My purpose in this short paper is to make a humble contribution to the work of the members of the Standing Orders and Rules Committee of the National Assembly. I spent some 50 months as Clerk of the Rodrigues Regional Assembly and in that capacity I occasionally picked the brains of Mr Dev Ramnah, former Speaker, and Mr Dowlutta, former Clerk of the National Assembly. I did that to be able to better advise the Chairperson of the Regional Assembly. It is my considered view that members could make a more meaningful contribution to the important work of the Assembly than is the case now. At present, one has the clear impression that members have turned the Assembly into a battleground where the counterarguments are driven more against the person (ad hominem) than against the subject matter (ad rem). It is a battle of wit over reason. Examples abound, as we shall see presently.
The business of the House includes important items but I shall concentrate on “Questions” which precedes public business and which absorbs the major part of every sitting except on certain days when questions are not allowed, i.e. when the Budget speech is scheduled or when the Draft Estimates are considered. The purpose of a question is to seek information of a factual nature from a Minister whose portfolio includes the subject matter concerned. No question may be asked of a speculative nature or that asks for an opinion. Members, under the conduct of the Speaker, are well aware of all this but where does the problem arise then, you may ask, which renders the proceedings heavy, uninteresting and ineffective ? Each member, not saddled with executive powers, may ask a maximum of 4 questions. That would be very time-consuming but fortunately some members do not ask questions and others, who do, restrict themselves to one or two questions. When one realizes that the Standing Orders and Rules allocate 30 minutes to the Private Notice Question, another 30 minutes to questions set to the Prime minister, and 120 minutes to other questions to Ministers, one will note that questions absorb a large part of the business of the House.
Oral or written answer
Ministers are not bound to give oral answers. However, the Standing Orders and Rules provide for written answers to be laid on the Table except if, in his notice of question, the member asks for an oral reply. Most members do and that explains why the item Questions seems to be never-ending. But Ministers may give a brief oral answer followed by circulating the technical details or figures. That being so, it is not clear why some Ministers like to take the time of the House with tedious details which lead to some members switching off or yawning. But the Speaker, fortunately, is quick to intervene. If the Minister likes to listen to his own voice, he may labour any point or circumnavigate instead of answering to the precise question. At the sitting of the 4th December, Madam Speaker intervened to stop a minister who was drawing the whole context of the issue instead of answering the precise question. There are many ways to take the maximum time of the Assembly and prevent the opposition and backbenchers from asking supplementary questions. Some senior Ministers, it’s a pity, have become experts at that.
Why not ask fewer questions ?
My humble view is that putting a question in Parliament is an art as well as a science. Questions, I assume, are not asked simply to increase a member’s visibility. This is not to say that the opposition should not ask questions with the sole purpose of embarrassing the government. As the alternative government, with their shadow Cabinet they should by all means put questions whose answers will reveal the weaknesses of a Minister or of the whole government. But, in my humble view, the opposition should look for the gold mine. However, effective and efficient the government, there will always be a serious omission which can be exploited by a competent member with a creative mind and a gift of the gab. One member can start the ball rolling and, when out of breath, allow others to join in, obviously with the Speaker’s fiat. The member who puts the question should have done a thorough research and discussed the matter with some other members. If a few questions are fully explored, both the government and the opposition stand to gain. Such questions can generate more light than fire. However, the Speaker needs to be in the picture. The advantage of this is that it leaves room for other questions which do not insist on an oral answer.
A university for senior students
When I attended the proceedings of the House of Commons, I noticed that many university students attended in the public gallery on a “first come and first served basis”. Those who yawn or sleep are removed by the Sergeantat– Arms to make room for others. But the business of the House such as answers to questions, readings of Bills, adjournment speeches are highly informative. The subject matter covers a wide range of subjects. With regard to their educational value, all the items on the Order Paper have equal weight although the Speech from the President and the Budget Speech have a place of pride. But students who want to learn the skills of repartee, oratory, pronunciation, diction and public speaking can derive immense benefit watching our gladiators in the arena.
It is gratifying to learn that the Speaker and the Leader of the House have expressed the wish to increase the size of the Assembly building. The Public Gallery as well as the visitors’ gallery would benefit from more space. Watching the proceedings on TV is worthwhile but attending the live debate and hearing the remarks from a sitting position is intellectually stimulating.