Democracy continues to take a beating in Parliament
Alix Boyd-Knights, the constantly berated Speaker of Dominica's House of Assembly was again under fire recently from members of the Opposition United Workers Party (UWP) for what they describe as one-sided, biased and "un-parliamentary" behaviour.
During the 19 November 2015 meeting of the House of Assembly the UWP and the Speaker clashed again and the issue involved Speaker Boyd-Knights' insistence that explanations that the Opposition sought from government ministers were delivered too late. UWP parliamentarians protested and subsequently held a meeting at the Pebbles Park in Roseau while Parliament continued debating the introduction of a few Bills and Supplementary Estimates.
By the way, Rev. Dr. William Watty described Speaker Knights' behaviour at that meeting in an excellent article entitled : "Harsh Criticism=Improper Motives" published in The Sun Newspaper's issue of 7th December 2015.
In our view the antagonism between the Speaker and the Opposition will continue unless Dominica finds a more nonpartisan method of appointing the Speaker of the House of Assembly. Presently, the Constitution gives the Prime Minister the prerogative to select the Speaker although, seemingly, it is Parliament which appoints that person to the post.
In parliamentary democracies like Dominica the Speaker is expected to ensure the orderly and effective functioning of the Legislative arm of government. This has been underscored by legal luminary Sir Brian Alleyne when he said in a speech that the Speaker is the "servant" of Parliament, not its master, and speaks "as the House is pleased to direct." The Speaker, he added, is bound by the rules and conventions governing the conduct of the proceedings of the House. He is not the servant of the Executive and indeed is bound to jealously preserve the privileges of the House and its members against any incursion by the Executive. Impartiality and neutrality are essential characteristics of the office of Speaker, Sir Brian concluded. Rev. Watty wholeheartedly supports that argument in the article that we mentioned earlier.
But, we argue, that the neutrality of the Speaker is a myth; an ideal that the system fails to support. We are of the view that there is a fundamental contradiction between what is theoretically expected from Speakers of the House of Assembly in the Westminster system of Government that we inherited from Britain and what exists in practice in Dominica today.
Parliament is brazenly undemocratic. It is our opinion that the Prime Minister is an unacknowledged king or dictator who controls, with an iron fist, not only his Cabinet but also parliament and its agenda. In fact parliament is no more than an unadorned rubber stamp of the Executive branch of government, especially in the present environment where the Skerrit-led government has a relatively large majority.
In the speech we referred to earlier Sir Brian postulated that although the framers of our Constitution have built in a number of checks and balances in the system of government, it nonetheless takes a proactive civil society with honest administrators to ensure that the system works. What we may now be experiencing is a situation in which the Prime Minister controls, directly and indirectly, the Cabinet, Parliament and all the other institutions which are supposed to operate independently of the Executive.
Attorney-at-Lawyer and historian Dr. William Riviere made that point succinctly in an article entitled: "Our Constitution: Democracy or One-man Rule" published in the Sun Newspaper in 2014.
Dr. Riviere argues that "the intention of the founding fathers of our nation may well have been, that the Executive would be collectively responsible to Parliament.
"But, quite apart from nebulously stating so at Section 60(3), the Constitution signally fails to provide any mechanism at all by which such collective responsibility might be achieved.
"The plain truth, as earlier discussed, is that it makes ample provision for the diametrical opposite, namely, that the Executive would dominate Parliament.
"More correctly, it is the Prime Minister as individual, not the Cabinet as collective that from the standpoint of our Constitution dominates the Legislature. In fact, the power and authority of the Prime Minister goes beyond this. It is all-pervasive.
"The Constitution invests the Prime Minister with power, directly and indirectly, to effectively control not only the Legislature but, as well, the Head of State, the Cabinet of Ministers and the institutions of Public Administration, including the Security Forces. And the Prime Minister is equipped with power to greatly influence the functioning of the Judiciary".
It is therefore unquestionable that parliament is being monopolized by the party in power and specifically by the Prime Minister. To bring some semblance of equity to Parliament, we therefore suggest that Speaker Knights do all in her power to allow the Opposition the opportunity to ask questions of the government. 'Question-time' during the sitting of parliament is one of the few instances in which the Opposition has an opportunity to make government ministers pay attention to the people's business. More importantly, it is an opportunity for citizens to assess whether their government is acting responsibly and in the best interest of the people. Although ministers sometimes grumble that Opposition parliamentarians get in the way of progress by asking ill-advised questions, it is the Opposition's fundamental role to ensure that issues are debated openly and transparently and that the government is acting responsibly and is accountable for its actions. When question-time in parliament is diluted and made into a sham, as has arisen over the past few years, we sometimes wonder whether we truly live in a democracy.