What Does The Secretary-General Do?

Welcome back to Parliament 101.  We began Parliament 101 last month with a definition of what the parliament is.  We saw that the Constitution’s legal definition was not quite the
02 Nov 2014 11:28
What Does The Secretary-General Do?

Welcome back to Parliament 101.  We began Parliament 101 last month with a definition of what the parliament is.  We saw that the Constitution’s legal definition was not quite the same as the political definition we use in everyday language.  This week we will look at another important definition regarding parliament.   This is the “institution of parliament”.

The idea of the institution of parliament includes the Constitution’s definition of the President and the 50 elected Members, of course.  But it includes much more besides.  There are many people who work in the parliament that are not part of the legal definition and yet are essential to its effective operation.

The office of the Secretary-General is easily the most significant of the elements that go into to making up the institution of parliament.  It is also the most ancient in historical terms having been established even before the position of the Speaker.

Section 79 of the Constitution establishes the office of the Secretary-General as a constitutional office.   In most of our neighbours, this position is called the Clerk and is a statutory office, that is, it is created by law rather than by a provision of the constitution.

The use of “Clerk” as the original title for this office came from the days when very few people could read or write.  The rich and powerful hired clerks to do this work for them.  The same was true for the Members of Parliament in England hundreds of years ago.

This made the Clerk of the Parliament very important for keeping the records and proceedings, which would lead to the decisions that then became the laws of the nation.  They were the living Wikipedia of their time for the Parliament.

But, what makes the office of the Secretary-General so important today for the effective running of the Parliament?  After all, every Member can read and write for themselves.

The modern Secretary-General serves many important functions besides record-keeping and so remains a very special officer in the institution of Parliament.

Most people will be unaware that, beside the Speaker, Secretary-General Viniana Namosimalua is the only other non-Member of the Parliament of Fiji who is entitled to speak on the floor of chamber.

When the Secretary-General speaks, however, it is not to influence the course of a debate.  It is to help the parliamentary process flow smoothly by announcing the items of business before the Parliament and reading the titles and stages of the bills that the Members are debating.

Her right to speak on the floor of the chamber is scarcely her most important function.  Indeed, it is not so much that she speaks that counts but that she can whisper that defines the Secretary-General’s key function.

The Secretary-General has the ear of the Speaker.  It is her job to advise the Speaker if there are any significant procedural issues that arise in debate or in the order of business.

This a far more demanding and responsible job than you might image.  It starts every day even before the Parliament sits and goes right through to the end every day’s sitting.

The Secretary-General has to look thorough the order of business planned for that day’s sitting to identify any procedural issues likely to arise and brief the Speaker on these.

Then, while the Parliament is in session, she has to pay close attention to the proceedings in case the Speaker asks her for advice on a procedural matter or some issue of precedent or practice that may require the Speaker to make a ruling.  These requests can arise suddenly and be very urgent to maintain order in the chamber.

To perform this vital function, the Secretary-General must be well versed in the Standing Orders that set out the rules for conducting the business of the Parliament.  She also has to know the lore of parliamentary practice and procedure to know what the precedents are that might affect a Speaker’s ruling on any disputed point of order or procedure.

And, it is not just to the Speaker that the Secretary-General gives procedural advice.  Any Member might ask for such help, usually outside the chamber but sometimes even in the course of a debate if they need advice on a point of order.

You can see that to do this well, the Secretary-General has to have deep understanding and knowledge of the parliamentary process across the board.  She needs to have a command of the formal sources of legislative authority such as the Constitution and the law as well as the procedures, practices and precedents of the Parliament.

Moreover, since she has to be available to give access to her knowledge to every Member of Parliament, the Secretary-General must be neutral (non-partisan), discreet and able to keep confidences.

Sometimes she will have to give advice to the Government on the procedures to pass a bill quickly and then, maybe minutes later, give advice to the Opposition on the procedures to frustrate the quick passage of a bill!

Therefore, the Members must respect and trust both the independence and the neutrality of the Secretary-General and those who assist her in her office.

While her procedural knowledge is vital to the smooth running of the Parliament, it is not the end of her duties.  Like the Speaker, the Secretary-General also has significant administrative duties for the services that maintain the institution of Parliament.

The relationship between the Speaker and the Secretary-General in the administration of Parliament is sometimes described in public service terms as being that of a Minister and head of Department.  This is not strictly accurate.  The staff in the office of the Secretary-General are not public servants.

But is another story.  Parliament 101 will return to this important relationship in a later column.

Response to Reader’s Question.

Vinaka to David at Marist Brothers High School for his question, which wins this week’s prize.  He asked, “What is the role of the Opposition?”

This question has so many elements that it will take several columns for a complete answer.   More than a hundred years ago, Lord Randolph Churchill, the father of Winston Churchill, famously declared the answer is simple.  “The duty of an Opposition is to oppose.”  Few scholars of parliament would agree today even if most Governments believe that is all Oppositions do.

One way to look at this question would be to compare it to the court system.  Both sides in court need an advocate.  The Opposition is the advocate in the Parliament for those who lost the election but still need to have their views represented democratically.  Parliament 101 will come back to this issue next year to add more perspective to your question, David.

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 reward for a good question.

Music Hosting – Audio Hosting – Parliament 101 with Professo…“>

Professor Richard Herr is Adjunct Professor of Governance and Ethics at the Fiji National University.  The FNU acknowledges the support of the Fiji Sun and that of the Embassy of Japan through the Candidates’ Manual School’s programme. 




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