By Chamara Sampath
The legislature, or Parliament, has a special place in a democracy. It is a common belief that Parliament is an independent body and the MPs should be allowed to function together as peoples’ representatives without any difference between the government and the opposition. Parliamentary Standing Orders, Privileges, and Parliamentary Traditions are based on these principles.
Also, MPs as well as the public expect the Speaker to be independent. However, it is not always the case. The purpose of this article is to expose a potential violation of parliamentary tradition by the Speaker through information obtained through the Right to Information Act.
Chairpersons who take over the Chair of Parliament
When Parliament is in session, the Speaker presides over the House. In the absence of the Speaker, the Deputy Speaker or the Chairman of the Committee shall take the Chair. In the absence of all of them, a Panel of chairpersons, consisting of Members of both the government and opposition parties is appointed to maintain the proceedings of Parliament uninterrupted.
State or deputy ministers are not appointed to this panel and as a tradition, senior MPs are also not appointed. Mostly junior MPs are appointed to the Speakers’ panel. If a Member of Parliament in the panel becomes a Minister, he will be removed from the panel and the Speaker shall inform Parliament of the Members who will replace them on the list.
The Speaker changes the Chair
On May 18th this year, there was an issue with the Chair of Parliament. Speaker Mahinda Yapa Abeywardena, who presided over the commencement of Parliament, had asked Shanakkiyan Rasamanikkam to assume the Chair as he wanted to leave the House after the completion of the preliminary rounds. Although Mr. Rasamanikkam was present to assume the Chair according to the notification, the Speaker invited Mr. Shantha Bandara, a former Minister and a Member of the Government, to assume the Chair. Mr. Rasamanikkam then raised a question of privilege in Parliament and blamed the Leader of the House, Minister Dinesh Gunawardena, for the unforeseen situation.
This is the conversation that followed in Parliament (The chairperson is MP Shantha Bandara).
MP Rasamanikkam – Before you came to the Chair, a Serjeant-at-Arms spoke to me and told me that the Speaker had to leave his chair and asked me whether I could come to the Chair. So I took a seat near the Chair. At that time I saw that the Leader of the House Dinesh Gunawardena had sent a message to the two Secretaries asking them to take you to the Chair instead of me. Then I asked the Secretary-General what was going on and he replied “Don’t ask me.” I am a member of the Speakers’ panel. This parliament is an independent institution. It is not an SLPP parliament. How ugly is it to ask me to come to the Chair and change it at the last minute? For me, it doesn’t matter whether I am in the Chair or not but what is the independence of this Parliament if you do not like me to preside over the House because I speak against the Government and because I speak about Mr. Ranil Wickremesinghe’s deals? Mr. Dinesh Gunawardena is present here in Parliament. If you can, tell me why you did that. I expect an answer from you.
Leader of the House Dinesh Gunawardena – MP Rasamanikyam says different things from time to time, but I am not ready to answer this. It is the Speaker who has the right to answer this.
Chair of the House MP Shantha Bandara – There is an explanation for that. I received the same message MP Rasamanikkam received around the same time. I am number one on the list as the most senior member of the panel. That is why we both received the invitation.
MP Rasamanikkam – You were not even in the House.
MP Shantha Banadara – No, I was.
Commenting on this, MP Sumanthiran also stated that the Parliamentary privileges of MP Rasamanikkam have been violated by that action.
Mr. Shantha Bandara was sworn in as the State Minister of Agriculture before the President and assumed duties on April 12th. Later, due to the unrest that took place on May 09th, after the resignation of the cabinet headed by Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa, everyone lost their ministerial portfolios. A person who is a Minister cannot be appointed as the Chair. Also, the Speaker had not made a statement after May 09th that MP Shantha Bandara had been included in the chairmen panel. This created confusion in Parliament.
Request for information
To understand this situation correctly and to ascertain whether the Speaker had violated parliamentary tradition, this writer submitted a request for information to Parliament on May 18th requesting the panel of Chairpersons in effect at the time, the day the list was appointed, and the minutes of the day the Speaker presented the list to Parliament.
Announcement by the Speaker
The Speaker addressed the Parliament at the commencement of Parliament on May 19th, the day after the request for information was made, and presented the composition of the Chair Directory, which he said would be in effect from May 19th. Although Mr. Lakshman Kiriella questioned this, the Speaker did not allow it and proceeded without making any statement. The statement made by the Speaker on that day was as follows:
“I would like to inform Parliament that I have nominated the following Members of Parliament to be included in the Panel of Chairpersons to serve in the Second Session of the Ninth Parliament from 19.05.2022 in accordance with Standing Order 140 of Parliament:—
- Hon. Mr. Shantha Bandara
- Hon. Mr. Velu Kumar
- Hon. Mr. Mayantha Dissanayake
- Hon. Mr. Harshana Rajakaruna
- Hon. Ms. Rohini Kumari Wijeratne
- Hon. Mr. Hesha Withanage
- Hon. Ms. Kokila Gunawardena
- Hon. Mr. Premnath C. Dolawatta
- Hon. Mr. Wasantha Yapa Bandara
- Hon. Mr. Shanakkiyan Rajaputtiran Rasamanikkam
- Hon. Mr. Weerasumane Weerasinghe
- Hon. Dr. Suren Raghavan
- Hon. Dr. Harini Amarasuriya”
Different answers to the Information Request
Although the request for information regarding this incident was made on May 18th, the Parliament had sent a letter dated May 31st stating that the request was made on May 19th and had given the list of Members appointed by the Speaker on the 19th. However, Parliament had not provided to this writer the Panel of Speakers in effect till May 18th and the minutes of its appointment to Parliament. The matter has now been sent as an appeal to the designated official in Parliament. Can it, therefore, be assumed that the Speaker has violated a parliamentary tradition?
It is also regrettable that the very institution, namely the Parliament, that passed the Right to Information Act, is now not providing the correct requested information in accordance with that Act.