Options raised for Fiji's Sodelpa over suspension
A scholar of parliamentary process and law in the region Richard Herr says the opposition in Fiji has a few options open to it to deal with the long term suspension of one of its MPSs.
A scholar of parliamentary process and law in the region Richard Herr says the opposition in Fiji has a few options open to it to deal with the long term suspension of one of its MPS.
Ratu Naiqama Lalabalavu of the Sodelpa party has been suspended from parliament for two years over slurs against the Speaker Jiko Luveni during a constituency meeting.
The opposition denies anything was directed at the Speaker and boycotted Parliament last week after the House voted on the suspension.
Dr Herr spoke to Sally Round
RICHARD HERR: Well it went through the usual process for any parliament, parliamentary privilege. Somebody referred an issue of privilege to the Privileges Committee, the Privileges Committee met, heard it, made a recommendation to parliament and the parliament received the recommendation and voted on it so the procedure itself was fairly standard.
SALLY ROUND: There have been concerns that there was a conflict of interest in the roles of the Attorney-General and the Speaker in judging this issue.
RH: Privileges Committees are made up of Members of Parliament. They've always had some element of a conflict of interest of course. I think if there were personal issues I don't know of them and I'm not aware of them and I couldn't comment on them I'm afraid.
SR: What about the time taken over this issue? The Opposition says there was time pressure to have a decision. The Privileges Committee met over a series of days just within a week. Do you think there was unnecessary time pressure on a substantial issue like this?
RH: I'm very sorry I really can't comment on it since I don't know in detail what they did. All I have is the reports I have seen in the media on it. It appears to have been an issue where both sides have disagreed significantly on aspects of what was said and under what circumstances.
SR: There's been concern that the punishment of the two years' suspension is heavy-handed. How does this compare with other punishments meted out in other parliaments perhaps around the region?
RH: Well I guess if you use Standing Orders you can use the Standing Orders of the Fijian parliament and you see that if the matter is unruly and seriously unruly the first offence is for I think 24 hours and the next a few days but the maximum was 28 days. Now that's for something that is unruly behaviour, disrespectful behaviour within the parliament itself. It tells you something about the length of unruly behaviour within the parliament but then on the other hand it's clear that that's not the only penalty. That if it's seriously disrespectful, not only can it get the 28 days suspension but it could be referred to the Privileges Committee and since this was referred to the Privileges Committee of course those guidelines don't necessarily apply, but it does show you something about expected severity.
SR: Have you heard of a two year suspension before on a matter like this involving contempt, privilege?
RH: It seems to go against the trend I guess in some ways. Parliaments generally try not to use their powers. Remember this is the powers of the parliament as a court to consider its own privileges and indeed the Privileges Committees have the powers of a High Court, it says, in terms of calling witnesses and getting evidence and so on so it has that court-like procedure. The difficulty is that when parliaments use privileges to impose sanctions, often it is seen by the public as the parliament acting in a way that erodes public confidence and I think most parliaments are trying to avoid appearances that create public controversy. You can't always avoid it, of course not. When it's disciplining a member inside the parliament it always is going to be caught up in partisan issues as well as public perceptions so it's a difficult, a very difficult issue. Generally parliaments have tended to try and avoid using their powers of enforcing sanctions on privileges precisely because of the public reaction.
SR: Can you explain the importance of the sanctity of parliament, the role of the speaker? Why has this long standing rule around what they call 'not reflecting on the speaker', why is it in existence?
RH: Well it exists because we know that the rules will be made. We have an election. The election is, opinion is divided, the majority wins and yet we want to believe that the process by which things are decided isn't purely the-winner-takes-all. So we have procedures, we have processes and we want those to be respected and of course the speaker in all parliaments is the person who represents the authority of proper process. Just as you can't be disrespectful to a judge in court for precisely the same reason. You want to trust the outcome of the court and you want to be respectful of the processes of the court and i t is the same with parliament. The speaker needs to be protected and needs to be respected even though at times the public can hold their own counsel I guess as to whether they agree with that or not. At least formally the parliament has to insist on it otherwise everything becomes a partisan bun fight. It certainly is unacceptable to be reduced to that level.
SR: The opposition, they had two members on the Privileges Committee that made the recommendation to parliament for suspension and they didn't agree with that decision. What is open to the opposition now because after all they've lost one opposition member?
RH: Well I suppose they have three options at the moment. They can choose to focus on the empty chair in parliament as a sort of silent protest in order to draw public attention to it. The member himself can resign of course which would mean that the position would be refilled immediately. I guess the constituents or some of the constituents could petition the parliament to reconsider it. It can't go to court but the parliament itself could reconsider the matter if it was willing to entertain this. I suppose the only way really to do this would be for the constituents to petition the parliament in some way. It's really up to the opposition to see what they want to do and what they think is the tactic that benefits them I guess. Whether it's replacing a member or leaving a vacant chair or trying to persuade the parliament to reconsider in some way.
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