What Is The View From The Speaker’s Chair?

Welcome back to Parliament 101.  We began Parliament 101 last week with a rather narrow but complex issue – parliamentary privilege. This week we will take a much broader view
09 Feb 2015 07:18
What Is The View From The Speaker’s Chair?
Students of Suva Adventist College during their visit to Parliament last week. Photo: Parliament Media Unit

Welcome back to Parliament 101.  We began Parliament 101 last week with a rather narrow but complex issue – parliamentary privilege.

This week we will take a much broader view of the Parliament – quite literally.   Parliament 101 sits you in the Speaker’s chair to look at the legislative chamber.

You can get some help imaging this scene yourself if you go to the Parliament’s website http://www.parliament.gov.fj/Home.aspx.  Some of pictures on this website will give you a feel for the look of the chamber.

So sit yourself down in the Speakers Chair and look down the chamber towards Albert Park.  You will see two tables in front of you.

The Secretary-General and her Deputy sit at the nearer table.  The Secretary-General needs to be near the Speaker as her job is to advise the Speaker on procedure when needed.

The second table contains two items.  The small ornate chest in the middle of the table is called the despatch box.  The mace, the symbol of the Speaker’s authority rests at the farther end of this table. When on the table it indicates that the Parliament is in session.

Parliament 101 will consider the importance of both the despatch box and the mace in later columns.

On either side of these tables are rows of chairs.  These are sometimes referred to collectively as “benches”, a term which goes back to the seating plan of the original Westminster in London which has rows of long benches instead of individual chairs.

While you are still in the website, click on the House Seating Plan which you will find under the “Members” heading.

This will show how the 50 elected Members are placed around the chamber with photos and the names of each MP.

As you look out from the Speaker’s chair, you will notice the seating is arranged in rows in a U-shape, or a horseshoe, with the Speaker sitting at the open end of the U-shape.

The U is divided in half by an aisle the bottom end of the U.

Can you see the pattern in the way the Members have been allocated their places in the chamber?   You might need to refer to another part of the Parliament’s website that identifies the party to which each Member belongs in order to see the pattern.

You will notice that most of the Fiji First party members sit in the chairs on the Speaker’s right hand side of the chamber.

SODELPA and the NFP Members all sit on the left side from the Speaker’s view.

A few Fiji First Members do sit on the left side of the chamber but this is only because there are too few seats on the right hand side of the aisle for all the Fiji First party Members.

You might think that this just means the MPs are grouped together on the basis of their party allegiance.  In one sense, this is true but it is not the full story.

There are other ways to sit Members in a legislature.   Some legislatures seat their Members by constituency rather than by party.  We could not do this in Fiji, of course, since there is only one nation-wide constituency.

Iceland’s parliament, the Althing, has the most unusual way of arranging the seating.  It seats Members by lottery rather than by party or constituency.  Icelanders believe this makes the Members behave more respectfully to each other since MPs are not sitting beside their political allies.  Do you think this idea would work here?

In the Fijian Parliament, not only do MPs sit together by party, the party seats are arranged in a special pattern.  The parties sit on the right or left hand of the Speaker depending on whether they support the Government or the Opposition.  Those supporting the Government sit on the right and those opposed on the left.

This same pattern of governing Members on the Speaker’s right and the oppositional Members on the Speaker’s left is a fairly standard pattern for Westminster parliaments.   But, it is not the end of the significance we can find in the seating arrangements.

There is a second pattern embedded in the party seating plan.   You will notice that Ministers occupy the front rows of seats on the Government side of the chamber.

Historically, the Ministers in the Westminster Parliament sat on the front benches on the Speaker’s right hand.   And, this is why, even though the Fijian Ministers  sit in chairs, they sit in the front rows and why we call them collectively “the front bench”.

Those Fiji First party members who are not Ministers sit in chairs in the back rows.  They are known collectively as “the back bench” and individually as “backbenchers”.

The same pattern is repeated on the opposite side of the chamber.  The Opposition ‘s leadership known as “shadow ministers” sit in the front row and those without leadership responsibilities sit in the back rows.

The rules on where the leadership sit on the front bench can be flexible. In some parliaments, the pride of place is given to being closest to the Speaker and in others to the despatch box.

In Fiji’s case, the Prime Minister sits the closest to the Speaker on her right and the Leader of the Opposition the closest on her left.

There is more that we will need to say about the architecture of the chamber including the importance of the “floor” of the Parliament, the strangers’ gallery and the advisers boxes but this will have to wait for now.

We will finish this week by reflecting on the significance of the aisle that divides the two sides the chamber.  In some parliaments, the aisle is not an absolute dividing line between the Government and Opposition.  In these legislatures, it is possible to talk about ”cross aisle” compromises and concessions.

When Parliament 101 turns its focus on the Opposition we will see that Fiji’s Constitution makes the aisle a much more significant impediment to cross aisle negotiation than has been the case in other similar parliaments.  Indeed, crossing from one side of the chamber to the other may be a career changing decision, as we will see in another column.

Feedback:  newsroom@fijisun.com.fj


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