Good Advice, Madame Speaker- take it
Reverend Dr. William Watty has offered some profound advice to Honourable Alix Boyd-Knights, the Speaker of the Dominica House of Assembly that, we believe, she should consider accepting.
In the article published in the Sun Newspaper on 3rd August 2015 entitled: "The recent budget debate" Dr. Watty commended Speaker Knights for being firm with often unruly members of the House of Assembly.
"Her success in that regard is commendable," he wrote and added: "But she must also be impartial, and impeccably so, in her ruling of the House and her guidance and control of its proceedings".
Dr. Watty observed that Hansard, the record of the House of Assembly, will show that Speaker Knights has not equally applied her admonitions to the members of the House of Assembly across the political spectrum and her treatment of the opposition members of parliament during the recent budget debate caught Dr. Watty's attention.
However, Dr. Watty opined that it would not be realistic to expect the Speaker to be politically neutral since she was appointed by a parliament controlled by the Dominica Labour Party. Nevertheless, here is the advice from Dr. Watty that we believe Speaker Knights must note:
"She ought, however, to bear in mind that, on taking her seat as Speaker of the House, and whenever, and as long as, she occupies that seat, all political affiliation must be set aside and all her political preferences must be ruthlessly suppressed. Her exalted position does not allow her the luxury of being the twelfth player on a playing field that is already not level, when not only the numerically weaker political Opposition but the rest of us, spectators, expect to see an Umpire who takes no side. It is the future of our Democracy that is at stake, and it is not any political party but Dominica that is likely to be the loser if partisanship in the Speaker's Chair continues unchecked".
As we wrote in an editorial in 2010 entitled: "Putting the Speaker's impartiality in perspective", Speaker Alix Boyd-Knights has an unenviable job. She is charged with the responsibility of presiding fairly and impartially over a system that is inherently unfair. This, in our view, is a basic explanation for a state of affairs in which the Speaker is repeatedly under fire from members of the opposition, the United Workers Party (UWP), for what they describe as disrespectful, biased and 'un-parliamentary' behaviour.
We recalled an incident during the November 29, 2010 meeting of the House of Assembly when the UWP and the Speaker clashed again. The issue involved Speaker Boyd-Knights' insistence that explanations that the opposition sought from government ministers, particularly from Prime Minister Roosevelt Skerrit about his many visits overseas, were inappropriate. Her rationale was that the questions violated 23(1) of the Standing Orders of the House.
It is our view that this antagonism between the Speaker and the opposition will continue unless Dominica creates a more nonpartisan way of appointing Speakers of the House of Assembly.
Currently, the Constitution gives the Prime Minister the prerogative to select the Speaker although, seemingly, it is Parliament which appoints that person to the post. You may recall that the late Rosie Douglas, just after the January 2000 general elections, made a public announcement at the Fort Young Hotel that he had appointed Boyd-Knights to the post of Speaker although Parliament had not determined when it would met to elect her.
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 former Chief Justice Sir Brian Alleyne when he said in a speech that the Speaker is the "servant" of the Parliament, not its master, and she 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 (or she, in this case) 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.
But, we argued in 2010, that neutrality of the Speaker is a myth; an ideal that the system fails to support. We were of the view then that there is a fundamental contradiction between what is theoretically expected from Speakers of the House of Assembly in the Westminster system of Government, which we inherited from Britain, and what exists in practice in Dominica today.
Parliament as well is brazenly undemocratic. It is the opinion of many that the prime ministers in our islands are unacknowledged kings or dictators who control, with an iron fist, not only their cabinets 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 15/6 majority. Skerrit himself said recently that he, as prime minister, has too much power.
It is therefore obvious 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 accommodate Dr. Watty's advice. Dominica's fragile democracy demands it.