (2) of the Constitution, which determines the basis on which the Opposition Leader is appointed, states the President appoints the person...“who, in his judgment, is best able to command the support of the greatest number of members of the House of Representatives who do not support the Government”.
His appointment is revoked if he is no longer able to command the support of the majority of those members of the House who do not support the Government. A successful motion against the Opposition Leader therefore does not lead to his removal.
By contrast, a successful motion of no confidence against the Prime Minister is a constitutional instrument which would result in her removal. Because for it to succeed, it would mean that the majority of members of the House (included members of her own Government) would have lost confidence in her and are dissatisfied with the Prime Minister’s leadership.
This therefore would trigger the provisions of the Constitution upon which her appointment was based- that is Section 76 (1) which states that the President appoints as Prime Minister the person who is the leader of the party which commands the support of the majority of members of the House or the member who most likely commands the support of the majority of members of the House.
Under Section 77 of the Constitution, once a motion
of no confidence in the Prime Minister is passed in the House of Representatives by
the votes of the majority of members of the House, the Prime Minister has seven days
after the passing of such a resolution to resign (as Prime Minister) or advise the President to dissolve Parliament. If
she fails to do so, the President
“shall revoke the appointment of the Prime Minister”.
However there is no similar constitutional provision to
the revocation of the appointment of the Opposition Leader, in the face of a passage of a motion of no confidence by the majority of members of the House. And this is because the majority of the members of the House are not involved in this selection.
The bottom line is that a motion of no confidence can only have constitutional effect
in circumstances where the person enjoyed the confidence of the majority in first place.