Opinion

Why Is The Speaker Dragged To The Chair?

Welcome back to Parliament 101. During the opening of the Parliament two weeks ago, one observer asked Parliament 101 why the newly elected Speaker had to be dragged to the
20 Oct 2014 10:41
Why Is The Speaker  Dragged To The Chair?

Welcome back to Parliament 101. During the opening of the Parliament two weeks ago, one observer asked Parliament 101 why the newly elected Speaker had to be dragged to the Chair. Was Dr Jiko Luveni unwilling to be elected the first female Speaker in Fiji’s history?

The simple answer is “no”. Dr Luveni was not reluctant to be elected Speaker. Indeed, she resigned her seat in the Parliament after the September election in order to become eligible for her election as Speaker.

So, why did she show the apparent unwillingness to take on her job?

Like so much of the pageantry of modern Westminster parliaments, this display goes a long way back in history.

Dragging the Speaker to the Chair originated at a time when it was dangerous to disagree with a king. Indeed, some Speakers in the Westminster Parliament suffer torture and even lost their life for appearing to challenge the monarch.

To explain how the Speaker came to be put in such a position, it is necessary to go back to the origins of the office of Speaker and to discover what the job of the Speaker was.

You might be surprised by the role the Speaker plays if you go into the Parliament of Fiji to watch it in action, as Parliament 101 hopes you will sometime.

The Speaker is not called the Speaker because she does all the talking. Indeed, except for unusual circumstances, she only says a few words over the course of a debate. The Members will do all the speaking.

Originally the Speaker had a very limited role in the Parliament and that was to speak to the monarch on behalf of the Members.

And, in return the Speaker took the views of the king back to the parliament.

Anyone who was nominated to take on this job could not be unaware of the possible consequences of being so close to the king.

Thus, they would have to be persuaded to accept the job against their better judgment.

This reluctance was formalised, over time, into the custom of dragging a new Speaker to their chair.

Because Speakers served as a two-way communication between the parliament and the king, it was not always clear whether the Speaker could serve both the king and the parliament equally. This was finally answered in 1642.

King Charles I went into the House of Commons and demanded that the Speaker tell him where to find the MPs who had opposed him. The Speaker, William Lenthall, replied, “ I have neither eyes to see, nor tongue to speak in this place, but as the House is pleased to direct me.”

The Speaker is also referred to as the “presiding officer” because she presides over the meetings of the Parliament.

The Speaker did not start off as the chairman who presided over the meetings of the Parliament. However, it was natural to look to the Member who spoke with the king to ensure the meetings of the parliament were orderly.

Once the Speaker took on the responsibility for chairing the sessions of the parliament, other activities followed so that the Speaker became responsible for the administration of the parliament as well.

Today this is a very large responsibility that involves everything from the appointment of staff; salaries and work conditions; catering, supplies and office space to relations with civil authorities and security.   Parliament 101 will address the Speaker’s role as the chief administrator in a later column.

Finally, you might have noticed that Speaker Luveni had to resign her seat in the Parliament in order to be eligible to be elected as Speaker for the Parliament of Fiji.

The Constitution of Fiji requires that the Speaker be elected from outside the membership of the Parliament.

This requirement is unusual since most Westminster parliaments only elect one of their own for the historical reasons already discussed.

However, there is a reason for this. Since the advent of party politics in parliament, all parliaments have struggled with ways to prevent the Speaker from being politically biased in the Chair.

The Parliament in Westminster does this by almost making the Speaker an independent Member outside party politics.

In other parliaments, the Speaker does not attend or vote in party meetings.

In Fiji’s case, it has been to elect someone from outside the membership of the Parliament.

Response to Readers Question:

Vinaka to Maria-Rose Chandra of Form Six of St Joseph’s, for her question, which wins this week’s prize.  She asked, “What legal powers does the President have?”
This is an interesting but rather complex question.  Sec 81(2) of the Constitution tells us that, “the executive authority of the State is vested in the President.”  However, sec 82 says that “the President acts only on the advice of Cabinet or a Minister . . .”.  So while it might seem the President has great legal powers, he can only really exercise them ceremonially on advice from the Government.
Parliament 101 will give you a fuller answer in a later column when we address Fiji’s dual Executive and the separation between the roles and powers of the Head of State and Head of Government.
If you have a question on the Parliament please write to the address below.  Parliament 101 cannot answer every question but the question deemed best each week will get an answer and a small prize.

Feedback: sokov@fijisun.com.fj

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