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Asian Tribune is published by E-LANKA MEDIA(PVT)Ltd. Vol. 20 No. 109

The Role of the Speaker of Parliament: W.J.M.Lokubandara - Lawyer, Poet, Song Writer, Author, Humanist & Philosopher

By Dr.T.C.Rajaratnam

Dr.T.C.RajaratnamDr.T.C.RajaratnamWhen Sri Lanka's 13th Parliament met on April 22, 2004 it took nine hours to elect a Speaker. After the final vote count, the tally was 110 for the candidate of the United National Front (UNF), the main Opposition group, and 109 for the ruling combine. Five Buddhist-monk MPs abstained and one Tamil MP was absent. Speaker W.J.M.Lokubandara pledged to perform his duties in an independent manner, safeguarding the dignity and decorum of Parliament and upholding its traditions.Speaker W.J.M.Lokubandara pledged to perform his duties in an independent manner, safeguarding the dignity and decorum of Parliament and upholding its traditions.

As a secret ballot was called and the ballot papers were distributed, seven monks of the JHU started to leave the House as they had decided to abstain. As the presiding officer was reading out the Standing Order for voting - that each member should write the name of one candidate and affix his/her signature - procedural points were raised by MPs on whether the signatures were required. Meanwhile, the first of the several interruptions of parliamentary business that day was about to begin.

Finally, voting began with a fresh set of ballot papers, which were kept near the ballot box in the well of the House. The MPs voted as the presiding officer called out their names. The result, announced at the end of a two-hour-long voting process, was along predictable lines - the ruling party's candidate got 108 votes, which included the votes of two monks from the JHU. The Opposition candidate had also won 108 votes. One vote was declared invalid. The few seconds of silence that engulfed the House during the announcement of the result was the only patch of quiet on an otherwise noisy and chaotic day.

The presiding officer had to announce a second vote, and the ballot papers were distributed again. While the second voting process was on, the presiding officer called it off after ruling party members objected to Opposition MPs showing the written ballots to their frontbenchers before putting them in the box. As the first round had ended in a tie, many MPs had shown their written ballots to their frontbenchers, including at least one prominent MP from the ruling party, in the second round. Citing procedural violations, ruling party MPs said the secrecy of the ballot was lost if an MP displayed it. Opposition members contended that if a member volunteered to do so, it could not be faulted.

In the chaos that followed, government MPs invaded the well of the house - one of them sat on the ballot box - and demanded that the vote be cancelled and the ballot box be shifted from the well to a secure place. As a way out, the presiding officer moved the ballot box to a place behind the Speaker's chair and placed screens around it to ensure secrecy. W.J.M. Lokubandara, was then elected Speaker.

The final vote started late in the evening. Meanwhile, at every interruption, government and Opposition MPs were seen persuading the abstaining JHU MPs to vote. As the final result was announced, the prospect of the UPFA being defeated by a single vote loomed large. Ruling party members were up on their feet heckling the monks who voted for the Opposition candidate. Finally, at 7-15 pm, Lokubandara's election as Speaker was announced- Speaker Hon. Wijesinghe Jayaweera Mudiansalage Lokubandara.

Speaker W.J.M. Lokubandara, pledged to perform his duties in an independent manner, safeguarding the dignity and decorum of Parliament and upholding its traditions. He also called on all members to extend their support to safeguard democracy and Parliamentary traditions. "Everyone should be dedicated to safeguard democracy and we must move away from confrontational politics marching beyond petty party politics," the Speaker stressed.

While recalling his 27 year political journey, Speaker Lokubandara said he was grateful to former President J.R. Jayewardene for the opportunity given him to enter politics. "I highly appreciate that opportunity extended to a person like me who came from a village and the strength given to make the journey in the political arena. I am proud to state that I have always stood on behalf of the ordinary class of this country," he said. The Speaker also recalled his alma-mater Yahala-Bedda School, Bandarawela Maha Vidyalaya and Peradeniya University where he gained his education and higher education.

During his long and distinguished political career he has held several portfolios; he was Minister of Indigenous medicine, Cultural Affairs and Information, Minister of Education and Higher Education, Minister of Buddha Sasana, Minister of Justice, Law Reform and National Integration.

From 1994 to 2001, he was the Chief Opposition Whip of Parliament. From 2001 to 2004 he was the Leader of the House of Parliament during the UNP Regime.

Lokubandara, a Lawyer by Profession too to active politics. He is also known as a Poet, Song writer, Author, Philosopher and a humane person.

Being what he is and the way he has disciplined his own life, Lokubandara is a religious God fearing Man who is kind and gentle but firm and strong as a Speaker.

The office of Speaker dates to the 14th century. The Speaker presides over the House's debates, determining which member may speak. The Speaker is also responsible for maintaining order during debate, and may punish members who break the rules of the House. Conventionally, the Speaker remains non-partisan, and renounces all affiliation with his or her former political party when taking office. The Speaker does not take part in debate nor vote (except to break ties). Aside from duties relating to presiding over the House, the Speaker also performs administrative and procedural functions, and remains a constituency Member of Parliament. (MP).

The office of Speaker is almost as old as Parliament itself. The earliest year for which a presiding officer has been identified is 1258, when Peter de Montfort presided over the Parliament held in Oxford. Early presiding officers were known by the title parlour or prolocutor. The first "Speaker" of the House of Commons was Sir Thomas Hungerford, who took office in 1376.

Until the 17th century, members of the House of Commons often viewed their Speaker as an agent of the Crown. As Parliament evolved, however, the Speaker's position grew into one that involved more duties to the House than to the Crown; such was definitely the case by the time of the English Civil War. This change is sometimes said to be reflected by an incident in 1642, when King Charles I entered the House in order to search for and arrest five members for high treason. When the King asked him if he knew of the location of these members, the Speaker, William Lenthall, famously replied: "May it please your Majesty, I have neither eyes to see nor tongue to speak in this place but as the House is pleased to direct me, whose servant I am here."

The development of Cabinet government under King William III in the late 17th century caused further change in the nature of the Speakership. Speakers were generally associated with the ministry, and often held other government offices. For example, Robert Harley served simultaneously as Speaker and as a Secretary of State between 1704 and 1705. The Speaker between 1728 and 1761, Arthur Onslow, reduced ties with the government, though the office did remain to a large degree political. The Speakership evolved into its modern form—in which the holder is an impartial and a political officer who does not belong to any party—only during the middle of the 19th century.

By convention Speakers are normally addressed in Parliament as Mr. Speaker (or Mr. Deputy Speaker for their deputies).

Members of Parliament (MPs) elect the Speaker from amongst their own ranks. The House must elect a Speaker at the beginning of each new parliamentary term after a General Election, or after the death or resignation of the incumbent. Once elected, a Speaker continues in office until the dissolution of Parliament. Customarily, the House re-elects Speakers who desire to continue in office for more than one term. Theoretically, the House could vote against re-electing a Speaker, but such an event would be extremely unlikely.

In England, on important ceremonial occasions, the Speaker wears black and gold robes. On less formal occasions, the Speaker wears plain black robes. The Speaker's primary function is to preside over the House of Commons. Whilst "in the Chair" (that is, presiding), the Speaker wears a uniform consisting of a black court suit and black robe with a train. On important ceremonial occasions, the black robe is replaced with a long black and gold robe with lace frills and lace jabot. Formerly, the Speaker also wore a full-bottomed wig when presiding and on other occasions; in 1992, however, Betty Boothroyd decided to end this practice. Her successor, Michael Martin MP, also eschewed the wig; moreover, he chose to simplify other aspects of the uniform, doing away with the once customary buckled court shoes and silk stockings. However , although in Sri Lanka we adapt the old system of the wig at ceremonial sittings it should be done away with as we have the oriental language and an English garb absolutely irrelevant to each other.Speaker W.J.M.Lokubandara in his ceremonial dressSpeaker W.J.M.Lokubandara in his ceremonial dress

Whilst presiding, the Speaker sits at a chair in the front of the House. Traditionally, members of the Government sit on his right, and those of the Opposition on his left. The Speaker's powers are extensive. Most importantly, the Speaker calls on members to speak; no member may make a speech without the Speaker's prior permission. By custom, the Speaker alternates between members of the Government and of the Opposition. Members direct their speeches not to the whole House, but to the Speaker, using the words "Mister Speaker" or "Madam Speaker." Members must refer to each other in the third person; they may not directly address anyone other than the Speaker. In order to maintain his impartiality, the Speaker never makes any speeches.

During debate, the Speaker is responsible for maintaining discipline and order. He or she rules on all points of order (objections made by members asserting that a rule of the House has been broken); the decisions may not be appealed. The Speaker bases decisions on the rules of the House and on precedent; if necessary, he or she may consult with the Parliamentary Clerks before issuing a ruling. In addition, the Speaker has other powers that he may use to maintain orderly debate. Usually, the Speaker attempts to end a disruption, or "calls members to order," by repeating "Order! Order!" If members do not follow his or her instructions, the Speaker may punish them by demanding that they leave the House for the remainder of the day's sitting.

In addition to maintaining discipline, the Speaker must ensure that debate proceeds smoothly. If the Speaker finds that a member is making irrelevant remarks, is tediously repetitive, or is otherwise attempting to delay proceedings, he or she may order the member to end the speech. The present Speaker, Michael Martin, has been especially active in this regard; in May 2004, for example, he rebuked the Prime Minister (Tony Blair) for answering a question on his policies by attacking those of the Opposition. Furthermore, before debate begins, the Speaker may invoke the "Short Speech" rule, under which he or she may set a time limit (at least eight minutes) which will apply to every speech. At the same time, however, the Speaker is charged with protecting the interests of the minority by ensuring sufficient debate before a vote. Thus, the Speaker may disallow a closure, which seeks to end debate and immediately put the question to a vote, if he or she finds that the motion constitutes an abuse of the rules or breaches the rights of the minority.

Before the House votes on any issue, the Speaker "puts the question"; that is, he or she verbally states the motion on which the members are to vote. He or she then assesses the result of a voice vote, but any member may demand a division (a recorded vote). The Speaker may overrule a request for a division and maintain the original ruling; this power, however, is used only rarely, usually when members make frivolous requests for divisions in order to delay proceedings.

The Speaker does not vote in the division, except when the ‘Ayes’ and ‘Noes’ are tied, in which case he or she must use the casting vote. In exercising the casting vote, the Speaker may theoretically vote as he or she pleases, but, in practice, always votes in accordance with certain unwritten conventions. Firstly, the Speaker votes to give the House further opportunity to debate a bill or motion before reaching a final decision. (For example, the Speaker would be obliged to vote against a closure motion.)

Secondly, any final decision should be approved by the majority.(Thus, for instance, the Speaker would vote against the final passage of a bill.) Finally, the Speaker should vote to leave a bill or motion in its existing form; in other words, the Speaker would vote against an amendment.

Speaker is also responsible for overseeing the administration of the House. He or she chairs the House of Commons Commission, a body that appoints staff, determines their salaries, and supervises the general administration of those who serve the House. Furthermore, the Speaker controls the parts of the Palace of Westminster used by the House of Commons. Also, the Speaker is the ex officio Chairman of the four Boundary Commissions (for England, Wales, Scotland, and Northern Ireland), which are charged with redrawing the boundaries of parliamentary constituencies to reflect population changes. However, the Speaker normally does not attend meetings of the Boundary Commissions; instead, the Deputy Chairman of the Commission (usually a judge) normally presides.

Finally, the Speaker continues to represent his or her constituency in Parliament. Like any other Member of Parliament, he or she responds to letters from constituents and attempts to address their concerns.

It is the tradition in the Parliament of Sri Lanka that the Speaker comes to the Office of the Chief Government Whip of Parliament on every sitting day and leaves from the Office of the Chief Government Whip of Parliament with the Serjeant Arms carrying the Mace to the Chamber to open the sessions. This reveals the importance of the Office of the Chief Government Whip of Parliament. Sri Lanka is fortunate to have the most powerful Orator, Lawyer, Humanist,Cabinet Minister as its Chief Government Whip – Hon.Jeyaraj Fernandopulle without whom the Government side would not be strong in a coalition Government. Jeyaraj is the strongest and most loyal supporter and indomitable Defender of President Mahinda Rajapakse in and outside Parliament. His armoury of oratorical talents and skills of advocacy makes President Rajapakse stronger and most lovable by the Nation day after day.

The man who holds the highest Office in Parliament is the most humble man outside the Chamber. He has no party affiliations- independent by nature and the office he holds. A fearless defender of democracy and the Principal Officer who safeguards the Standing Orders of Parliament to the very letter. Speaker Lokubandara is a self disciplined man and is seen at Buddhist and Hindu Temples. He respects all religions and observes the religious formalities of all religious festivals with the entire staff of Parliament. He is a devotee of Mayuramman Badra Kali Temple in Wellawatte and is seen regularly. In vehicle which he is driven, according to very reliable sources he is often meditating with his legs folded on the seat. His strength is derived from his inner self the soul. He does not engage himself in the petty bickering of party politics. He is a man of content without want. His independence is reflected by the fact that newspapers which support the main opposition party who nominated him make derogatory remarks about various matters which he is least concerned of. Any individual who knows him would dismiss any claims made by these newspapers. He leads a more pious life than most priests in and outside temples and churches.

Dr.T.C.Rajaratnam is the Co-ordinating Secretary to the Chief Government Whip of Parliament, a UNOPS Consultant, an International Legal Consultant, Author and Poet.

- Asian Tribune -

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