By Njundu Drammeh
Once upon a time, the Speaker “speaks for” and not “speak to” the Parliament. This is illustrated in a story that is told about Charles I, who, accompanied by a troop of soldiers, barged into the House of Common to arrest five of its members. But the five wanted members learned of their impending arrest and left the House. The King went towards the chair and wanted to know if any one of the wanted men was present in the House. Speaker Lenthal fell on his knees and replied “May it pleases Your Majesty, I have neither eyes to see nor tongue to speak in this place save as this House is pleased to direct me”. “I see”, said Charles I, “that my birds are flown”, and he went away. Members shouted “Privilege”, “Privilege”.
From this encounter, it could be seen that the Speaker is the chief protector of the Parliament and its members. He or she is also its main spokesperson.
In The Gambia, the Speaker of our National Assembly is its most conspicuous figure, the office that of “much dignity, honour and power”. The honour of the Speaker lies in the grandeur in which he or she carries the office and the “neutrality” in which he or she presides over or conducts the business of the Parliament.
In that capacity, he or she controls the debate and allows members to speak. He or she has the power to decide who has floor if more than one member gets up simultaneously. All speeches and remarks are addressed to him or her. He or she rules on points of order and the rulings are final and unquestionable. He may remember the old precedents or consult the Clerk on a ticklish problem and gives his ruling in the light thereof. Sometimes he may invite the attention of the House to the motions which are out of order and obtain voluntary withdrawal of such measures.
The powers and role of our Speaker are writ large in the “Standing Orders of the National Assembly”‘- he or she has vast disciplinary powers to prevent disorder. He or she is not supposed to be disobeyed by any member- should secure the reverence of all the members. They must sit down when he or she asks them to do so and if some member dares to disregard his or her will that Member should be prepared to be “named” and suspended.
The Standing Orders of the National Assembly do not only give the Speaker immense powers and the office great dignity, ceremonial and real, but also makes the holder a neutral, dispassionate referee, the “objective embodiment of the rules and law” of the National Assembly, purging from him or her the “last miligram of partisanship”. Because the Speaker is elected from amongst the nominated members, it is expected he or she serves the whole Assembly, not the party of the President who nominated him or her. He or she is supposed to avoid any display of personal sympathies or partisan leanings, remaining neutral in the politics of the members. The Speaker is not expected to attend any party meetings or gatherings where partisan politics is likely to be discussed.
Sec. 45 of the Standing Orders of the National Assembly deals with “Discipline and Suspension of Member”. It stipulates some of the powers of the Speaker thus:
(1)The Speaker or the Chairperson, after having called the attention of the Assembly or Committee to the conduct of a Member who persists in irrelevance or tedious repetition either of his or her arguments or of the arguments used by other members in debate, may direct the Member to discontinue his or her speech.
2) The Speaker or Chairperson shall order any Member whose conduct is grossly disorderly to withdraw immediately from the Chamber during the remainder of the day’s sitting.
(3) if the direction to withdraw under paragraph (2) of this Standing Order be not complied with at once or if on any occasion the Speaker or Chairperson deems that his or her powers under the paragraph are inadequate, he or she may name such Member or Members in pursuance of paragraph (4) of the Standing Order.
(4) If a Member shows disrespect to the authority of the Chair, or abuses the rules of the Assembly by persistently and willfully obstructing the business of the Assembly, or otherwise, the Speaker shall direct the attention of the Assembly to the incident, mentioning by name the Member concerned. A motion may then be moved upon which the Speaker shall forthwith put the question, no amendment, adjournment or debate being allowed, “That such Member be suspended from the service of the Assembly”…….
(8) Members who are suspended under paragraph (4) of this Standing Order, or who are directed to withdraw under paragraph (2) of this Standing Order, shall forthwith withdraw from the precincts of the Chamber.
If a standoff between the Speaker and a Member becomes serious, the Speaker may take the help of Sergeant at arms or if necessary adjourn the House. Section 89 deals with the “Duties of Sergeant-at -arms.
1) The Speaker shall appoint the Sergeant-at-arms
2) It shall be the duty of the Sergeant-at-arms
a) to attend upon the Speaker with the Mace: and
b) to obey all orders and directions for the preservation of order and proper conduct in the Assembly which the Speaker may give him or her.
Thus the Sergeant-at-arms is not expected to disobey an order or directive from the Speaker. He or she is expected to carry it out.
The Speaker of our National Assembly does not have any voting right when a motion is up for voting. He or she does not also have even a casting vote when there is a tie. Section 46 (3) of the Standing Orders: “If upon any division the votes of the Members are equally divided, the motion shall be lost”. The absence of a casting vote for the Speaker, I supposed, is to further strengthen the non-partisanship of the Speaker, one is not supposed to speak in a debate or participate in voting.
I agree that the Speaker is a nominated member in a mainly elected Assembly. I think that this practice is a serious aberration in a representative democracy and it surely is. But that is the law until it is changed. The powers of the Speaker are not matched by that of any other in the Assembly. Can these powers be abused or misused in a partisan way? Likely. Can this be extensively reduced? Yes, if the Speaker appreciates the enormity of the role, the majesty and the non-partisanship of the office and if he or she gets the respect, honour and cooperation of the Members of the Assembly. The respect and honour to the office of the Speaker should be given, not just earned. Such a respect is to the office, even if one doesn’t like the holder of the Office. The Speaker is expected to treat every member of the Assembly fairly and equally. He or she is an embodiment of the House, not just a part. The Standing Orders of the National Assembly expects the Speaker to be an unbiased, non-partisan “presiding officer”.
The Assembly will be ungovernable without a non-partisan “presiding officer”, the Members of the ruling party and opposition both having the power to obstruct the other. Thus, the efficacy of our Assembly depends on the ability of the Speaker, one who can subdue the virulence of his or her party politics. The Assembly cannot but exalt such a position.
When all is said, debates on subjects on which political passion runs high is possible only if it is conducted with dignity and decorum. “Order is the primary requisite of freedom” Sir W. Ivor Jennings. And in the Assembly maintaining that order falls to the Speaker