The 20th Conference of Commonwealth Speakers and Presiding Officers (CSPOC), of which Guyana was, until this conference, a member of the Standing Committee, was held appropriately in Delhi, India, the largest and one of the most enduring democracies in the world, between the 4th and 8th January, 2010.
The Conference brought together 50 Speakers and Presiding Officers from 42 Commonwealth Parliaments as well as 34 Speakers and presiding Officers of 34 State Legislatures in India. Also, 34 Clerks and Secretaries General attended and participated in the deliberations.
There is no training institute or organized training mechanism for Speakers and Presiding Officers. Even though most Speakers and presiding officers are experienced parliamentarians, presiding over parliament, one of the three independent branches of government in the Westminster system, can be a challenging task especially since the Standing Orders, key previous rulings and parliamentary practices have to be mastered from the first day. Most MPs, even those with great experience, traditionally pay little attention to the niceties of parliamentary procedure and so are thoroughly unprepared if elected Speaker. For the larger parliaments in developed countries with experienced clerks and huge, trained staff the burden may be lighter. But the challenges are enormous for smaller, less resourced parliaments like our own.
The CSPOC was established in 1969 by the then Speaker of the House of Commons of Canada, Lucien Lamoureux, partially to address the absence of a forum for Speakers and Presiding Officers to discuss common problems especially since the Westminster system in its various manifestations which predominate in the Commonwealth have similar rules and common traditions.
The stated aim of this 20th Conference was to ‘maintain, foster, and encourage impartiality and fairness on the part of speakers and presiding officers of parliaments; promote knowledge and understanding of parliamentary democracy in its various forms and the development of parliamentary institutions.’ These objectives were particularly important. Several Speakers complained that soon after they are elected, and try to fairly apply the Standing Orders, their own parties accuse them of being favourable to the opposition and hostile to the government. These negative tendencies can only be overcome by expanding the knowledge and understanding of parliamentary democracy and strengthening parliamentary institutions, a task which the Guyana Parliament set itself and has been working assiduously to achieve.
The Inaugural Address was given by Prime Minister Dr. Manmohan Singh who pointed out that the role of speakers and presiding officers has come into sharp focus as the task of running parliament smoothly, giving due representation and to all sides has become complex and challenging. He said that democracy must respond to the everyday concerns of the ‘common man’ and Parliament should be the forum to address them.
The Speaker of the Indian Parliament, the Hon. Smt. Meira Kumar, who delivered the Welcome Address, said that ‘in a parliamentary democracy the Office of the Speaker occupies a pivotal place’ and represents the full authority of the House.’ The Hon. Speaker continued: ‘It is indeed notable that the CSPOC has emerged as an effective forum for understanding parliamentary democracy, for deliberating on the multidimensional role of the Speakers and Presiding Officers and also for instilling people’s faith in the parliamentary institutions.’
There were three workshops: The Speaker’s Role as a Mediator, The Role of Speaker in the administration of Parliament and The Use of Technology in the Parliamentary Context. I chaired the first workshop, the Hon. Falemoe Leiatana Tolofuaiyalelei, the Speaker of the Legislative Assembly of Samoa chaired the second and the Hon. Abdullah Tarmugi, Speaker of the Parliament of Singapore chaired the third.
In relation to the Speaker’s role as mediator, the discussion was led by Dr. Lockwood Smith, the Speaker of the House of Representatives of New Zealand. He emphasized two aspects of the Speaker’s role, namely, as Chair of the Business Committee, which meets weekly to resolve differences over procedural matters which would otherwise take up much parliamentary time. The second aspect is his re-interpretation of previous rulings relating to question time which has resulted in Government ministers being forced to directly answer questions and the opposition being forced to dispense with numerous points of order relating to the minister’s answer being inadequate. The result is that about 70 questions are asked and answered in an hour, accountability has greatly improved and public interest in parliament has soared.
The Hon Smt. Meira Kumar led the discussion on the Use of Technology, delivering a well researched paper. The Hon. Speaker referred to the work of the Global Centre for Information and Communication Technologies in Parliament and the key role of advanced technologies in document preparation, supporting committees, supporting floor activities, knowledge management, maintaining websites and email. The Hon. Speaker said that implementing information technologies is vital for enhancing communication between parliament and the public and, in the final analysis, public trust in the legislature.
The focus of the debate on this subject related to allowing the use of computers in the parliament chamber. Most speakers who contributed said that the parliament chamber is a debating arena. Any modification of the purpose or objective of the chamber by allowing activities which detract from its function is undesirable. A few speakers, however, supported the use of computers in the parliament chamber. This issue brought into sharp focus the fundamental question of how far the progress of technology should be allowed to intrude into the purity of debate.
The last paper discussed was on The Role of the Speaker in the Administration of Parliament. The wide range of the Speaker’s administrative responsibilities was noted. These included approving the parliamentary budget, ensuring the smooth and orderly administrative conduct of the parliament’s business, arranging education programmes for members, management of the secretariat and many others.
The conference was of enormous value not only for Speakers but will eventually be so for all parliamentarians as the conclusions are implemented.