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 on Bills or issues on the floor of Parliament, parliamentary questions set by the Opposition as well as MPs from the ruling party to ministers, and in parliamentary committees.
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’, as is stated on the webpage of the National Assembly. Further, ‘the Speaker interprets and enforces the Standing Orders and for the purpose of interpretation, recourse is often had to Erskine May’s Parliamentary Practice, responds to Members’ points of order and give rulings when necessary… One of the most important qualities of a Speaker is impartiality. He must be above party politics. Once elected to the Chair, he owes his loyalty to the dignity of Parliament.’
Much has been said and written these last few days about what is considered to be an abuse of his powers by the current Speaker with regard to the PQ of Hon Assirvaden about the status of the ambassadorship of Showkutally Soodhun in Saudi Arabia, his decision to remove the PQ from the Hansard, and the resulting protest by Opposition MPs, which led to the suspension of Hon Assirvaden himself from the sitting of Parliament, and his naming of Hon Arvin Boolell, Hon Paul Berenger and Hon Rajesh Bhagwan and their suspension from the current session of Parliament. This is viewed as clearly disproportionate to any fault that the Speaker would have considered them to have committed. The Opposition MPs are perfectly right to have decided not to tender “unreserved apologies” for them to regain their seats in the House – if only to preserve their own dignity and that of Parliament – which the Speaker as well is enjoined by the rules of the Assembly to ensure.
The latest showdown in Parliament involving the Speaker and the Opposition MPs is one too many in a long list of attempts by various institutions to shield the government from an inquisitive Opposition, which is fulfilling its duties as is expected by the electorate. Various options are being examined by the Opposition to challenge the Speaker’s decision, the latest and most probable of which appears to be in the form of a judicial challenge.
This opportunity should not be lost if only to bring about some serenity in the governance of the country and the functioning of an important arm of the State. Questions have been raised as to whether the Supreme Court would be prepared to go beyond the usual deference to the doctrine of parliamentary supremacy and intervene in the internal workings of the Assembly. What is at stake is the protection of the Constitution, and our Supreme Court will surely take that into account.
From a national standpoint, the critical issue is that so many of our institutions do not seem to functioning properly, that is there are lapses in their proceeding by established rules. It is the duty of parliamentarians to seek answers from the government on behalf of the public. If obstacles are put in their way in Parliament, how then is the public interest going to be served? Under the circumstances, if the only recourse of the representatives of the people is to the judiciary, we must pray that the latter – which we have always maintained is the bulwark of our democracy – finds some way to ‘unlock’ the situation in Parliament inspite of the doctrine of parliamentary supremacy.
* Published in print edition on 9 April 2021
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