Attorney General Carl Bethel.
By RASHAD ROLLE
Tribune Senior Reporter
ATTORNEY General Carl Bethel apologised yesterday after his office failed to deliver a resolution extending Prime Minister Dr Hubert Minnis' emergency orders in time for last week's sitting of the House of Assembly, causing the Governor General's original proclamation of emergency to end at midnight.
Governor General C A Smith nonetheless signed a new proclamation of emergency yesterday evening in time for the COVID-19 curfew and restrictions to remain in place when the previous proclamation expired.
However, Wayne Munroe, QC, indicated yesterday that he will challenge the legality of the proclamation, saying the Constitution does not let the Governor General declare a state of emergency more than once on the same issue.
Parliamentary rules say a resolution can only be debated if 24 hours notice is given, unless the House agrees to waive the rule. The Official Opposition did not agree to waive the rule yesterday, so although Dr Minnis tabled a resolution to extend his orders during yesterday's morning sitting, the resolution could not be debated and passed prior to the expiration of the proclamation.
"As minister I must accept and freely do accept full ministerial responsibility for this oversight," Mr Bethel said in the Senate yesterday.
"I reiterate that I take full ministerial responsibility. The government of the Bahamas has every right to expect and to rely upon timely, and in-time, advice from the Office of the Attorney General. This is not the Prime Mminister's oversight. This is not the government's oversight. It is the oversight by my office, and my oversight. I apologise for this procedural oversight to His Excellency the Governor General, the Prime Minister, the government of the Bahamas, and the Bahamian people.
"I was informed that the opposition, prior to this morning's sitting of the House of Assembly, had indicated an intention not to waive the 24 hours rule, which requires at least 24 hours' notice between the tabling of any motion and any debate on that motion. The opposition are fully entitled to rely upon the Rules of the House."
Opposition leader Philip "Brave" Davis slammed the mistake as an example of incompetence and ineptitude.
"The Attorney General has a course of action to take," Mr Davis said. "The collapse of the legal regime regarding the extension of the proclamation of the state of public emergency only shows what we have said all along and it is that this government is shockingly inept and incompetent. This is an enormous embarrassment for and failure of this Minnis-led government. The question must then be asked, if they got this simple procedural issue wrong what else have they gotten wrong in the course of governance? This is just the latest in a series of missteps, misinformation and disinformation on the part of this government. Clearly the public can have little confidence in this Minnis-led administration and the expectation is heads must roll."
Mr Davis opposed the way in which the new proclamation was issued yesterday, questioning how a state of emergency can exist if Dr Minnis has been hailing the country's success against the coronavirus.
"What is the state of emergency?" he said. "When you listen to the PM, you hear that we have had no (new cases), he said we are so safe we could invite people by opening our borders so the question is could a proper proclamation now be made having regard to the fact that the Prime Minister said everything is alright?
"It is an abuse of process. Consideration has to be given to whether in light of what the Prime Minister said Sunday (during his national address) there still exists a state of emergency. That consideration has to be made In light of the self-congratulatory remarks and declaration that everything is okay."
For his part, Mr Munroe said Article 29 of the Constitution does not allow the government to table a new proclamation on this issue.
"It seems abundantly clear that you can only have one proclamation of emergency with regard to any one event," he said. "If you can simply put another one in place, you could exceed the six months limited by the Constitution, so clearly in my view you can't do that. We are challenging this right away. They've had three to four months grace. We filed an action in in relation to the previous regime and there's no reason to let this one slide."
He added: "By law, you could extend a proclamation on and on, but any particular proclamation can be limited to six months and six months only. States of emergency are supposed to be exceptional steps, not the first thing you do. If you have a matter of public health, yes you can pass laws that impinge our rights, but it has to be done by Parliament, not by a summary process. Their only remedy is to introduce a bill to put in place their regime and that bill has to be debated by the House of Assembly and the Senate."
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