Opinion

Parliament 101

Welcome to Parliament 101.  This is the first of a series of related columns to explore the nature and purpose of the Parliament of Fiji. Today, we will start with
06 Oct 2014 08:56
Parliament 101
Ranjita Kumar during the youth training course at Fiji FA Academy in Vatuwaqa, Suva. Photo: Fiji FA Media

Welcome to Parliament 101.  This is the first of a series of related columns to explore the nature and purpose of the Parliament of Fiji.

Today, we will start with the most basic of questions for this column “What is a Parliament?”

This may seem a silly question but unless you have read the Constitution carefully, you, like most Fijians, will be mistaken in what you think the Parliament is.

It is not just the 50 elected Members of Parliament (MPs) who will take up their seats in the renovated chamber in the Government Buildings today.

The definition in the Constitution is broader than this commonly held idea. The Constitution defines the Parliament as “consisting of the members of Parliament and the President”.

There are genuine legal reasons why the President of Fiji should be included as the part of the Parliament.  Indeed, this definition is used by all our neighbours to describe their parliaments for pretty much the same reason.

We can find out why if we look carefully into Chapter 3 of the Constitution.

Chapter 3 sets out the authority, composition and offices related to the Parliament. It is important to note that is the first chapter to set out the institutions of governance.  (Chapter 1 defines the state and Chapter 2 sets out the Bill of Rights).

By coming as the first organ of governance, the Constitution makes the point that the Parliament is meant to be the first and most important institution of the Government for Fiji.  What makes it so important?

The key to its importance is the authority it has to make laws.  Section 46 of the Constitution says, “The authority and power to make laws for the State is vested in Parliament . . .”and that “no person or body other than Parliament has authority to make any law in Fiji” unless authorised by the Parliament. So, every aspect of Government that needs a law to give it effect has to go through a Parliament that has been elected by, and is responsible to, the people of Fiji. However, if we only use the Constitution’s official definition of the Parliament we will miss the reality of what the Parliament does and this reality is much closer to what the public thinks the Parliament is.

The idea of a Parliament only being composed of the elected politicians, that is the members without the President, is more than just the way we usually think of a parliament.  This “political parliament” actually has much wider responsibilities than just passing laws.

We call the British style of parliament the “Westminster model” because this Parliament meets in the palace of Westminster in London.   The way the British Parliament works has become a model for parliaments around the world and it is the basis for the Parliament of Fiji.

Walter Bagehot, an English journalist of the 19th Century, gave us one of the classic statements of the Westminster model of parliament in his 1867 book the English Constitution.

In addition to the critical law-making activity, Bagehot said there were four very important “non-legislative” activities for which the political parliament is responsible (that is, the Parliament of MPs without the President).  These are the following roles.

The first role is that Parliament serves as an electoral chamber to elect the ministers who will govern as the executive arm of government.

Bagehot thought this responsibility was the most important one for Parliament after making the laws.

Secondly, the Parliament should represent the views of the public to the Government.

By this he meant it should express what the people think is for the good of the whole nation.

A third non-law-making function the Parliament performs is to inform the people about the affairs of state including the activities of the Government.

It is the duty of the Parliament to provide information so that the people know what their Government is doing.

Finally, Bagehot thought the Parliament should educate the public on how government works so that the citizens can make understand the information it provides.

Some people believe this was more important 150 years ago than it is today but many parliaments still see this as an important function.  Hopefully, you can now see that we have two definitions for the question “What is a Parliament?”

The legal definition of the Constitution is not the one we use in everyday language although it serves a very important purpose.

The everyday or political definition of a parliament, however, is also very important since it tells us what to expect of the parliament as it goes about making our democracy work.

We will discuss these issues in more detail in later Parliament 101 columns.

Feedback:  newsroom@fijisun.com.fj

 

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