16 May, 2022

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The Fall Of The House Of The Speaker: An Essay On A Crumbling House

By Ruwan Laknath Jayakody

Ruwan Jayakody

Far removed from the sturm und drang (German for storm and stress) of the environs outside the immediate vicinity of that unholy sanctum on the Diyawanna, signified by the latest feat of town and country planning and related urban development in the form of the HoruGoGama (Thieves Go Home Village), there is calm in the House of the Speaker, barricaded (and adorned on Friday [6] with garishly vivid garments covering the nether regions in view of the No Pants Day) as it is against the people, whose sovereign legislative power it wields. This calm belies terror. This terror belies a plot against democracy. Leading this plot against democracy is the Matara District Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna Government Parliamentarian and the incumbent Speaker of the Parliament, Mahinda Yapa Abeywardena, who for reasons unbeknownst to the Brit, Thomas Erskine May, that doyen of Parliamentary authority, procedure and convention, looks to be assisting the Government through his proactive efforts that seem to have come right out of the late Chinese Leader Deng Xiaoping’s 24 Character Strategy – “Observe calmly; secure our position; cope with affairs calmly; hide our capacities and bide our time; be good at maintaining a low profile; and never claim leadership”.

Exhibit A: On Thursday (5) of last week, Speaker Abeywardena refused to immediately accept the no confidence motion against President Gotabaya Rajapaksa – submitted by the main Parliamentary Opposition, the Samagi Jana Balawegaya (SJB), who also submitted a no confidence motion against the Government (both motions handed over on 3 May and reflective of the express wishes of the majority of the masses protesting in the streets and in queues) – and enter it into the Order Book of the Parliament. The reason given by him was that he needs to consult the Attorney General (AG) on its legality in prior; the anti-Government no confidence motion was to however be placed in the Order Book the following day.

According to Article 42 of the Constitution, “The President shall be responsible to the Parliament for the due exercise, performance and discharge of his/her powers, duties and functions under the Constitution and any written law”.

The Parliamentary Standing Order 83(1) states: “The personal conduct of the President, or other persons engaged in the administration of justice, shall not be raised, except upon a substantive motion”.

“However, they seem intent on delaying the no confidence motion against the President. The fact that there is another remedy, namely impeachment [per Article 38(2)], does not mean that the Parliament cannot pass a motion expressing its lack of confidence in the President. One does not need legal advice to know this!!,” is what President’s Counsel (PC) and Opposition MP, M.A. Sumanthiran had to say. The value of a no confidence motion against the President is symbolic as opposed to legal in the case of an impeachment resolution against him.

True, it is the Speaker’s job to know this area of law but if he is a layman to the law or is lacking in acumen or (and this the present Speaker most certainly does not) is not possessed of the stuff of “I have neither eyes to see nor tongue to speak in this place but as this House is pleased to direct me” defiance exhibited by the late 16-17th Century Speaker of the House of Commons of the United Kingdom Parliament, William Lenthall in response to King Charles the Ist who barged into the House with 400 armed men and sought to seize five Members whom he accused of treason, and hence has any doubt that requires clearing from a relevant authority with the necessary expertise, he can make haste, as after all, the Parliament complex has a separate office for the AG and AG’s Department representatives, for use per the requirement.

Exhibit B: The Government, with none other than Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa stating so, has informed that a 21st Amendment to the Constitution that purportedly seeks to entrust more powers to the Parliament and strengthen democracy, and is based on the effective particulars and positive features of the 19th and 20th Amendments to the Constitution but does not necessarily seek to repeal the 20th Amendment to the Constitution and restore an enhanced 19th Amendment to the Constitution (instead a 19th Amendment to the Constitution containing necessary and timely amendments, per the Prime Minister’s office), will be introduced. A Cabinet Sub-Committee, we are told, is to guide the Legal Draftsman’s Department to draft a Bill for the purpose. Per a recent Cabinet of Ministers decision, the Premier is to then propose the appointment of a Parliamentary Select Committee to prepare another draft Bill based on the Cabinet’s/Legal Draftsman’s Bill, and the Bills for the same put forward by others (so far one private member Bill from the Government ‘independents’ {Dr. Wijeyadasa Rajapakshe PC} and another from the SJB). As the President of the Bar Association of Sri Lanka, Saliya Pieris PC noted: “This can be done very quickly, even in a month, if there is political will”. Taking note of the urgency of the matter, the Speaker can declare the entire House a Constitutional assembly; yet, he has not. He has instead satisfied himself with, according to him, speeding up the process by stating that such would be sent to the AG by the Cabinet.

Exhibit C: Since the crises unfolded, the Parliament, which is the sole and final arbiter of public finance, has made, not an iota of a contribution towards easing the economic burden on the public despite the never ending prattle and arguments (for the most part, useless and unnecessary) of endless debates and specially convened meetings of Party Leaders, but has succeeded in the farcical reappointment of a Deputy Speaker from the Government camp after the individual in question twice attempted to resign and was only successful upon the second attempt (so much for once bitten, twice shy, and now it is learnt has resigned again!), and has also dealt with home truths thanks to a modicum of integrity left in the ‘fiat justitia’ Finance Minister, M.U.M. Ali Sabry PC. On Friday, the Speaker, in all his wisdom, saw it fit to adjourn the Parliament until 17 May despite opposition. The worst of times, it seems, brings out the best of the stupid. Cometh the hour, leaveth the power wielders.

Delays in acting on resolving the political and economic crises, expedited in part due to the Speaker permitting stalling, time buying and diversionary tactics on the part of the Government, have the effect of political filibustering that is pro-Government and anti-people. The importance of the Speaker understanding that such delays also add up to the further waste of public monies, and therefore, controlling and managing the House accordingly, while being sensitive to the people’s plight, cannot be overstressed.

On the role of the Speaker, Erskine May’s ‘Parliamentary Practice or A Treatise upon the Law, Privileges, Proceedings and Usage of the Parliament’, tells us that “The Speaker is also expected to lay aside any party or group affiliation on appointment and to refrain from political activity”.

The late Indian Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru had a more profoundly expansive and idealistic view of the Speaker’s office: “The Speaker represents the House. He/She represents the dignity and freedom of the House, and because the House represents the nation, in a particular way, the Speaker becomes the symbol of the nation’s freedom and liberty. Therefore, it is right that that should be an honoured position, a free position and should be occupied always by persons of outstanding ability and impartiality”.

This view has been affirmed by the Indian Supreme Court (SC) in the cases of State/Government of the National Capital Territory of Delhi vs. Union of India and Another (which held that the Speaker holds a position of Constitutional trust), Kihoto Hollohan vs. Zachillhu and Others (which held that the Speaker is an embodiment of impartiality and propriety and that the office of the Speaker shall not be met with distrust), and Nabam Rebia and Bamang Felix vs. Deputy Speaker, Arunachal Pradesh Legislative Assembly and Others (which held that the Speaker is expected to have a sense of elevated independence, impeccable objectivity and irreproachable fairness, and above all absolute impartiality). Then Justice and later Chief Justice (CJ) of India, Dipak Misra, in a concurring opinion in the latter case, held that the impartial conduct of the Speaker should also appear to be perceptible and reflect the trust reposed in him under the Constitution.

The Speaker is not and no longer has to be the de facto representative of the Head of the Executive branch of the Government, the President. Neither should the Speaker’s role be hijacked by the President or the Ruling Party to do their bidding or be employed in the cause of hoarding power or satiating their agenda of power lust.

How then can we make the Speaker’s office independent, fair, objective, impartial, neutral, unbiased, non-partisan, apolitical, proprietous, decisive and transparent? What are the checks and balances on the Speaker’s role, powers (including discretionary ones) and duties, and most importantly, conduct?

One suggestion we make, to be given legal effect, is for the MP elected as the Speaker to immediately lose his/her membership and positions within the party from which he/she was elected to Parliament from, for the duration of the Parliamentary term and also from political activity for a period (to be decided accordingly) thereafter, akin also to the manner in which civic disabilities including restrictions against contesting and campaigning are imposed on MPs’ convicted of certain offences.

The sun has long set on our democracy. This, here, is a call for the preservation of its vestiges. In our Constitutional order of hierarchy, the Speaker stands after the President and the Prime Minister including to temporarily hold the office of the President under circumstances that dictate such, even before the CJ. However, the current Speaker’s aptitude and independence is presently in question. This does not augur well for the collective voice of Parliamentary democracy or for the high office of the guardian of Parliamentary democracy.

“There is no point in such a Parliament. The public’s voice is not represented here. Because of what this Parliament is playing at, the public will one day set fire to the Parliament. There are no solutions to the people’s problems from this Parliament,” claimed SJB MP Mujibur Rahuman in Parliament, in the aftermath of the vote on the Deputy Speaker.

At a time when the country’s confidence in the President and the Prime Minister and not to mention the entire Legislative branch of Government has been fundamentally shaken to the core and their conduct thrown into harsh light, and confidence in the Speaker’s demeanour in Parliament (a mixture of being defensive and letting things simply flow) too is rightly coming under fire for falling beyond the pale of being beyond reproach due to the present Speaker’s breach of the façade of impartiality, this political creature (the Speaker) should, until necessary legal reforms or judicial review hamstrung the said office, heed the Indian SC’s advice in the last mentioned case, to keep his eyes and ears shut to political machinations and resist the temptation to jump into the political thicket.

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Latest comments

  • 3
    0

    The only thing that sets apart the Speaker, Mahinda Yapa Abeywardena from all the other ‘Bad Eggs’ in the SLPP is that he is seated in a central location in the house and wears a wig!

  • 3
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    The Speaker is a puppet of Gota and Mahin. He is not a man with his own vision for this country. He is buying time for Gota. Its matter of time that Gota will be forced out. Like the young people say all 225+1 have to go. Hope the country will elect all new facess.

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