Preserving the Dignity of the House

Editorial

The constitutional case lodged by Hon Arvin Boolell, who has challenged his suspension for eight sessions of the National Assembly and which is, in his view, a violation of his constitutional rights, was called before Judges Karuna Devi Gunesh Balaghee and Denis Mootoo on Monday; it has been adjourned to November 23 before the Master and Registrar. His complaint is directed against the Speaker, Sooroojdev Phokeer, the Prime Minister, Pravind Jugnauth and the Clerk of the National Assembly.  Dr Arvin Boolell has accused the Speaker of “bias and in favour of the majority in the House”, and cites 20 occasions between February 28, 2020 and July 20, 2021, where the Speaker’s decisions would have been biased  against Opposition MPs.

Inspite of the current anxiety that has gripped large swathes of the population with respect to the resurgence of Covid-19 cases and the increasing number of deaths, it is important that the long-drawn tussle between the Opposition and the Speaker be thrashed out for the good name of the country and its reputation. That is why Hon Boolell and Hon Shakeel Mohamed, who has also challenged the Speaker’s decision to expel and suspend him from Parliament, have been well advised to pursue their constitutional challenge for the sake of the country’s image — 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.

We understand the reasons why Supreme Courts in Westminster-style democracies are somewhat reluctant to intervene in the conduct of honourable members in their august parliamentary Houses and even those of a Speaker who is felt to be overstepping his bounds. In most such places, we are dealing with matured democracies which respect not only the letter of the law but also its spirit. Given the numerical majority on one side, such Speakers use a deft touch or a touch of humour to defuse tense situations or prevent them from arising in the first place. In many cases, those imbibed with such a democratic spirit tend to bend over backward to ensure Opposition members have their rightful and often meaningful say while clearly, government will have its way. We need not belabour the point but we can all watch extracts of authoritative but sensitive handling of House matters in the often charged atmospheres of Indian Parliament.

Whether our democracy is still young and therefore liable to various vagaries or departures is beside the point. 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. Its critical views and remarks can in effect be helpful to government in addressing issues or sorting out problems which it may not have foreseen in drafting legislation.

If parliamentary debates are reduced to a succession of government MPs and Ministers reading pre-written speeches without even taking note or account of useful contributions from Opposition benches, then the term parliamentary debate becomes senseless. That is why rules have been made to ensure its proper and orderly functioning but, ultimately, 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.

While he or she is certainly nominated to that high office by the PM and Leader of the House and subsequently voted in, we cannot expect the Speaker to remain aloof from government desiderata. But he can rise to the challenges of his high-profile posting and its singular importance to our democracy by doing so without being overbearing on one side and obsequious to the other. Furthermore, 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.

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 an inquisitive opposition, which is fulfilling its duties as is expected by the electorate, is unable to do so effectively. Elected MPs and, in particular Opposition MPs have usually an uphill battle against those who already control much of the House agenda and sittings, and one could portend that their contribution has to be facilitated rather than thwarted unjustifiably. So, while we understand some of the reluctance of judges to interfere in matters that a functioning Parliament should be able to manage without external help, there may be merit in the Supreme Court accommodating some departure to hear and pronounce on these two cases as ultimate guardians of our constitutional democracy and protector of the rights of the electorate to be adequately represented and defended in Parliament.


* Published in print edition on 9 November 2021

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