Reform of parliament is a must. It is hoped that political parties across the spectrum propose and canvass this issue during the forthcoming electoral campaign
As per section 1 of the Constitution, Mauritius is a sovereign democratic state. This sacrosanct section espouses the principles of rule of law and separation of powers. The state is divided into three branches namely the executive, the judiciary and parliament. Over the years we have heard about reforms in different sectors including the executive, the judiciary, health, education, local government among others. Unfortunately, we have seldom heard about reform of parliament. With recent events resulting in the suspensions of Arvin Boolell and Alan Ganoo from the National Assembly, comments on the conduct of Madam Speaker and recent statements from former speaker Kailash Purryag, reform of parliament has become topical. It is worth highlighting that the structure of our National Assembly, being round in shape, symbolizes consensus as opposed to other parliaments where Government and Opposition face each other directly, showing adversity.
The following reforms are called for to strengthen our parliamentary democracy:
- The Speaker
An amendment was brought to section 32 of the Constitution in 1996 to enable a non-elected person to become Speaker of the National Assembly. Thereafter, it became a tradition, until 2014, for a person who had not been a candidate at the preceding general election to become Speaker and by virtue of which Sir Ramesh Jeewoolall, Dev Ramnah, Kailash Purryag and Razack Peeroo were elected to that post. Unfortunately, in 2014 the tradition was reversed and Mrs Hanoonanjee, a defeated MSM candidate, became Speaker of the National Assembly. Her proximity with the Jugnauth family is well known and we cannot be prevented from thinking that the move was mainly because of their existing relationship. To preserve the sanctity of the National Assembly, it is desirable to enact legislation to prevent a person who has been involved in party politics, for a certain period of time preceding to a general election, to qualify for that post. It can further be proposed that the Speaker be selected by the Government and the Deputy Speaker by the Opposition. In 1997, after the split of the Labour/MMM alliance, MMM’s Dev Ramnah remained Deputy Speaker under a Labour Government until 2000.
- Meetings of the National Assembly, Debate and Question Time
Our National Assembly normally sits once a week except in special circumstances as for debates on the Appropriation Bill, motion of no confidence among others. It can also be said that almost half a year, parliament is in recess. It becomes a daunting task for a committed member of parliament to prepare for question time, interventions on Bills and at adjournment time, all of which happen during the same sitting. Due to time constraint, most Bills also receive a certificate of urgency and are rushed through parliament with little time for meaningful debate. One of the sources of statutory interpretation is Hansard, i.e record of parliamentary proceedings and if a Bill has not been well ventilated, our Courts will be unable to rely on Hansard to gauge the real intention of the legislator. Private Member’s Motion has become a mockery in our current parliamentary set up. We can hardly recall the last time when there was a full-fledged debate and vote on such a motion. Question time remains at the heart of parliamentary democracy. Priority should normally be given to oral answers as opposed to written ones to enable members of parliament to canvass issues both of national and local importance. In our contemporary history, there has never been any open debate on a topic of national interest in the National Assembly. There is even no debate on the report of the Public Accounts Committee. In Mauritius, as in other countries, Ministers have wide powers to make subsidiary legislation by way of Regulations, which have the same force of law as an Act of Parliament. Legislators should be allowed to debate on certain regulations. All this cannot happen with such a limited amount of time for parliamentary business. Parliament should meet at least twice a week and parliamentary recess, halved.
- Legislative Calendar
Every week parliament is sitting our legislative drafters face a difficult task to look for and finalize Bills to present to Cabinet. Their task will be much easier and efficient with an established legislative calendar. This calendar should be made public and even posted on the website of the National Assembly. This will in a way make Parliament more accountable to the public and also enable a Government to implement its programme in a timely and disciplined manner.
- Standing orders, Standing Committees and Live Transmission
Our Standing Orders were last amended in 1994 when Iswardeo Seetaram was Speaker of the National Assembly, amendments which somewhat curtailed parliamentary democracy. That provoked a big hue and cry by the then Labour, MMM and MMSM opposition. A joint public meeting of all three parties was even organized in La Louise to denounce same with the promise to have those amended Standing Orders revoked once in power. True it is that a lot of time has elapsed but it is never too late. Our standing orders need to amended, after a thorough debate in the National Assembly, to revamp parliamentary democracy. Standing Committees, comprising of members from both sides of the House, on areas like finance, home affairs, foreign affairs, health and education need to be set up to make the executive more accountable. These will also enable parliamentarians to rise above party politics on issues of national interest. Live transmission of parliament should be extended to the meetings of the Public Accounts Committee, the ICAC Parliamentary Committee and to the Standing Committees when they are set up. It is useless to have a parliamentary channel which is active only once a week, for half of the year.
- Second Chamber and Parliamentary Standards Committee
To make our democracy more vibrant and representative, it is desirable to have a second chamber with members who can be elected by proportional representation, reflecting the composition of the lower house. To prevent further incidents like the one involving former MSM Private Parliamentary Secretary Kalyan Taroola, it would be desirable to set up a Parliamentary Standards Committee with guidelines to uphold the dignity of the House and to sanction contraveners.
To enable members of parliament function at an optimum level, it is desirable that they be allotted an office with researchers. They can share these facilities with two or three other members. Consequently, they will have a place to receive their constituents, whether in Government or in Opposition and the researchers will undoubtedly assist them to better contribute to proceedings of the National Assembly. Parliament can also set up and operate a bookshop where members of parliament and the public at large can buy copies of Hansard, reports and other documents not otherwise available.
Reform of parliament is a must. It is hoped that political parties across the spectrum propose and canvass this issue during the forthcoming electoral campaign. Such a reform will undoubtedly put us at par with many other parliamentary democracies, thus improving our international image, but first and foremost, such reform will be of benefit to us as a country.