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“The limitation of free speech in Parliament” (4 Dec. 2014).

04/12/2014

The Speaker and limitation of free speech in parliament
Professor Wadan Narsey (4th Dec. 2014)

For eight years, all that tax payers and citizens could do with their legitimate queries of government was write Letters to the Editor which were often censored (as some still are), or if published, simply ignored by those wielding authority.

For the first time in eight years, Fiji people are now seeing their elected parliamentarians asking pertinent questions of government members, criticizing or commenting on government policies, and government members put under public pressure to reply, and be recorded.

The Hon. Speaker now has a most critical role to play, in either encouraging responsible free speech in parliament, or significantly limiting the ability of parliamentarians to raise questions that the public would want answered.

The viewers of televised sessions of 2nd and 3rd Dec. 2014 have seen three types of restrictive interventions by the Speaker, often at the instigation of vociferous Government members.

These three restrictive interventions came in the guise of a question “what’s the relation to the budget?” or an admonition, “do not become personal” or an arbitrary ruling “I have already allowed 3 supplementary questions and I will not allow any more”.

All three restrictions may be debated.

The Hon. Speaker might keep in mind that some of the elected parliamentarians of the Fiji First Party elected government were also the leaders who have managed the economy and tax payers’ funds for the previous eight years, and they should also be answerable to tax payers for what they did then.

The Hon. Speaker might wish to examine good practice in other democracies where Speakers even if appointed from a particular part, are afterwards totally impartial to both sides, however difficult it may be for them personally.

“What’s the relation to the budget?”

Of course, parliamentarians should not be allowed to stray from the substantive content of the bill, currently, the 2015 Budget.

But, several times while the Shadow Finance Minister (Professor Biman Prasad) and other Opposition Members was speaking on governance issues, the Government side kept intervening and demanding to know “What is the relation to the budget?” with the question unfortunately also then being echoed by the Speaker.

The Opposition Members could, as part of their response to the “Point of Order” have explained the following to the Hon. Madam Speaker and the House:

  • the 2015 Budget has many projections and expectations of government revenue
  • which depends crucially on the future growth rate of the economy
  • which depends on private sector investment
  • which depends on investor confidence
  • which can be severely eroded if investors do not have confidence in political stability
  • And any factor that can damage investor confidence is therefore a legitimate discussion point in the parliamentary debate on the 2015 Budget.

These could be issues such as the legal legitimacy of the 2013 Constitution which was unilaterally imposed on Fiji and which many foreign investors would worry about; the differential grant of immunity to military personnel which could cause serious disaffection and dissatisfaction amongst large segments of the population leading to political unrest; or an electoral system which does not allow voters to know who exactly should foster their interests in the annual budget proposals.

As such, the entire content of the budget speech by Professor Prasad and many other issues raised by other Opposition Members, were pertinent to the 2015 Budget and should not have been challenged by the Government side with the query “what’s the relationship to the budget”.

Neither should the Speaker have repeated that query, but simply allowed Professor Prasad to continue, which he did in any case.

It is a pity that some members on the Fiji First Party Government side (not all) who have used tax-payers funds for eight years without any accountability to the public, are the quickest off the mark to try to shut down Opposition Members’ legitimate questions in parliament.

It is an even greater pity that some elected government members, who were not part of government for the previous eight years, are also parroting the same objections to the legitimate queries raised by Opposition parliamentarians.

Common sense would suggest that not knowing what irregularities there may have been over the previous eight years, they should wisely keep their silence, and let those in the current government responsible for past policies, defend themselves if need be.

“Please don’t make personal criticisms”

This was another strange objection that came from the Government side, when some Opposition Members were raising very legitimate questions about foreign citizens who were irregularly appointed at the highest levels without going through the proper procedures of the Public Service Commission, only to later depart under unknown circumstances.

One such appointment was of a New Zealander of limited professional experience who was appointed at Permanent Secretary of Finance and placed on many influential boards dealing very influentially with tax payers funds.

This person suddenly left under unknown circumstances, almost certainly due to a realization by the appointing powers, that he was not an appropriate person for the positions he was filling.

Opposition members therefore have every right to ask on behalf of tax payers, how was this person (and indeed many others) appointed, and what were the circumstances under which he (and others) departed.

Such questions cannot be banned by the Speaker on the grounds that this was “getting personal”.

It is surely a tautology that at the heart of every questionable use of tax payers’ money is some “person” or other who makes the wrong decisions which waste tax payers’ funds.

Of course, the Speaker can legitimately ask that slanderous and libelous statements should not be made by parliamentarians using the justification of “parliamentary privilege”.

But there are also parliaments which give parliamentarians total free speech, and those who make libelous statements are legitimately then taunted “repeat that outside of parliament, if you dare”.

But that is hardly the case with the Fiji parliament and the issues that are being raised currently.

 Why “No more than 3 Supplementary Questions”?

Many times, during the sessions so far, the Speaker has ruled that she had already allowed three supplementary questions and she will not allow any more.

Why only three questions?  This is surely unreasonable given that all the government members have to do is stonewall and give irrelevant answers three times, and the Speaker will then stop further questioning.

Surely it is not for the Speaker to conclude that the Supplementary Questions have been answered adequately or that enough time had been spent already on that particular question.

This reminds me of the Speaker allowing the SVT Government in 1999 to push through the then largest sale of public assets in Fiji’s history (or $253 million of ATH shares) after just allowing only two persons from the Opposition (including myself as Shadow Minister of Finance) to speak, when far more discussion was warranted.

If Opposition Members deliberately ask unnecessary, time wasting and repetitive questions, the public will surely recognize that also, with a consequent loss of respect for those elected Members and loss of voting support in the future.

The kamikaze role of the Speaker

Of course, the current Hon. Madam Speaker is an elected member of the Fiji First Party, largely owing her position to the Fiji First Party.

It is therefore natural for the Opposition Members to feel that the Madam Speaker may be partial to the interests of the Government side in some of her decisions, even if she is not.

Whether justified or not, that view has been naturally strengthened by the frequency of vociferous interventions from the Government side, often acceded to by the Hon. Speaker.

But the Speaker to the House of Representatives, once appointed has the sacred duty not just to be completely fair to both sides, but allow maximum freedom of speech by  the Opposition Members, even if it means that she becomes unpopular with her own Fiji First Party.

There are two very solid reasons for this not applicable in previous elected Fiji parliaments.

First, this parliament is the first opportunity for the elected representatives of the people to ask questions of the Bainimarama Government for whatever they may have done with tax payers’ money for the eight years since 2006.

Second, the 2013 Constitution has eliminated the 1997 Constitution’s provision of the “Upper House” which previously allowed nominated representatives of the people, usually senior respected citizens, to comment and ask further questions of any decisions made by the elected representatives of the Lower House.

Today, the House of Representatives is the only and the last forum in which questions may be asked of the elected government or the Opposition.

For both reasons, therefore, the Hon. Madam Speaker should minimize any restrictions that she places on the Opposition Members.

This might even mean that she commits kamikaze if her Party eventually unethically replaces her with someone who is more amenable to their interests.

But if that unlikely event were to occur, the Hon. Dr Jiko Luveni would keep her personal reputation intact, as have quite a few Speakers of parliaments throughout the genuinely democratic world where Speakers have ruled against their own political party, on principle.

Last, but not least, the Hon. Madam Speaker might wish to protect her own personal reputation by refraining from making judgments that a particular explanation from the Government side, was a “good or adequate answer”, especially if facts might come out later that some minister or other had deliberately misled the House and the nation, as has happened before in Fiji’s history.

 

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