Mr Speaker, Sir !

Mr Speaker, Sir !

Following the formation of government in the aftermath of the 2019 general elections, all eyes were focused on the Prime Minister to announce the name of the person who would occupy the prestigious constitutional post of Speaker of the National Assembly. The press and other opinion leaders mentioned few names of persons who had had an impressive legal career. Unfortunately, to the dismay of many the choice fell on Sooroojdev Phokeer, a close aide of the Jugnauth clan who has a short, unassuming experience as member of parliament and was thereafter, in turn, High Commissioner in Egypt and America. Those who are acquainted with Phokeer wanted to give him the benefit of the doubt as he was known to be friendly, polite and down to earth. However in no time, he revealed an entirely different facet of his personality. Never in the history of Mauritius have we witnessed such an approach adopted by a Speaker. The way he shouts, the manner in which he addresses members of the opposition( only falling short of inflicting corporal punishment upon them), his bizarre habit of walking to show his authority and his weird rulings in no way add to the decorum of our August Assembly.  In reality, they are indications that we are living in a banana republic. A Speaker should give a completely objective interpretation of Standing Orders and precedents, and should give the same reprimand for the same conduct whether the Member is from the Government or Opposition. The Speaker embodies the dignity of the nation’s representative assembly. The office is above the individual and commands respect. The way in which the incumbent is acting is bringing disrepute and shame to the country. Seeing such a state of affairs Hamlet would definitely have said: something is rotten in the state of Denmark!

The Speaker of the National Assembly is the most visible player on the parliamentary stage. Not only does the Speaker have the task of chairing the sittings of the Assembly; he is also an enormously influential figure in almost every aspect that parliament and its administration are run. Supporters of the present regime will, undoubtedly, argue that Phokeer is also a qualified barrister. Nevertheless, he has never really practiced at the Bar. The Deputy Speaker is also a neophyte and a relatively junior member of the Bar. In truth and in fact, both have been called upon to punch above their weight. Anyhow, it is parliamentary rather than legal experience which is the first requirement of a Speaker. He must have an intimate understanding of parliamentary life, of the concerns of Members collectively and individually, of the moods and foibles of the National Assembly; an experience which can be acquired only through many years spent on the benches of parliament itself. He must have a deep-seated reverence for the institution of Parliament, an understanding of what lies behind the outward ceremony and a faith in democratic government. The office of the Speaker does not demand rare qualities. It demands common qualities in a rare degree….A good Speaker is not necessarily an extraordinary person, therefore, he is an ordinary person, but an ordinary person of the highest calibre. Sir Harilall Vaghjee, Sir Ramesh Jeewoolall, Kailash Purryag and Razack Peeroo have been persons of high calibre who had in the past occupied the post of Speaker and most had been harder on members of their former party than on the other side of the House. However, it may well be argued that those who were able to choose Iswardeo Seetaram in the 1990s can, undoubtedly, now opt for Sooroojdev Phooker.

Most, if not all, of the decisions taken by the Speaker with regards to the opposition are preposterous to say the least. The manner in which members of the opposition have been ordered out, disallowing supplementary questions, the rejection of a Private Notice Question of the Leader of the Opposition and the reasons given thereof, preventing the Leader of the Opposition from having access to his office on Saturdays and more recently preventing journalists from attending the press conference of the opposition are a watershed in the history of our parliamentary democracy. It has been reported in the press and not denied that the clerk of the National Assembly stated that a new protocol has been established to allow the Leader of the Opposition to hold press conferences only when parliament is sitting and to speak solely on issues raised therein. Any true democrat will be totally flabbergasted by such a decision. Does the good lady know the true meaning of democracy? Does she know the importance of a Leader of the Opposition in a democracy? It is obvious that the decision was taken by the Speaker who, thereafter, cowardly used the clerk as a shield. There are strong reasons to believe that the present Speaker acts under the command of the executive in total disregard for the separation of powers. Charles-Louis de Secondat, baron de La Brède et de Montesquieu stated in the “ The Spirit of the Laws” : There can be no liberty where the legislative and executive powers are united in the same person…. It is the first time in the history of the country that a Speaker has had to face a motion of no confidence few months after his election due to the way in which he conducts the affairs of the National Assembly but, as was expected, the tyranny of numbers prevailed. Moreover, it is sad to see seasoned politicians, veteran lawyers and auto proclaimed democrats like Steven Obeegadoo, Alan Ganoo and Ivan Collendavelloo silently, day in day out, unashamedly witnessing and assisting the rape of our parliamentary democracy.

One of the hallmarks of good Speakership is the requirement for a high degree of impartiality in the execution of the duties of the office. This important characteristic of office has been developed over the last two centuries. The first member known as Speaker was Sir Thomas Hungerford in 1376. In the United Kingdom, the Speaker abandons all party loyalties and is required to be impartial on all party issues both inside and outside the House. This long standing tradition of impartiality began with Arthur Onslow who was Speaker for thirty-three years from 1728. The confidence in the impartiality of the Speaker is an indispensable condition for the successful working of parliament. Traditionally, Mauritius follows the Westminster model. Mr Speaker, Sir regrettably, by your acts and doings, you are showing an unprecedented degree of partiality and bias towards your former party. The die is cast. You are seen as a threat to our parliamentary democracy. You urgently need to show that impartial speakership is not an oxymoron; hence return to parliament its cherished sanctity and change public perception. Otherwise, you will be remembered as a historical oddity. Clearly, the ball is in your court.

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