Parliament and The Speaker


The recent happenings in Parliament, reckoned to be the temple of democracy, are a matter of serious concern to the country at large. There was already the perception of partiality on the part of the Speaker, notably whenever he was seen to be acting as a shield for the government benches against an inquisitive but numerically smaller opposition, which is fulfilling its duties as is expected by the electorate. The latest showdown in Parliament involving the Speaker and MMM MP Rajesh Bhagwan, during which the latter was disparaged on account of his skin condition is one too many. Various options are being examined by the Opposition to challenge the Speaker, including the possible mass resignation of the Opposition.

Much has been said about what is considered to be an abuse of his powers by the current Speaker with regard to the PQs of Opposition MPs. For instance, the perfectly legitimate question of Hon Assirvaden some time back about the status of the ambassadorship of Showkutally Soodhun in Saudi Arabia to which Hon Minister Ganoo replied. The Speaker’s posterior decision to erase the PQ and answer from the Hansard, and the resulting protest by Opposition MPs, led to the suspension of Hon Assirvaden from the sitting of Parliament. The subsequent naming of Hon Arvin Boolell, Hon Paul Berenger and Hon Rajesh Bhagwan and their suspension from the current session of Parliament, was only lifted upon a motion by the Prime Minister when the matter was about to be heard in the Supreme Court. The recent suspension of Arvin Boolell from 8 sittings of Parliament, that is until the end of the year, is clearly disproportionate to any fault that would have been committed by the Labour Party MP. It is to be hoped Hon Boolell will stick to his decision to go for a judicial challenge of the Speaker’s decision if only to obtain a pronouncement of the Supreme Court on the speakership of Mr Phokeer as well as in a bid to preserve the dignity of duly elected MPs and that of Parliament.

It bears repeating, as we have pointed out before, that Parliament is too important an institution in a representative democracy like ours for its functionings to be allowed to be sapped by any dysfunction whatsoever. Besides representing the electorate and making laws, its other function is to hold the government accountable for its decisions and scrutinise its functioning through debates and parliamentary questions set by the Opposition. That is why rules have been made to ensure its proper and orderly functioning. It falls upon the Speaker to ensure that the Standing Orders and Rules of the National Assembly are complied with, despite the numerical majority that any government enjoys.

In a contribution to this paper, Lex had argued that the Standing Orders cannot be incompatible with the Constitution and cannot be used to trample on democratic principles like frustrating a member of the Opposition from fulfilling his duties. On the question of the doctrine of parliamentary supremacy and whether the Supreme Court would be prepared to make a pronouncement on the internal workings of the Assembly, in particular whether the exercise of his powers by the Speaker is subject to Constitutional and judicial review, late Justice Lallah had ruled in the case of Attorney General against Navin Ramgoolam in 1993 that – “where Parliament exercises sovereign powers under the Constitution and the Courts are empowered to exercise a particular jurisdiction which itself requires an enquiry into the exercise of those powers by Parliament, then the jurisdiction of the Courts must be exercised to the appropriate extent in order to enable it to determine the particular question that is before it. It would be misleading, in those circumstances, to invoke the sovereignty of the National Assembly which would have the effect of paralysing the effective exercise of the constitutional jurisdiction of the Court.”

That is why Hon Boolell would do well to pursue his legal challenge for the sake of the country’s image. No self-respecting National Assembly moulded in the British parliamentary tradition, can serve democratic interests or expectations of good governance through the people’s elected representatives, when the referee is himself poised as a bulwark for struggling government Ministers. As for the number of unanswered questions over the past two years, without the faintest reprimand from either the Speaker or the Leader of the House, it remains an irritant that government could dispense with. As leader of the House and nominator of the Speaker, the PM has an overarching responsibility in the current state of affairs and can decide whether the dignity, decorum and governance issues of a democratic state are worth more than narrow partisan interests.

* Published in print edition on 6 August 2021

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