Parliament in our country consists of the President and the House of Assembly. So says Section 29 of the Constitution. Its main purpose is to make laws for the peace, order and good government of Dominica. The President, as you know, stands, in law, head and shoulders above party or group politics and does not, therefore, attend or participate in parliamentary debates. The President's role in the process of law-making is essentially to assent to, that is to say, to approve or, if you prefer, to rubber-stamp any bill passed by the House that is in accordance with the provisions of the Constitution.
The House of Assembly, as is well known, comprises twenty-one elected representatives – one for each of the island's constituencies – and nine Senators, five of whom are selected by the Prime Minister and, the remaining four, by the Leader of the Opposition. Two other persons, namely, The Attorney General and the Speaker may also qualify for membership of the House of Assembly. By Section 30(3) of the Constitution the Attorney General becomes a member "by virtue of holding or acting in that Office", whenever the office is a "public office", rather than a political one. As to the Speaker, Section 30(2) prescribes as follows: "If a person who is not a member of the House is elected to be Speaker he shall, by holding the office of Speaker, be a member of the House." Further, sittings of the House are presided over by the Speaker and, in his or her absence, by the Deputy Speaker. Where both the Speaker and the Deputy Speaker are absent, to preside over any of its sittings, the House has power to elect a member of its body who is neither a member of Cabinet nor a Parliamentary Secretary.
The main function of the House of Assembly is to make laws. Laws are made through a process incorporating a number of stages. These are set out in paragraphs 55 to 66 of the Standing Orders of the House of Assembly. Stage one involves the presentation of a bill to the House and its first reading there by the Clerk of the House. Presentation may be made by any Member, or on behalf of Government, provided notice of such presentation is given beforehand. Further, in the case of a Member's bill, but not in respect of Government, leave to introduce the measure must first be sought and obtained from the House. Once read, the bill is printed, a copy is circulated to every Member, and it is published in the Gazette.
At stage two is the Second Reading. There, a motion is moved and seconded, requesting of the House that the bill be read a second time. If the motion is carried, one of two courses of action may be taken. Either the bill is referred to a Committee of the whole House for discussion clause by clause and, if necessary, amendment. Or, upon a motion to do so, the bill is referred, instead, to a Select Committee. Next, the bill is considered in detail, whether by a Committee of the whole House or by a Select Committee. This is called the Committee stage. The Committee then reports to the House. When the House resumes after completion of the Committee stage, unless the bill has been withdrawn, the Chairman of the House proceedings moves a motion that it be read a third time. At that stage, the substance of the bill cannot be amended; but errors and oversights may be corrected.
Following its third reading, a printed copy of the bill is signed by the Clerk of the House and forwarded to the President for his or her assent. Once assented to, a bill becomes law, and must be published in the Official Gazette as such. Before such publication it is not law. And, further, Parliament may postpone the coming into operation of any such law. The Integrity in Public Office Act, No. 6 of 2003 is instructive. The legislation was passed in 2003 but did not come into operation until 2008. Also instructive is Section 49(2) of the Constitution. It stipulates that "when a bill is submitted to the President for assent in accordance with the provisions of the Constitution he shall signify that he assents". What this means is that if the House were to pass a bill to disengage our court system from Her Majesty's Privy Council, without the strictest observance of Section 42 (3) and (4) of our Constitution, the President may withhold his assent. In fact, in our view he has a duty not to assent.
A major function of Members of the House of Assembly is to ask questions of Cabinet Ministers as to the performance of their various Ministries and departments. In our view, it is their duty to do so. The procedure to be followed is stated in paragraphs 21 to 25 of the Standing Orders of the House. Included is that no question may be asked without notice "unless it is of an urgent character or relates to the business of the day, and the Member has obtained the leave of the Speaker to ask it". Such notice may be handed to the Clerk of the House "when the House is sitting" or may be sent to the Clerk's office beforehand. It is also a rule that where a Member wishes an oral answer to a question, this must be clearly stated in the Notice. And yet another rule is that the reply to any question may be postponed to "the next meeting" of the House unless the Member has given not less than fourteen days' notice in writing of intention to ask that question.
The content of questions is strictly regulated. Paragraph 23 (1)(a) of the Standing Orders stipulates that "the proper object of a question is to obtain information on a question of fact within the official responsibility of the Minister to whom it is addressed, or to ask for official action". Hence, in asking a question, Members may not include the names of persons or any statements of fact, unless they are necessary for the question to be understood. Further, no question may be asked if it is "based upon a newspaper report". Nor is it permissible to ask a question so as to cause a debate. By paragraph 23(1)(f), a question "shall not contain arguments, inferences, opinions, imputations, epithets, ironical expressions or hypothetical cases".
In that regard, the House Speaker is given the widest latitude. Paragraph 23(2) of the Orders is worth quotation at length: "If the Speaker is of the opinion that any question of which a Member has given notice to the Clerk infringes the provisions of any standing order or is in any way an abuse of the right of questioning he may direct (a) that the Member concerned be informed that the question is out of order; or (b) that the question be entered in the Order Book with such alterations as he may direct; or (c) in the case of a question which a Member has sought to ask without notice, that it may be so asked with such alterations as he may direct".
As to providing answers to questions asked by Members, Ministers are comparatively favoured. Indeed, answers to questions, like the questions asked, must state "only the relevant facts". They must be delivered in a courteous manner. No accusations, sarcastic or insulting references or imputations, or ironical expressions may be made. And replies must deal with real, rather than hypothetical cases. This notwithstanding, a Minister is not to deliver oral answers to more than three questions from any one member at any one sitting. The Minister is given time to answer the additional questions in writing. And, under paragraph 24(6) of the Standing Orders, he or she is given what can only be regarded as an arbitrary right to refuse to answer a question "if the publication of the answer would in his opinion be contrary to the public interest." It should be noted that Section 52 of the Constitution empowers Parliament to "regulate its own procedure and may in particular make rules for the orderly conduct of its own proceedings". The Standing Orders are a manifestation of Parliament's use of that power.
Another notable function of Members of the House of Assembly is to engage in debates on the House floor concerning pressing issues and problems that confront the nation. In that regard they are protected against court action. Section 43 of the Constitution states that "no civil or criminal proceedings may be instituted against any member of the House for words spoken before, or written in a report to, the House or a committee thereof or by reason of any matter or thing brought by him therein by petition, bill, resolution, motion or otherwise". What this means is that you cannot take a Parliamentarian to court for a statement made in Parliament against your good name and reputation, no matter how vicious, no matter how malicious, and no matter how false that statement may have been.
What of the life cycle of Parliament? Each Parliament, "unless sooner dissolved", lasts for five years. This commences from the date of its first sitting. Yet, "at any time when Dominica is at war", the life of Parliament may be extended for "not more than twelve months at a time", up to a maximum of a further five years. Further, Parliament must convene a session at least once a year "so that a period of six months shall not intervene between the last sitting ... in one session and the first sitting thereof in the next session".
Parliament may be dissolved before its five year term expires in three situations: One, "at any time", if the Prime Minister advises the President to do so; two, if a vote of no-confidence is passed against the Government; and, three, by the President on his own volition in circumstances set out under Section 54(4) of the Constitution. It is provided that "if the office of the Prime Minister is vacant and the President, acting in his own deliberate judgement, considers that there is no prospect of his being able within a reasonable time to appoint to that office a person who can command the support of the majority of elected Members of the House, the President shall dissolve Parliament".
In effect, the tenure of a Parliamentarian is five years, provided that during that period he or she does not resign. Or, provided some misconduct under Section 32 of the Constitution does not disqualify him or her from holding office. Or, provided Parliament is not dissolved, whether on the advice of the Prime Minister or on the President's own volition. Or, in respect of Senators, provided, his or her appointment is not terminated by the Prime Minister or the leader of the Opposition, as the case may be.
© Copyright, William Para Riviere, October 2013