Opinion

OPINION: What Is The Floor Of Parliament?

Welcome back to Parliament 101.   Last week we looked at the significance of the seating arrangements within the chamber of the Parliament. This week we will consider another aspect of
16 Feb 2015 15:21
OPINION: What Is The Floor Of Parliament?

Welcome back to Parliament 101.   Last week we looked at the significance of the seating arrangements within the chamber of the Parliament. This week we will consider another aspect of its architecture – its floor!

The “floor” of the Parliament is a very special place not just the surface on which MPs walk. Indeed, it is so special that in a very real sense the MPs can take it with them when the leave the parliamentary chamber and, occasionally, even when they leave the building.

The floor of Parliament has both an actual or material meaning as well as a symbolic one. Most of the time the two are the same but, as I said, sometimes the actual floor moves and the symbolic meaning takes precedence.

How is this strange rearrangement of the parliamentary architecture possible?

It might help if you think of the floor of the Parliament in terms of a rugby pitch. A rugby field has defined boundaries within which special rules apply and where only certain people are allowed while a game is being played.

You might not have thought of it the rules on the rugby pitch are so special that they can even affect the application of the law. For example, some tackles during a rugby match could be treated as an assault if they were made off the pitch!

The same is true of the special rules that apply on the floor of the Parliament. Parliament 101 discussed some of these special rules two weeks ago when we looked at parliamentary privilege.

The floor of the Fijian Parliament has its touchlines or boundaries that define where these special rules apply. And, just like rugby, only certain people are allowed to be in the field of play, that is, on the floor of Parliament while it is in session.

Generally speaking, the boundaries of the floor encompass the area from the Speaker’ Chair to the railings at the other end of the chamber.

There are some areas of seating outside these boundaries where, like a rugby match, the spectators sit.   These are called galleries where “strangers” sit.

“Strangers” is an old term that you probably will not hear being used in many Westminster-style parliaments today but it refers to spectators or visitors to the parliament who cannot go onto the floor of the parliament.

The general public and reporters are the two most commonly recognised visitors who sit in the galleries off the floor of the parliament. However, there is another important set of reserved areas.

The advisers to the Government and to the Opposition are also strangers and so cannot come onto the floor to give their advice. These public servants and political advisers sit outside the railing of the chamber. And, like team officials at a sports ground, the advisers sit outside the parliamentary “touch line” and the Ministers or Members come over to the rail to speak with them.

The various personnel from the parliamentary secretariat – clerks, attendants, Hansard reporters, the Sergeant at Arms – are not strangers, of course, and so can go onto the floor of the chamber while the Parliament is in session but, with only one exception, cannot speak formally.

The idea that ordinary citizens cannot go onto the parliamentary pitch – the floor of the Parliament – while the Parliament is in session looks pretty much the same as the rugby pitch while a rugby match is in progress.

However, the parliamentary game is much more complex than a rugby match. It can be played in places outside the chamber of the Parliament.

The fact that the floor of Parliament is not fixed to the chamber of Parliament can be very important for ordinary citizens. It means you can play the game of parliamentary politics without being elected to Parliament.

There are two ways that you actually may be able to speak on the floor of the Parliament without becoming a Member of Parliament or even being a voter.

Historically, petitioning the Parliament is the oldest way a citizen could be heard on the floor. When a petition you have drafted or signed is read out in the chamber, you go virtually onto the floor of the chamber. It will not be your voice but it will be your words that are heard by the Members.

The second way you can go on to the floor of the Parliament is when the Members bring the floor to you!

Obviously, this does not mean that the floor of the chamber is lifted up and physically taken somewhere else. Rather, the Members do this symbolically when they invite submissions and oral testimony from citizens before a parliamentary committee.

The venue for a parliamentary committee is protected by the same rules that apply on the floor of the chamber. Thus, in a real way, the committee room becomes a mini-chamber of the Parliament but with one important exception.

An ordinary person can speak on the floor of the committee room.

What you say to a parliamentary committee is the same as speaking to the entire Parliament and it might have the same effect. It could lead to a new law, a change in regulations or the refinement of a Government policy.

Of course, this means that appearing before a parliament committee carries with it serious responsibilities. You may be protected by privilege as if you were on the floor of the Parliament but you are also subject to its rules. Contempt of Parliament could bring serious penalties if you abuse the opportunity to get onto the parliamentary pitch.

Like a rugby pitch, the floor of Parliament is a very special place protected by its own special rules and responsibilities but, unlike a sports field, sometimes ordinary citizens can get access to the parliamentary pitch.   And, now that you know what the floor of parliament is, next week we will begin looking at the teams and players who suit up to use it.

 

Response to Reader’s Question

Vinaka to “anonymous” for her question (which would win this week’s prize if Parliament 101 knew who she was!) The question posed was in reaction to the PM’s complaint last week about insults being used on the floor of Parliament.

“What can be done about bad language in Parliament?”

 Unparliamentary language

All parliaments have rules that govern what can be said in the parliament. Amongst these rules are standards regarding language.   Words, imputations and/or phrases that undermine the dignity of the parliament can be deemed as unacceptable or “unparliamentary”. Normally, it is the Speaker who rules on what should be regarded as unparliamentary language. If Madam Speaker believes certain words and phrases are unacceptable, she can require the Member to withdraw the word or phrase. These rulings help to build up a list of words or phrases that must not be used in debate.

What one person regards as an insult may not be unparliamentary, however. It all depends on the words used and the way the Speaker and the whole chamber see such words.   Claims and counter-claims are normal in robust parliamentary debate. Nevertheless, some words are just unacceptable if Parliament is to retain its dignity and its respect in the community.

Feedback: newsroom@fijisun.com.fj

 




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