The Sunday Leader

The Speaker

By Priyanee Wijesekera _ Retired Secretary General of Parliament

Priyanee Wijesekara

Following the parliamentary election to be held on April 8, the first task of the new House would be to elect its Speaker. In Sri Lanka the Speaker is the third citizen in the national protocol list and the most important person in parliament. However successive speakers have rarely made a public display of their importance. Being a tradition bound institution; the Speaker of Parliament wears the ceremonial robe. Yet a number of Speakers have departed from this tradition.

Qualities of the Speaker

The Speaker, usually a very senior parliamentarian, should be dedicated and experienced in its practices. He must above all have a deep reverence for the institution itself and be able to understand its temperament. Impartiality is his prime attribute. The Speaker is usually a member of the governing party. However this practice is not without exceptions. Once elected, he would normally refrain from attending meetings of his party politburo and his identity with the party is considerably dimmed. However, he is not required, in Sri Lanka, to officially resign from the party. While the convention in some countries is for the Speaker to retire from politics at the end of his term of office or else acquire membership in an Upper House, in Sri Lanka former speakers have contested elections and returned to the House as members.

The Speaker’s Chair in Parliament

The Speaker is the official spokesman of the House. In parliament he has constitutional, ceremonial, procedural, administrative and semi judicial functions and also functions as the chief representative of parliament at the various international parliamentary fora. He usually heads the delegations to the annual international parliamentary conferences. The Speaker would normally preside over the most controversial sessions in the parliament. He presides over the election of the Deputy Speaker and the Deputy Chairman of Committees by the House. He also presides when parliament elects the President under Presidential Elections (Special Provisions) Act No. 02 of 1981.

The Speaker almost invariably presides on ceremonial events and during the presentation of the annual budget. He should be able to ensure the rights of the opposition and should never subvert the procedural principles for the sake of providing smooth passage for government business. He would resist all attempts to challenge the rightful supremacy of parliament in its sphere of constitutional activity. In keeping with these traditions in 2001 Speaker Bandaranaike rejected a restraining order issued by the Supreme Court to prevent the appointment of a select committee. So too in 2003 Speaker Joseph Michael Perera made a statement of protest when the President prorogued parliament without valid reason.

The Speaker should ensure that debating time is adequately balanced among all parties represented in the House. He should be able to prevent the time of the House being wasted on irrelevant and repetitious verbiage. He should also be freely available to any member who wishes to seek his advice.

Powers of the Speaker

The Speaker is the final authority on the interpretation of the Standing Orders of the House and his rulings or orders should not be challenged except upon a substantive motion of no-confidence. The House should thus accept his rulings however unpalatable. Disobedience to the Speaker’s rulings and unruly protests where members invade the Well of the House preventing business being carried out is not uncommon. In such an event the Speaker could suspend the sessions for a short time to restore order or else he could request the offending members to leave the chamber for the rest of the day.

A member could also be “named” where he could be prevented from attending the sessions of parliament for a maximum period of one month. However this can only be done upon a motion moved by a minister approved by a vote in the House and if such motion be defeated it would be a serious reflection on the ability of the Speaker to maintain discipline in the House.

The Speaker also has the right to expunge unparliamentary language from the official record and in such an event those words are regarded as not having been spoken. Documents tabled in the Library of Parliament for reference also need his clearance. The Speaker should also ensure that scurrilous and defamatory material is not tabled. The Speaker’s permission is also essential for a member to make a personal statement in the House. A personal statement would be allowed when a member whose conduct has been the subject of adverse comment wishes to vindicate himself in the eyes of the House. It is also the Speaker who decides on the admissibility of adjournment motions and statements under the Proviso to Standing Order 23.

The task of presiding over the House requires the Speaker to be a person of experience, adequate at controlling the membership without offending the House. He should be able to balance the rights of the government and the opposition during the debates. Fairness should be second nature to him and the prestige of parliament something of a personal possession. In the application of rules the Speaker must ensure that today’s aberrations do not become tomorrow’s precedent. The Speaker has to be able to defuse tension in the House without offending members and also maintain the dignity of the Chair.

He has to be diplomatic in his dealings with the members. He also can in extreme circumstances, obtain the assistance of the police to control a potentially violent situation in the House. However successive Speakers have left these powers untouched. There are two powers constitutionally vested in the Speaker that cannot, even in his absence, be exercised by the Deputy Speaker or the Deputy Chairman of Committees. They are the right to entertain a motion of impeachment against the President and the right to act for the President in his absence (and the absence of the Prime Minister). In the 28 year history of Parliament under the 1978 Constitution the Speaker has had no occasion to act for the President.

Challenging the Speaker’s rulings

The Speaker is expected to uphold a high degree of impartiality. The same standard is not required of the Deputy Speaker and the other presiding officers. The rulings of the Speaker should only be challenged on a substantive motion of no-confidence. A lot  depends on the wording of such a motion. It could ask the Speaker to give reasons for his ruling or request him to reconsider the decision. Whether a substantive motion to reverse a ruling of the speaker would amount to a motion of no-confidence would be an interesting question. If such motion be carried should it result in a resignation by the Speaker rather than a removal, would be equally interesting. In Sri Lanka many Speakers
faced no-confidence motions. The first recorded instance was in 1963 when a motion of no-confidence was moved against Speaker R.S. Pelpola for inefficiency and lack of impartiality. On this occasion the Speaker adjourned the House in violation of an agreement among party leaders thus preventing a vote on the motion opposing the Press Commission. In 1966 a no-confidence motion was moved against Deputy Speaker Shirley Corea for having rejected a motion of no-confidence against the government.

The third instance was in 1980 when a motion of no-confidence was moved against Speaker Al Haj M.A. Bakeer Markar. This arose as a result of the Supreme Court unseating Mr. A. Pilapitiya, the Member for the Kalawana electorate, on an election petition. Speaker Bakeer Markar however ruled that Pilapitiya should continue to function as a Member of the House. The no-confidence motion alleged that this ruling of the Speaker was a gross insult to the House.

Speaker M. H. Mohamed had to face no-confidence motions on two occasions. One was in 1991 as a result of him rejecting a resolution of impeachment against the President. Again in 1992 he was confronted with a motion of no-confidence for having allowed 18 supplementary estimates to be passed without debate. However none of these motions were carried to a successful conclusion.

Criticism of the Speaker outside the House.

Public criticism of the Speaker is not very common and whether it amounts to a beach of privilege has not been considered by the Parliament of Sri Lanka. For the most part they are ignored by the Speaker. However public criticism of the Speaker by a Member of a Parliament is more serious and whether the remedy should be disciplinary action under the Privilege Act or an apology has also not been focused upon. Such public criticism not only brings disrepute to the Speaker but also to the institution he represents.

The election of the Speaker

Out of 20 elections held for the Speakership in Parliament since independence, 14 have been uncontested. The Standing Orders prescribe a semi secret ballot for the election of the Speaker. The election of the Speaker is the only occasion that the House functions without a presiding officer and the Secretary-General who officiates on such election has no disciplinary authority over the membership. The only recorded instance of an equality of votes was at the election of the Speaker in 2004 and this resulted in a subsequent ballot which brought a decisive result.

Vacation of the Speaker’s post

A Speaker vacates his seat by resignation or dissolution of Parliament. In the event of a resignation, the letter should be addressed to the President and when he vacates his seat a new Speaker has to be elected in his place.

The Speaker in Sri Lanka has other duties as well. By virtue of his office he is the head of the Constitutional Council (established by the 17th Amendment to the Constitution) and thus he continues in that post even after the dissolution of Parliament until the new Speaker is appointed. So too a dissolved Parliament stands summoned if an emergency proclamation is issued by the President. The Speaker in such an event would automatically resume his position until the expiry or revocation of such proclamation or the conclusion of a general election.

The Speaker and the Committees

The Speaker is required under the Standing Order to head a number of parliamentary committees. He heads the Business Committee that decides on the weekly agenda of the House and all matters connected therewith. A Business Committee includes the Leaders of the House, the Opposition and the Whips. It also includes the Deputy Speaker and the Deputy Chairman of Committees. The Speaker is also the Chairman on the Committee on Standing Orders. This most important committee which takes into consideration all proposals to amend Standing Orders comprises the most experienced parliamentarians.

The House Committee is also headed by the Speaker. This committee decides on the facilities to be provided for the Members of Parliament. Today it comprises 32 members. The facilities provided to members include subsidized meals, vacation facilities, etc. The Speaker also heads the Committee of Selection, the function of which is to select members for all other parliamentary committees. This too consists of the Party Leaders and the senior-most Members of Parliament. Requests of members who wish to serve on particular committees are taken into account in making selection.

The Select Committees are ad hoc committees appointed to fulfill a particular mandate which is outlined in the motion presented before the House. Appointments to Select Committees are made by the Speaker who however obtains the recommendations of the Chief Government Whip and the Chief Opposition Whip in doing so.

The Speaker also serves as the Chairman of the Executive Committees of Sri Lanka branches of the major International Parliamentary Associations. They are the  Commonwealth Parliamentary Associations, the Inter Parliamentary Union and the SAARC Parliamentary Association. He usually heads the delegations at their major conferences and other events. Furthermore on rotation basis the Speaker serves in the executive body of a Commonwealth Parliamentary Association which takes the major policy decision in relation to the Association. The Speaker also acts as host to the various overseas parliamentary delegations that visit Sri Lanka.

The management of the  Parliamentary Complex

The Speaker is the final authority in the overall management of the Parliamentary estate. The Parliamentary estate includes the Parliamentary Complex at Kotte, the Speaker’s official residence, the Members Housing Complex and the Members Holiday Bungalow at Nuwara Eliya. Under the Standing Orders the Speaker can order strangers out of the Parliamentary Complex.

Speaker and the Staff of Parliament

The Speaker is the final administrative authority over the staff of Parliament. Under Article 65 of the Constitution the appointments to the staff of the Secretary-General is made with the approval of the Speaker.

The Speaker also heads the Staff Advisory Committee established under the Parliamentary Staff Act, the other members being the Leaders of the House and the Opposition and the Minister of Finance. It is the Staff Advisory Committee that makes decisions regarding policy and financial matters relating to the staff. In respect of cadre, their recommendations need to be approved by Cabinet of Ministers. The Speaker is also the final disciplinary authority of Parliament. Being the ultimate appellate authority he would usually not involve himself in the day to day administration of the office which is done by the Secretary-General.

Since 1948 the position of Speaker in Parliament had been held by men of such eminence such as Sir Francis Molamure, Sir Albert F. Peiris, Stanly Tillakeratne and Dr. Anandatissa de Alwis who continue to be a source of inspiration for future holders of this prestigious position.

6 Comments for “The Speaker”

  1. Humbug

    The current speaker Loku was a puppet coming from one party and working for another. Chee Loku

  2. Gundappa

    Not only Loku, even Podi is seeking election.

    Tell me one reason why they should not join the gravy train.

    My brother, its money money money all the way

    Both earned, as well as ill gotten

    Who cares for principles

  3. The former speaker Mr. W.J.M. Lokubandara is not a puppet as commented above.He is a noble/genuine politician who entetred the politics in UNP.During his tenure as speaker he acted impartially to solve problems sprung up during debates in the parliament irrespective of political party the combatants belong to.His exemplary behaviour in the parliament was a precedence to entire politicians in the house.

  4. Mr. lukubandara is uncapable speaker of Sri-Lanka parliment history. behaviour of parliment destroy, He has travel overseas more thean one hundred time’s for his appreciation. poor every day poor .

  5. Piyal Ranjith Weeratunga – I think you are the son of the Loku Bandara wriing to whitewash the family

  6. P.L.J.B.Palipana

    Dear Madam Priyanee Wijesekara,
    I read an article “Saying ‘aye’ with a 2/3 majority” in Sunday Times. I as a student of political science highly appreciate the contents.
    P.L.J.B.Palipana, P.Eng

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