“…the Chair is not infallible. Whatever errors may occasionally be committed, it is of the utmost importance for the integrity of the institution that the Chair continues to be treated with deference and that its impartiality not be called into question at every turn.” (Francois Cote- ‘The Impartiality of the Chair’)
I generally do not make reference to WhatsApp messages except when they shed some light on issues of integrity and good governance. However, two weeks ago, I received a WhatsApp video from St. Lucia which had me applauding the Speaker of the House of Assembly for what appeared to be his attempt to control an often unruly parliament in a very balanced manner; a far cry from what we typically see across the Caribbean. We have grown accustomed to hearing and seeing the Speaker berate and control the opposition while giving the Government members of parliament carte blanche to insult and denigrate members in what is supposed to be a venerable House. The Speaker really ought to be an impartial arbiter of the proceedings of the House of Assembly and rise above the political fray.
The Speaker of the House must be regarded as one of the main leaders of parliament and in exercising such leadership the Speaker must ensure that parliamentary business runs smoothly. In exercising their control, Speakers have to respond to their sometimes explosive leadership environment in what we hope can only be a firm and fair manner that will generate trust among all members of parliament, whether government or opposition.
In the case of this specific issue in St. Lucia, it concerned the utterances and cross talk of a senior government minister and a respected member of the opposition during the prime minister’s presentation of amendments to the Immigration Act. That Act sought to provide easy access to St. Lucia for Chinese nationals whilst simultaneously clamping down on Venezuelan nationals. That, in itself, is another story and perhaps far more important than this one. But I leave that to those who assiduously follow foreign policy and those with a keen interest in one of the hemispheric powers even though there has been a serious “depowering” of this once major regional influencer.
Bad behaviour on the part of members of parliament on the front bench is not normally sanctioned. But in this case, the Speaker, Andy Daniel demanded that both government minister Guy Joseph and Opposition MP, Ernest Hilaire withdraw their off-the-cuff statements (not on a point of order) or demit the House. Whilst Hilaire obliged, Guy Joseph refused and was ordered to demit the House. Unusual!
There are concerns with regard to the manner in which Speakers are selected with many arguing that the selector is too restrictive, usually a single individual – the Prime Minister. And some have blamed this selection method for the behaviour of this particular Presiding Officer of Parliament.
The method of selection of the Speaker in the Commonwealth Caribbean varies but typically there are two modalities, both of course wrapped around the Prime Minister. In countries like Barbados, the Speaker must be an elected member of parliament, whilst in St. Lucia for example, constitutionally, the Speaker can be a non-elected member of parliament and indeed this is often the case. A selected or elected Speaker should be able to exercise the independence that is required in a developed democracy and certainly in a mature legislative chamber.
In far too many countries, the tendency is for the Speaker to be selected through the nomination by the Prime Minister after consultation (sometimes a telephone call) with the Leader of the Opposition which is then endorsed by the elected chamber. Many critics have argued that given the constitutional role of the Speaker, this process is merely a hollow procedure in that the House has no choice and there is usually no debate.
One way to ensure the desired level of independence is to have the Speaker be selected in a manner which will reduce the likelihood that he/she is the servant of the Prime Minister, and therefore of a single party government. The present Speaker in St. Lucia, for example, is not an elected member of parliament though he has previously contested the elections on a UWP platform. In that context, the opposition in Dominica, for instance, has constantly criticized the Speaker for what they see as her tendency to engage in partisanship and unnecessary constraining behaviour relative to the opposition. This, they often argue, is a far cry from the treatment of the government members of parliament. The Speaker has defended her actions noting that the Opposition have often run afoul of the standing orders.
Many of us understand that the role of the Speaker is not just to chair or preside over the House of Assembly. The Speaker must ensure that the lower house of parliament is free and able to function effectively as the legislative arm of government and in holding the Executive to account. It is in this role that many persons have taken issue with the Speaker especially when the individual is also a member of the ruling party, who like all members, is defined by non-cross voting on the floor of parliament.
Far too often too, members of parliament abuse the standing orders especially with respect to “point of orders”. As part of the routine procedures of parliament, any Member can raise a point of order which apparently takes precedence over other parliamentary business. A point of order can, therefore, be a powerful tool which can be wielded to great effect. But too often these have been misused in order to score political points. Here, the Speaker must exert his/her authority without necessarily impinging on the “free” atmosphere of the House. That this is frequently done in the region is questionable, unfortunately because Speakers invariably tend to be partisan. Faced with what seems to be a confrontational and hostile Speaker, members of the Opposition have often had to resort to public criticism (but this can be interpreted as a breach of parliamentary privilege which can lead to disciplinary action), walk out of parliament, or simple disobedience. At the end of the day, there is a loss of faith and trust in the system.
To avoid this, the Canadian approach has been to root the legitimacy of the Speaker in the election of the individual by the parliament and the convention is that the elected Speaker renounces all official ties with his/her party. Apparently, Speakers in Canada do not take part in party meetings or in any partisan political activities.
So much depends not only on the manner of selection of the Speaker but also on the Speaker’s political and managerial skills. This is more critical when parliament becomes fractious with constant acrimonious verbal battles between government and opposition. Such skills are also contingent on experience, both political and otherwise, and of course the experience too, and willingness to learn of the members of parliament. He or she sets the tone of parliament and consequently great care must be taken when selecting such an individual.
Unfortunately, at times we have been confronted with Speakers who are embarrassingly unfamiliar with parliamentary procedures and who are an affront to parliamentary democracy and common sense. Anyone who occupies such a post must display an awareness of parliamentary knowledge, good judgement , fairness, yet firmness, and above all, must be truly rooted in parliamentary traditions.
And in this case, Speaker Andy Daniel exemplified all the above. Whether or not he has been criticized for allowing parliamentary debates to disintegrate, on this occasion, Speaker Daniel asserted his authority in a just and impartial manner. Indeed, on this occasion, the Speaker felt it necessary to intervene on his own initiative to address the two members and the House of Assembly generally because of what he deemed to be the use of “unacceptable” statements. The Speaker thus sought an unequivocal retraction of the offending statements or the two MP’s would run the risk associated with ignoring his directives. He stood his ground; one minister exited the chamber, and another withdrew his remarks.
(Cynthia Barrow Giles is a senior lecturer in political science at the University of the West Indies, Cave Hill Campus)