By Namini Wijedasa –
The standing orders of the Sri Lankan parliament permit any member to speak without interruption, unless he is out of order.
They state that the Speaker or Chairman shall be heard without interruption. A member during a debate in parliament shall maintain silence while another member is speaking and shall not interrupt unless the member speaking gives way.
On 19 June 2012 (the date was picked at random), during a single sitting of parliament, there were 55 interruptions in the house and 13disturbances categorized by Hansard reporters as “uproars”. On the following day, there were 74 interruptions.
The standing orders state that the speaker may expunge words or statements from the Hansard if anything is said in parliament on the conduct of the president, or acting president, members of parliament, judges or other persons engaged in the administration of justice.
He may also expunge comments on any matter under adjudication by a court of law and any remarks by which a member imputes improper motives to any other member. On 19 June, the speaker expunged 23 such statements, including several made by Opposition Leader Ranil Wickremesinghe.
In case of “grave disorder”
The rules say that, in case of “grave disorder” arising in parliament, the speaker may adjourn sittings for a time to be named by him. On the date in question sittings were suspended once for five minutes.
“There must be some discipline in this house,” A.H.M. Azwer, as presiding member, implores on one occasion. “Why do we have standing orders? [Interruption] If MPs don’t behave according to standing orders, the chair has a right to… [Interruption] Order, please!”
He asks again: “Why do we have standing orders in this house? [Uproar] Yuddeta nethi kaduwa kos kotannada? (What is the purpose of a sword but to fight a war)…”
Before suspending sittings in desperation, he shouts: “Order, please! [Uproar] Honourable chief whip of the opposition, you must tell your members [Uproar]. You must set a good example, honourable chief opposition whip. Do not join the riotous group.”
Despite his admonishments to colleagues that day, Azwer is also often seen making a fuss. But misbehaviour in parliament is no longer the monopoly of a handful of members. It is so widespread that Speaker Chamal Rajapaksa has appointed a ‘Parliamentary Committee on Discipline, Propriety, Traditions and Security’.
The group-comprising D.E.W Gunasekera, Karu Jayasuriya, Rauf Hakeem, R. Sampanthan, P. Dayaratne, Anura Priyadharshana Yapa and Wijayadasa Rajapakshe-has been told to draft measures to instil discipline in legislators and to bring order to the house. The outcome of their discussions will be a ‘code of conduct’ for parliamentarians.
Gunasekera, who heads the committee, said they were seeking recommendations from relevant persons in this regard. These include former speakers, former secretaries-general, political party leaders, senior public officials and journalists.
Among the evidence the committee would consider are video clips of unruly parliamentary behaviour. Gunasekera has said, too, that he would study codes in the parliaments of other countries. The group will consider how the speaker could be granted more power to better enforce standing orders and other rules. Members will also look into amending the law to let the public make a direct complaint against an MP to the speaker.
Presently, however, even those disciplinary powers allocated to the speaker through the standing orders remain underutilised; and the standing orders are routinely violated.
“I have no objection to further codes of conduct, depending on the situation,” said Sarath Amunugama, a senior minister with a long history in public service. “But, basically, you don’t need a code of conduct. We have our standing orders of parliament based on the British parliament. These guidelines specify how we should speak, behave and so on. The main problem is that people don’t bother to study or to adhere to standing orders.”
The question, therefore, is how new regulations would help where even the existing ones go begging.
Speaker Chamal Rajapaksa is frequently seen on television trying to control the house and failing. Many times the speaker, or other members who are nominated to the chair when he vacates it, stare helplessly at the chaos around them in the hope that it would eventually cease.
At other times, they try to shout above the din. Sittings are routinely suspended to allow members to regain their composure before they return to the chamber.
Speaker Rajapakasa told LAKBIMAnEWS that discipline is a big concern. “If members studied the standing orders of parliament, most of the problems would be solved,” he said. “The standing orders are very clear on how they should speak, ask questions, how ministers should answer…”
Sometimes, he lamented, even ministers don’t follow procedures. Asked about the language used in parliament, the speaker replied: “Language is very important but when they get into moods they don’t know what they are saying.”
Among behaviour regularly observed in the house now are members constantly rising to points of order only to be told those are not points of order; the use of bad language; speaking out of turn and out of topic; the employment of interruptions as a method to disrupt and distract members who are speaking; defamation; assault. Several members jump to their feet during “arguments” while many might leave their seats, forcing the speaker (or presiding member) to repeatedly-usually futilely-order them to sit down. Ministers are often absent during question time, leaving the chief government whip to answer the queries made of various ministries. Parliamentary reporters say a range of rules enshrined in the standing orders are today observed in the breach.
The quorum of parliament required by the constitution is twenty members including the person presiding. Sometimes there is no quorum. Speakers have complained in recent times that members fail to attend parliament.
In relation to question time, the standing orders state (among other things) that, “A question must not be made the pretext for a debate.” Hansards show that the speaker regularly intervenes to stop this from happening.
Standing orders allow the speaker of parliament to be heard without interruption. This rule is not respected. Whenever any member is identified by the speaker as having disregarded the chair, or as having abused the rules of parliament by “persistently and wilfully obstructing the business of Parliament, or otherwise”, the speaker could have him suspended from parliament.
In November 2011, Deputy Minister Sarana Gunawardena was suspended from parliament over his behaviour during the budget debate. This was after Speaker Rajapaksa ordered the leader of the house to propose a motion preventing him from appearing in parliament for a week. However, this disciplinary method is rarely adopted despite deteriorating standards of behaviour.
The standing orders allow the speaker to direct a member to discontinue his speech if he persists in “in irrelevance or tedious repetition either of his own arguments or of the arguments used by other members in debate”. Hansards show the speaker or presiding member struggling routinely to enforce this regulation, the breach of which is common.
The speaker “shall order members whose conduct is grossly disorderly to withdraw immediately from Parliament during the remainder of the day’s sitting and may direct such steps to be taken as are required to enforce his order”. Observers of parliamentary proceedings felt this rule could be implemented more by the speaker.
In case of grave disorder arising in parliament, the speaker may adjourn parliament without questions put or suspend the sitting for a time to be named by him. Hansards show speakers and some presiding members taking recourse more frequently than before in this facility.
The standing orders bar the use of “objectionable words in debate which are improper or unparliamentary”. This is widely ignored. Every member must confine his observations to the subject under discussion. No member shall refer to any other member by name. And no member shall impute improper motives to any other member. These are habitually violated.
Any member deviating from the rules may be immediately called to order by the speaker, or by any other member rising to a point of order. This is exercised all the time-but mostly ineffectively.
These are only some of the regulations of parliament that are observed in the breach. Unfortunately, offences such as the physical assault of one’s colleagues; the flinging of water bottles; the sitting-on-top-of-ballot-boxes; the setting to fire of draft constitutions; or even the crushing of private parts of fellow members (to mention a fraction) are not even included in the standing orders.
Thou shalt not!
While researching this article, LAKBIMA nEWS was directed by a government official to a ‘Code of Conduct for Ministers of Cabinet Rank, Project Ministers, State Ministers, Members of Parliament of the Government Group and those holding High Office’. It is dated 1990, formulated under President Ranasinghe Premadasa and remains valid.
Ministers contacted for their comments a) had not seen this code b) were unaware such a code existed or c) vaguely recalled that there was such a code but could not remember anything from it d) vaguely knew the code existed but found it irrelevant.
However, several MPs—including Speaker Chamal Rajapaksa and other members of the newly formed Parliamentary Select Committee on Discipline Propriety Traditions and Security relating to Members of Parliament—requested copies of it from this writer.
The code proposes that, in order to maintain the confidence of the public in the integrity of the government, ministers and those holding high office be required and be seen to exhibit the highest standards of rectitude. It proposes also that “they pursue and be seen to pursue the best interests of the people to the exclusion of any other interest”.
Here we reproduce extracts from it related to the conduct of ministers. It is left to the reader to decide which, if any, of these are followed today. The code is divided into three: standards for ministers of cabinet rank, project ministers and state ministers to follow; standards for MPs of the government group; and standards for public servants.
— –All ministers shall exercise the functions of their office honestly, impartially and in the public interest.
–No minister shall use his official position to support any scheme or further any contract in which he has any private financial interest.
–No minister shall accept any benefit whatsoever from any person who has entered into, or to his knowledge intends to enter into, any contractual, proprietary, financial or such other similar relations with the government.
–No minister shall use his official influence to support the candidature of any person for admission to or promotion with the public service. He shall not (except when required to do so) give orders or directions or otherwise seek to influence any public servant, law enforcement officer, or employees of local governments, government corporations and government-owned businesses or companies in the performance or exercise of their official functions or duties.
–A minister must declare without delay all assets and liabilities owned by him, his spouse and dependent children; declare any other financial interest, direct or indirect, that he may have in any property or any financial or material benefit which may accrue to him, his spouse or his dependent children, under any contract, arrangement or other transaction. He shall do this every year. Such declaration should include particulars of his spouse or his dependent child.
–A minister shall divest himself of such assets including stocks and shares, the holding of which would bring his private interest into conflict with his public duty. He shall not be a director of any public or private company when the holding of such directorship shall create or appear to create a conflict with the performance of his official duties. He shall not actively practice any profession or participate actively in any business.
–The president shall review the interests and official responsibilities of each minister from time to time for the purpose of preventing any conflict of interest.
–A minister shall not take any action or decision whereby his private financial interests might come into conflict with his public duty. If an actual or apparent conflict of interests arises or is likely to arise, the minister shall disclose the nature of the conflict to the president.
–A minister shall maintain the strictest confidentiality in respect of information made available to him through cabinet documents, cabinet discussions, etc., and shall not disclose for any reason whatsoever or use such information to gain any direct or indirect private advantage for himself or for any other person.
–A minister shall avoid speculative investments and dealing in securities which his position and special access to early or confidential information confers or confer an advantage in anticipating market changes.
–A minister shall not use public property, services and facilities (in a manner) which would create the impression that such property, services and facilities are being used for their own or for any other person’s private benefit or gain.
–A minister shall not sub-let his official residence or permit misuse by his immediate subordinates of vehicles or other equipment allotted to him.
–A minister shall not solicit any gift nor accept any benefit that might in any way tend to influence him in his official capacity. He shall also avoid all situations in which the impression may be created that somebody, by providing hospitality or benefits, is attempting to secure his influence or favour. He shall take all reasonable steps to ensure that his spouse, dependent children or members of his stuff do not get such benefits or gifts.
–A minister shall not accept invitations for diplomatic receptions, dinners or other hospitality by foreign missions or personnel of international organizations unless the occasion has an official purpose (such as the visit of his counterpart from the country issuing the invitation, the signing of an agreement related to the functions of the ministry, etc.). However, he shall not accept the invitation unless it has been extended at the level of head of mission or charge d’affaires. “In any event, the strictest discretion should be used in the acceptance of such hospitality extended on the basis of personal contact and the acceptance of such intimated to the Presidential Secretariat,” the code says. “Familiarity with personnel of Diplomatic Missions or those of International Organizations in Sri Lankashould be avoided.”
–No minister shall be seen at a casino, social club or other place where facilities have been provided for promiscuous gambling, betting, etc.
–When travelling into and out of Sri Lanka, a minister should not seek exemption from customs compliance and similar requirements.
–Ministers in receipt of invitations from foreign governments, international organizations or institutions where the expenses are met by the inviting party shall not accept without first having informed the minister of foreign affairs of the details and purpose of visit—and the minister of foreign affairs gets approval from the president.
–The conduct of ministers in foreign countries “should be such that it does not diminish the standing of the minister and the Government, as such action would adversely affect Sri Lanka’s national interest.”
Courtesy Lakbima News