The war in Parliament

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The clash between Leader of the Opposition Arvin Boolell and Speaker Sooroojdev Phokeer in the National Assembly is only getting worse. This time over the Angus Road scandal, which was supposed to be the private notice question (PNQ) for a second consecutive week. Or at least, it was supposed to be. Except that the Speaker changed the PNQ to chuck out any question on cash payments concerning any breach of the limitation on cash transactions under the Financial Intelligence and Anti-Money Laundering Act (FIAMLA). Phokeer explained that the clerk of the house had the right to sub-edit the question and him to finalize it.

It is easy to see why the question would have made the government uncomfortable. Breaching the limits on cash payments under the FIAMLA is precisely the offense for which Labour Party leader Navin Ramgoolam stood trial for, and was acquitted by the intermediate court in November 2019, a decision that the director of public prosecutions is appealing against. Now having Prime Minister Pravind Jugnauth being accused of breaching the exact same law live on national television would have been too politically embarrassing. Add to that growing questions about what the Independent Commission against Corruption (ICAC) has been doing all this time. Hence Phokeer’s “editing”.

This is just the latest escalation between Boolell and Phokeer. Back on June 9, Boolell was not allowed to ask a PNQ on the proposed reform of the pension system in the last budget. Phokeer said it was “non-receivable” and anticipated the budget debate. The following week, it was allowed while the Budget debate were still going on. Phokeer also set the precedent of suspending the entirety of the opposition after they walked out on a speech by ex-deputy Prime minister Ivan Collendavelloo and, in July, Boolell filed a motion of no confidence against Phokeer, which failed. Since then, Phokeer has barred Boolell from hosting press conferences from his official office in parliament, even though others have done so before him.

For many, this escalating battle has a familiar ring to it. In 1994, it was MMM leader Paul Bérenger who was on the receiving end. Coming closer to the Labour Party, although not fully endorsing Navin Ramgoolam’s statements that the 1991 elections were rigged, Bérenger was boycotted by the ruling MSM bench at the time with ministers simply refusing to answer his questions. The then speaker, Iswardeo Seetaram, simply shrugged and said there was nothing he could do. The MMM called it a “mockery of parliamentary democracy”. Boolell is using the same language today. Doubtless, he could probably get advice from Bérenger on how to deal with such parliamentary pettiness.

Bérenger’s problem got resolved when he resigned, won the by-election in No.19 in January 1995 and re-took his seat. Today, the solution is not as simple. Phokeer cannot throw Boolell out of parliament and, without the government itself turning on him, there is no way to get rid of Phokeer either. The only time a speaker has been gotten rid of was Ajay Daby in 1990 after the government thought he did not back its republic bill. All signs point to this open war within the house just getting worse, with Phokeer’s over-zealousness to protect the person, who appointed him, and continuing to set new and dangerous precedents for our parliamentary democracy.

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