With last week’s National Assembly seeing Labour MP Shakeel Mohamed being suspended for three sessions and the opposition walking out in protest, Weekly speaks to former Speaker Razack Peeroo for his opinion on the current state of parliament. He clarifies the role of the speaker and talks about the value of impartiality.
As a former speaker, what kind of thoughts go through your mind when you watch the debates in the National Assembly today?
Very sad thoughts! The level of debate is at times shocking. As for the speaker, who conducts debates in the National Assembly, s/he has to show that s/he is impartial. The person in the speakership is someone who really believes that the National Assembly is the seat of democracy. That realisation should make you think a hundred times, if I may put it that way, of the responsibilities that the job carries. You need to preserve and command respect as a symbol of authority and make parliamentarians respect that authority.
How do you go about commanding that respect?
It is a difficult task, but you have to do your best. In my case, for example, I was a minister, MP and a member of the Labour Party. I am still a member of the Labour party. However, sitting in the chair of the speaker, I could not afford to behave as a member of the Labour party but rather as a neutral, objective, independent and impartial individual.
Were you ever accused of being partial?
What do you think of the incident that has just happened with Labour MP Shakeel Mohamed being suspended from the National Assembly for three sessions?
I know some facts but I have not read the Hansard and I don’t have all the details about what happened. So I will speak based on what I know. When a member speaks in the National Assembly, he speaks on behalf of the people he is representing. He is not just an individual; he is a person who has been elected to speak on behalf of the people who elected him. So he should be given all the freedom and liberty to speak on behalf of those people. For no reason at all should he be impeded or restricted from speaking. Now coming to the suspension of Hon. Mohamed, there is the fact that it was during his speech and I understand a minister stood up on a point of personal explanation…
It was on a point of order.
So if it is on a point on order, the minister has to make his point and the speaker decides whether the point is really a point of order. I know there is a strategy of some MPs to just interrupt a speaker to create confusion. This also used to happen in the days of Sir Seewoosagur Ramgoolam and Jules Koenig.
In this case, Mohamed said it was not a point of order, then the speaker said that it was a point of clarification and Mohamed said that the minister had not said a point of clarification and that the speaker had come up with the point of clarification to defend Anil Gayan [minister of tourism – ed). This is what it was all about.
If it is a matter about a point of order, it is under the standing orders in section 41. If, on the other hand, it is about personal clarification, it is under standing order 28. Not everything can be a point of order. So when an MP goes outside or against the standing orders of the National Assembly, it is the duty of the speaker to stop him and if the speaker does not, then any member of the assembly may stand up and point that out. And then the speaker decides whether it is a point of order or not. But if it is a point of explanation, then it is governed by standing order 28.
For the layman, was Gayan allowed to interrupt or not?
If it was a point of order then yes. If it was a point of personal explanation, then no. Then the member speaking might give way or might not give way. The speaker has to guide that this is not a point of order, and carry on. The MP might come up with a point of personal clarification later, orally or in writing. But there is a difference between a point of order and point of personal explanation. With a point of order, the MP is bound to sit down and give way until the speaker decides on the issue. In the case of a point of personal explanation, he is not.
This resulted in Mohamed being expelled for three sessions. Was that justified?
What was the reason behind that?
The speaker said that Mohamed could not accuse her of being partial and that he could not insult her. This is the reason she gave.
We have to be very careful when we address the chair. If we disagree with the speaker, the best course would be to call for a motion of no confidence. But it is not fair for the public to see that there is some sort of clash between the speaker and the MPs. Normally, you present a motion of no confidence and you explain the point.
The standing orders seem to be so archaic. The speaker is like a demigod that nobody is allowed to argue with or challenge. How can we have archaic standing orders like these that make the speaker somebody who nobody can touch or criticise?
My answer is that the speaker is the one who is supposed to implement the rules and principles. S/he has to know the limits of his or her discretion. The speaker has to be very careful not to show partiality at all. If you show partiality, you are finished as a speaker. You will not command the respect of anybody. This is very important. If the speaker shows a tendency towards government, for five years he or she will not command the respect of anybody. Now, I am not going to say that the standing orders are perfect; they contain good things but also things that need to be amended and improved to follow the trend of parliamentary democracy in the world.
In this case, a couple more MPs were ejected and the whole opposition walked out. Is this good for democracy?
This is not good at all. I personally have never asked anybody to leave the National Assembly for whatever reason. I tried to start from the principle that everybody has to respect the speaker, but the speaker first has to show respect for parliament and MPs. When s/he looks at them, it is not as individuals but as representatives of the population. This is a very serious responsibility. So, it is anti-democratic for the speaker to shut any member up for any lame excuse. If the speaker does not understand this, then s/he is not fit to be a speaker.
You must have also noticed that many questions are either sidetracked, answered frivolously or we are told that the answers will be tabled. Is that normal?
No, not at all. I don’t agree if things of that nature are happening. Those ministers who are not answering questions are doing a disservice to parliament. In fact, what they are doing is not concealing information from MPs but concealing information from the population. It is a fundamental right of people to know. Only a state secret is an exception. The general rule is that people are entitled to know and that means that questions should be answered properly.
Were all questions answered in your days?
Yes, absolutely. On the occasions that some questions were not answered properly, I contacted then Prime Minister Navin Ramgoolam and advised him of the questions that needed to be answered and I followed up. I also invited members to tell me whether there were questions that had not been answered and I ensured that they were answered. A mechanism must be put in place to make sure that MPs and the public are not deprived of information.
Now what about the way in which some laws like the amendments to the Immigration Act have been enacted? Is that a normal procedure?
The principle of a bill is to meet the demand of new circumstances that arise in society, to serve the interests of the country. I am surprised to learn that a bill was introduced just to target a single individual. It should not be.
Do you agree that it was introduced to serve that purpose?
I don’t know, I would have to go through the Hansard where the minister explains the purpose of the bill. A bill should be introduced for the good of the country. If a bill is introduced for one individual, it cannot serve the country. He may be the prime minister, the foreign minister, or any other minister in this country. An individual is still an individual.
It was made worse when Adrien Duval’s motion of disallowance was dismissed in the circumstances that it was.
I will tell you one thing, I am not happy with the way things are being done in the National Assembly. I am not at all happy.
Do you think the way that Duval’s motion was dismissed was unfair?
If a motion is dismissed out of principle, it’s OK. However, if is for politics then the move has to be condemned. A speaker is never supposed to act partially towards any party. A speaker is supposed to be above party politics. If the speaker is not above party politics, then that person does not deserve to be a speaker.
Is that one of the reasons we have such problems in the National Assembly?
What I can tell you is that I am quite surprised at the way things are being done.
I am surprised and feel that the institution in the present circumstances doesn’t carry the respect and the attention that it deserves.
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