The resignation of MP Mark Pettingill has left the One Bermuda Alliance with a “tenuous” grip on power, sources claimed last night, and could prompt a vote of no confidence in the Government.
Mr Pettingill announced yesterday morning that “after a lot of reflection ... and soul-searching” he had left the OBA and would serve as an Independent MP in his Warwick North East constituency until the next General Election, when he will probably resign from politics.
Despite his departure from the OBA, he said: “I have no doubt the Government will have my support on any number of pending legislative matters.”
His decision leaves the ruling party with just 17 MPs in the House of Assembly, rendering it a minority government, as the number of elected members not in the governing party now outnumber those who are.
Last night, the Progressive Labour Party said Michael Dunkley should resign or call a snap election but Opposition leader David Burt refused to reveal whether he would table a motion of no confidence in the Government, as can be done under section 59 of the Constitution.
The Premier responded by accusing the PLP of using the resignation “as a political opportunity to exploit”.
Attorney-General Trevor Moniz, meanwhile, told The Royal Gazette that though his party’s position was now undoubtedly weakened, it should still be able to continue as the Government because Mr Pettingill and Shawn Crockwell, the other Independent MP, had indicated their likely support on legislative matters.
“I don’t know whether it would serve [the PLP’s] purpose to call a motion of no confidence,” said Mr Moniz. “You can only pull that trigger once; if you pull it and lose, it doesn’t look so good.”
The OBA and PLP now have equal numbers of MPs in the House (17), though the Opposition, when it comes to voting on legislation, still has one less vote because its member Randy Horton is the Speaker and can vote only in the case of a tie.
The two Independent MPs take the total number of non-OBA MPs to 19. A minority government is one which has less than half the total number of seats.
This newspaper canvassed opinion yesterday on whether Mr Pettingill’s resignation left the Government in a position where it could no longer lead the country.
We spoke to six lawyers with in-depth knowledge of the Constitution, including Mr Moniz, and only one considered it to be a situation where the Governor would need to act. That source, who asked not to be named, said: “The fact that we now have 17 OBA, 17 PLP and two Independents, puts us near constitutional crisis. The matter now moves to the Governor for him to make a decision.”
But others disagreed with that assessment. Tim Marshall, consultant at Marshall, Diel & Myers, who has handled many constitutional cases, said the Governor would only get involved if it was determined that the Government did not have the support of a majority of members in the House.
“The only way you can test that is for there to be brought a motion to determine whether or not there is confidence in the Government,” said Mr Marshall, whose wife Georgia was, until recently, an OBA senator.
“When you look at the provisions of the Constitution, it’s not driven by the fact that a member of Parliament has left a particular party. It’s really driven by how many members of the Parliament support the Government.”
He said it was likely that discussions were taking place in both camps as to the likely outcome of such a vote, adding: “[The Opposition leader] might do it just for the sake of emphasising the weak position that the OBA Government finds itself in.”
Mr Marshall added: “It’s not the most wonderful position; in fact, it’s a pretty awful position for any government to find themselves in.”
Another source, who wished to remain anonymous, said the Governor would not act of his own accord. “That’s why the vote of no confidence is pivotal as to whether the Government survives or not.”
The source added that the Government’s position was “very tenuous ... right now” but, because of Mr Horton’s role as Speaker, it still had a majority in Parliament
of one and the likelihood of support from the Independents.
Yet another source said the Governor would be “watching closely to see how votes unfold in the House” because the Premier’s appointment was based, according to the Constitution, on him being “best able to command the confidence of a majority of the members”.
“[There is] no question that if, after a period of time, the Government is unable to govern i.e. pass its legislation in the House, the position may become untenable, most especially if it is [a] money Bill.
“The loss of a non-confidence vote could also trigger a resignation of the Premier and his Government.”
Mr Moniz scotched the idea that Bermuda was on the cusp of a constitutional crisis.
“Both the Independent MPs have indicated that they are going to vote with the Government and have no desire to bring the Government down,” he said.
The Minister of Legal Affairs added: “In other countries, they certainly have minority governments that survive long periods of time. We know we are coming up to an election anyway. Clearly [this resignation] indicates that the Government has less latitude, so we have got to be really careful what legislation we go forward with, otherwise we are going to lose votes.”
Our final source insisted the resignation itself didn’t “trigger anything constitutional”.
An Opposition spokeswoman said yesterday: “The news that yet another OBA MP, Mark Pettingill, has found it necessary to resign from the party he helped found, to sit as an Independent, calls into question the direction of the country and is yet another signal that the leadership of Michael Dunkley is directionless, ineffective and weak.
“It should be jarring to all Bermudians that we now, for the first time ever, have a minority government at the helm, and that the OBA cannot secure the passage of any legislation without the assistance of the Independent or Opposition members.
“On the anniversary of the day MP Shawn Crockwell resigned from Cabinet over the Government’s mishandling of immigration, this is yet another sign that it is time for the Premier to either resign or go to the country and seek a mandate from the people through a General Election.”
However, Mr Dunkley said last night that Mr Pettingill took care in his statement to say that Government would have his support on pending legislative matters.
“So, while the PLP see this as a political opportunity to exploit, Mr Pettingill recognised the need for Bermuda to continue moving forward on the big issues the OBA Government has progressed,” Mr Dunkley said.
“His decision to sit as an Independent MP allows him to address what he described as ‘ongoing conflicts with the Government’ on matters involving his law firm while enabling him to support Government initiatives going forward.
“We will continue to work with Mr Pettingill and his colleague Mr Crockwell, as we have always done, for the benefit of the Bermudian people — a goal we all share.
“That’s the agenda: governing to benefit the people. The country’s priorities are what matter most right now, not the PLP’s political priorities, which is what their statement is all about.”
Earlier in the day, he described Mr Pettingill’s resignation as a “disappointing development for a government that has been making steady progress on big problems facing the people of Bermuda”.
A Government House spokesman, in response to questions, said: “In considering any developments in the House of Assembly, the Governor will continue to act in accordance with the terms of the Bermuda Constitution.”