From The Speaker's Chair: Unparliamentary Conduct and the Consequences for Such Within the Montserrat Legislative Assembly?

The Montserrat Legislative Assembly is one of the island’s Institutions of Governance.

From The Speaker's Chair: Unparliamentary Conduct and the Consequences for Such Within the Montserrat Legislative Assembly?

Welcome once again to yet another edition of the joint Speaker’s Chair collaboration between MNI Media and the Office of the Legislature, Montserrat. 

For today’s programme, our focus will now move on towards looking at the topic: "Unparliamentary conduct and the consequences for such within the Montserrat Legislative Assembly?

Listen to the full audio version of the presentation below. The full text follows also:

This topic is one that has been in our original schedule of topics to cover over the course of this 2019 series of programmes. However, in light of recent developments within the Montserrat Legislative Assembly to do with the issue of unsavoury language being used, we have brought this topic forward to explore a bit deeper.  

The Montserrat Legislative Assembly is one of the island’s Institutions of Governance. Note that I said an Institution of Governance and not Government; for there is a fundamental difference between the two. 

The government of the day is comprised of various arms and is supported by the three branches of Government. As we have established in previous programmes, these are to be The Legislature, The Judiciary and the Executive Branches. These, along with the functions performed by public servants, who execute the Government’s programmes, and priorities  -  all contribute to the overall governance machinery of Montserrat. 

Thus, the Montserrat Legislative Assembly is that institution that represents our political, developmental and democratic advancement - coming from the Plantocracy system that once ruled over the island. Even without a specific home, the calling of Assembly meetings inside the Montserrat Cultural Centre still represents a place that symbolizes our nation’s hopes and aspirations as a people. 

With regards to the recent incident of what we would locally call a “curse” word being used in Parliament, and the Speaker requesting an apology that was none in coming, some pundits have lauded that the Hon Member who misspoke was expressing their right to freedom of speech as afforded under the Montserrat Constitution Order.

Indeed, the supreme Law of the land, which is the Constitution Order 2010, does afford rights to freedom of expression, as some individuals have been stating. In fact, let us have a look at what the Constitution Order 2010 says.

Under the section titled “Protection of freedom of expression” Subsection 1 states: “Except with his or her consent, no person shall be hindered in the enjoyment of his or her freedom of expression, and for the purposes of this section, the said freedom includes freedom to hold opinions and freedom to receive and impart ideas and information without interference, and freedom from interference with his or her correspondence and other means of communication.”

Subsection 2 further goes on to state; “Nothing in any law or done under its authority shall be held to contravene this section to the extent that it is reasonably justifiable in a democratic society.”

So we do see most certainly that the Constitution does give rights and privileges under its directives as laid out. But within the Honourable Legislative Assembly, what then are the rules and why would some individuals see a slight of the tongue towards unparliamentary language by an Hon Member as being problematic in some instances?

Whenever the Assembly sits, The Honourable Assembly is under the control of the sitting Speaker at that time – whoever he or she may be. The Premier of Montserrat, and all Members of the Assembly who are present submit to the authority of The Speaker.

Referencing once again the 2010 Constitution Order, I wish to draw to your attention two sections that speak to the Speaker’s authority over the Legislative Assemble. 

Under the section; Sessions and meetings of Legislative Assembly subsection (1) sates: “The sessions of the Legislative Assembly shall be held at such times and places as the Speaker may appoint by proclamation published in the Gazette; but there shall be at least one session in every year, and a session shall be held within one month after every general election at such time and place as the Governor may appoint by proclamation so published.” 

So we establish here that it is The Hon Speaker who calls the Legislative Assembly into session. 

Then the Constitution goes on to say in subsection two, under the section still titled Sessions and meetings of the Legislative Assembly“When the Legislative Assembly is in session, the Speaker may call meetings of the Assembly from time to time and, if no meeting has been called sooner, shall call a meeting within two months of the previous meeting except during the month designated by the Assembly by resolution as the recess.’ 

I want us to stick further with the Constitution on this point of the Speaker’s power and authority within the Honourable House. For in the section titled “Presiding in Legislative Assembly’ in the 2010 Constitution Order, subsection 1 says; “The Speaker or, in his or her absence, the Deputy Speaker or, if they are both absent, a member of the Legislative Assembly (not being a member of the Cabinet) elected by the Assembly for that sitting shall preside at each sitting of the Assembly.

Thus Ladies and gentlemen, it is the Speaker of the Assembly who decides whether language used in the Honourable House is in conformity with the rules of the House that govern what can and cannot be stated. There is a platform of etiquette expected within the Legislative Assembly even when tempers flare and issues that are about the people’s business do become heated and hostile. 

The Legislative Assembly Standing Orders further speak towards the chain of authority within the Assembly;

In the standing Orders where it speaks about “Responsibility for order” it says; “TheSpeaker or other presiding member in the Assembly, and the Chairman in Committee shall be responsible for the observance of the rules of order in the Assembly and Committee respectively, and their decision upon any point of order shall not be open to appeal and shall not be reviewed by the Assembly or by the Committee as the case may be, except upon a substantive motion made after notice.”

Furthermore the Standing Orders state: 
When the Speaker or other presiding member or the Chairman rises, any member then speaking or wishing to speak shall immediately resume his seat and the Council, or the Committee, shall be silent.”

It is not the position of this presentation to posit that foul language to the extent of swearing at other Parliamentary colleagues has never been done anywhere before. As we are aware the Montserrat Parliamentary system is fashioned from the UK’s Westminster system of government and research indicates that a former UK Prime Minister, in the form of John Major was once caught out back in 1993.

The incident goes that Major was caught on microphone calling as “bastards” three Euro-sceptic members of his own very own Conservative cabinet. Major perhaps did not realise his mike was still live, but as it went during that time, the research further shows that his use of such a term came to characterise his struggles with the anti-EU element in his party.

Coming back to the Montserrat matter of language used in the Assembly and the rule of the Speaker, if  Honourable Members disagree with the Speaker's ruling, then there is a process in the rules and orders of the Assembly to address these concerns. 

But what would ensue for Members to take grievance with the Speaker’s ruling? 

As stated before, debates within the Assembly can most certainly reach fever pitch. 

But there are rules that govern debates within the Assembly. The Legislative Assembly Standing Orders, which we referenced earlier state under the section titled “Relevancy”,regarding the rules of debate that; 
Debate must be relevant to the matter or question before the Assembly of the Committee, and where more than one question has been proposed from the Chair the debate must be relevant to the last question so proposed, until it has been disposed of.” 

The Standing Orders go on to state that; The Speaker after having called the attention of the Assembly to the conduct of a member who persists in irrelevance or in tedious repetition either of his own arguments or of the arguments used by other members in debate may direct the member to discontinue his/her speech.”

So as we look to close out our presentation today From The Speaker’s Chair, I wish for us to turn our attention to the process for dealing with disorderly Members who breach House rules as stipulated by the Legislative Assembly Standing Orders.

Whereas Standing Orders of the Assembly speak of the matter of Suspension of a Member for disorderly conduct, it is very clear on this matter where the rules state under the section titled;“Suspension of member named” that if a member shows disregard for the authority of the Chair, or abuses the rules of the Assembly by persistently and willfully obstructing the business of the Assembly, the Speaker shall direct the attention of the Assembly to the incident mentioning by name the member concerned. A motion may then be made upon which the Speaker shall forthwith put the question, no amendment, adjournment, or debate being allowed, “That such member be suspended from the service of the Assembly”.

Subsection (3) under this same heading mentions that; If a member be suspended from the service of the Assembly under the provisions of this Order his/her’s suspension shall continue and be effective during the remainder of the session unless sooner determined by the Assembly.”

When it comes to the “Enforcement of Speaker’s directions” The Legislative Assembly Standing Orders directs that; “Members who are directed to withdraw, or are suspended under shall forthwith withdraw from the precincts of the Assembly Chamber.” 

Thus it will come down once again to the authority and/or discretion of the Speaker to direct such steps be taken as are required to enforce his/her orders and rulings.

That concludes this week’s edition of the Programme, “From The Speaker’s Chair” where we looked the issue of Unparliamentary conduct and the consequences for such within the Montserrat Legislative Assembly?

I am Jeevan Robinson. Join me next week for another Edition of “from The Speaker’s Chair” a joint collaboration between MNI Media and Office of the Legislature Montserrat. Thank you for listening.