In a democracy, the representation of the people is the foremost duty of parliamentarians. In the past few decades or so did they perform their primary function satisfactorily or live up to the expectations of the citizens? Their performance has been unethical, disgraceful, un-parliamentary and disorderly. They did bring in immense shame and disrepute to the august assembly.
The parliament therefore, in order to ensure orderly business of the house, needs to upgrade its quality of performance on a priority basis. In keeping with past practices and procedures of our own and the Mother Parliament – British House of Commons, we need to take necessary steps (very firmly) to apply and enforce the guidelines, rules, regulations and even precedents and traditions, both written and unwritten, without delay. It is the Speaker’s duty, proficiently assisted by the Secretary-General of Parliament, to interpret Standing Orders impartially and maintain order and decorum in the Supreme Legislature.
The latest unruly incident that took place in Parliament was when the old-timer parliamentarian and former chief government whip Dinesh Gunawardena ran away with the Mace causing pandemonium. This action was supported by many others including a party leader.The Mace is the symbol of authority of parliament and Speaker. It is placed on the table by the Sergeant-at-Arms before the sittings of parliament. The Speaker depends mostly on numerous sources to arrive at good decisions. Erskine May who was the Clerk of the House of Commons between 1871 and 1886, wrote the, “Treatise on the Law, Privileges, Proceedings and Usage of Parliament.” This is considered to be the most authoritative source on parliamentary, practice and procedure, widely referred to and used in the Commonwealth Parliaments. This book is also one which provides good guidance to our Speaker and the Secretary-General too to run our Parliament efficiently and effectively. As I have observed for well over thirty years, the parliament has been traditionally a noisy place. In the Sri Lankan context, the disruptions that occur almost daily in parliament are nothing other than “hooliganism”. It could be argued that they play “politics” -- perhaps induced by the quest for a specific pre-determined role to achieve personal or group objectives in parliament. It could be also said that these legislators had always chosen to pursue their personal and collective goals of their group selfishly by adopting strategies that were prescriptions on how they could most successfully invest their energies to maximize the likelihood of a preferred outcome – unquestionably not the national goals. This state of affairs is quite unfortunate. These disruptions no doubt have resulted in reducing the debating time drastically. I recall certain laws had been simply passed on several occasions without even a debate. This is a denial of democracy. If so, do the citizenry need such a parliament, at an unbearable expenditure?
In fact, owing to these reasons, the Speaker must be advised to adopt a rehabilitated and more enlightened strategy immediately. The Speaker could then recommence the proven age- old practice and procedure of naming unruly MPs, which has sadly been discontinued. I would say we have no option at all but to revert to the classical English procedure in the British Parliament. If we do so, we could be heading again to a more open progressive parliamentary system (similar to the pre-1970 period) encompassing a desire for balanced governance for the promotion of civic virtues and the resistance to bad governance. Our parliamentarians do not seem to have matured democratically in the interest of the country and its people. They seem to be dragging the country towards that of a failed State highhandedly. These attempts must be checkmated using parliamentary oversight mechanisms.
The parliament being the legislative body consisting of elected representatives to pass laws and monitoring of performance of the executive authority, the role of the Speaker, strengthened by the Secretary-General is decisive. The Speaker must therefore search and investigate to find new and better avenues for taking the right decisions and to assist parliamentarians to improve and perform their onerous duties well in the interest of the country and its people. It must not be forgotten that the desired “change” must be made a reality and not a fantasy.
It is a MUST therefore for the present Speaker to be given appropriate guidance at this particular juncture. The Speaker must be supported wholeheartedly with commitment and skill to pursue the right path. This is the responsibility of the Parliament Secretariat. In particular, the Secretary-General must now take up the total responsibility to focus the Speaker’s attention to ensure an acceptable, people friendly, dignified, enlightened, effective and efficient role in Parliament for all the parliamentarians, whether they belong to the government or opposition.
The countrymen in the past experienced all types of serious disruptions in parliament, due to which physical blows had been exchanged, a Buddhist priest was physically manhandled, abusive un-parliamentary language used on the floor of the House and parliamentarians staged a protest overnight -- no doubt the first of the kind, which should not have been excused or tolerated at all.
The Speaker has most pragmatically pointed out that Rs.4.6 million is spent to maintain Parliament on every day it sits. In other words, the Speaker urged all elected representatives to examine top issues under consideration, decide on policy and laws, and hold the government accountable for its actions, without unnecessarily wasting time and valuable resources of parliament for useless squabbles.
There have been several instances in parliament when the MPs disregarded the authority of the Speaker. The House is then suspended to resolve the relevant dispute and work out an amicable settlement in the Speaker’s Chambers. This practice began during the term of office of Speaker Lokubandara. The genius preferred avoiding rough seas and side-stepped without using the disciplinary powers vested in the Speaker by Standing Orders.
This system needs to be totally disbanded because this has now become the order of the day for unruly parliamentarians. There have been days when the parliament sittings had to be suspended without adhering to the laid down and accepted practice and procedure in the House. The past practice should be re-introduced in the august assembly at the earliest. The usual procedure according to the Standing Orders is to name a member when he or she disregards the authority of the Chair and willfully obstructs the House by repeatedly refusing to comply with Standing Orders. Under similar circumstances, the Speaker or the Chairperson says – (I name MP ….) and thereafter, the Leader of the House, the Chief Government Whip or a senior minister present moves “that Mr. ……., MP., be suspended from the House, for which a division may be called.
In the past all MPs irrespective of their party affiliations supported similar moves by the Chair to maintain the dignity, decorum and prestige of the House. The role of the Speaker is so important and therefore the primary duty after an election is to elect a Speaker, who is often referred to as the “Presiding Officer”. The Speaker is the third citizen in the country. The Speaker is responsible to maintain the authority of the House and to protect its rights, privileges and the dignity of the parliament.
It reminds me of the Canadian Clerk of the House (Secretary-General), whom I had the opportunity to meet when I had the good fortune to go for an attachment to the Canadian Parliament for training. He was a painstakingly dedicated, committed and a colossus of a gentleman.
I have no doubt if the Speaker wishes to be successful, he primarily needs a competent Secretariat and a staff who are willing to develop a vision and good foresight to reach that far-away end. This is URGENT. If not the present Speaker too, I repeat would sink in a mighty ocean similar to most of his predecessors – a failure