Perspective

Madam Speaker

Unjustified and unseemly criticisms are being leveled against the country’s newest House speaker

The advent of live proceedings of Parliament was a pivotal step in deepening the country’s democracy, and in making the people’s business in the legislature accessible to all.

Bahamians are able to watch and listen to their representatives, observe first-hand how laws are made, and they are often avid spectators of parliamentary debate – which has regrettably deteriorated in quality and substance over the years.

Though Bahamians regularly watch and listen to live proceedings of Parliament, many do not know the conventions, rules and procedures of Parliament, or ascertain the reasons that they exist.

Much watching does not necessarily make for much understanding.

What many Bahamians consider to be unfair or unjust during parliamentary proceedings, for instance, is often not based on a firm understanding of conventions or rules, but on how one feels about the parliamentarian involved, or the individual in the chair as speaker.

The speaker of the House is the presiding officer of the Parliament, who is charged with maintaining order, ensuring that the rights and privileges of all members are preserved, and protecting the rights of the minority.

Bamboo Town MP Patricia Deveaux now occupies the august office of House speaker, and she is only the second female to ascend to this office in The Bahamas, making her election thereto a noteworthy event.

All House speakers are subject to scrutiny and criticism, and Deveaux of course, can be no exception.

But Perspective finds the scope and nature of some recent criticisms against Deveaux to be beyond the pale.

Moreover, our review of footage of last week’s House sittings reveals that accusations of unfair rulings on the part of Deveaux are thus far, without merit.

Order in the House

The Free National Movement (FNM) is now in opposition, and like administrations before it that have been kicked out of office, its members are not exactly happy about their new position.

It can be hard for some politicians to get over losing power, and the adjustment period can be longer and more difficult for those who are unwilling to accept their new station in life.

Nevertheless, the rules, procedures and conventions of Parliament are what they are, and no member is entitled to more rights than these provisions provide, regardless of what office he or she might have most recently held.

During Prime Minister and Minister of Finance Philip Brave Davis’ recent communication to Parliament on government’s 2021/2022 supplementary budget, East Grand Bahama MP Kwasi Thompson sought to interrupt the communication via a point of order, a mechanism in parliamentary debates we will expound on as we proceed.

Deveaux denied Thompson’s attempts to do this, and in the following sitting, advised the House that points of order in such cases will be recognized after a government communication is read.

Some FNMs sought to spin this as the speaker being unfair to the opposition, but her ruling was sound, as it has been the longstanding practice and tradition of the Parliament that communications by a government minister not be interrupted by points of order.

While in government, ministers in the Minnis administration benefitted from this same longstanding practice, and the rules do not change simply because members are uncomfortable with having to conform to them while in opposition.

Points of order are an important facet of parliamentary debate, and their purpose is to call upon the speaker to make a determination about what a member asserts is another member’s violation of a House rule.

Rule 38 (1) of the Rules of Procedure of the House of Assembly states, “A member who rises on a point of order shall, when invited by the speaker or chairman to do so, state the infringement of these rules on which his point of order is based and then resume his seat.”

Rule 38 (2) and (3) states, “When a point of order has been raised, any member who is then speaking shall resume his seat and, after the point of order has been stated, the speaker or chairman shall rule on it. A member shall not dissent from a ruling by the speaker or chairman except by a substantive motion for that purpose.”

Rather than utilizing points of order as House rules stipulate, members over the years have sought to use points of order as a mechanism to violate another member’s privilege, by repeatedly preventing the member from making his or her point in a contribution.

Members have also sought to use points of order to merely complain about statements they do not like, rather than to definitively state and demonstrate what rule has been violated by another member.

In her communication at the November 3 sitting, Deveaux said, “I put all members on notice … that you will not be allowed to abuse neither your privileges nor those of another member. Every member has a right to speak in this House.

“The points of order will not evolve as a weapon to stifle debate or otherwise deprive another member of his right to be respectfully heard. The chair will not allow the points of orders of another member to assail the rights of another member.”

The speaker’s statement is not only supported by House rules, but pursues the preservation of a member’s privilege, and establishes what is intended to be proper order during proceedings.

Following Davis’ communication, leader of opposition business in the House, St. Anne’s MP Adrian White bemoaned that the microphones of FNM MPs were off during the member’s communication, and called on the speaker to allow their microphones to be on throughout the House’s proceedings.

White’s request was inconsistent with parliamentary practice, as the microphone of all members, government and opposition, remain in the off position throughout a sitting until and unless a member is recognized by the speaker.

The speaker is the only House member whose microphone remains in the on position throughout the duration of House proceedings.

This is done to ensure that only the member recognized by the speaker is to be heard at any given time both for the official record of the House, and the maintenance of order.

Members are given an allotted time with which to make their communication, contribution or statement, and there are occasions when members who do not make efficient use of their time, seek to have more time with which to speak.

Allowing a member to go beyond his or her allotted time is the sole discretion of the speaker.

Last week, Central Grand Bahama MP Iram Lewis made what amounted to a disrespectful protest to the speaker about Yamacraw MP Zane Lightbourne being permitted to go over his allotted time, though Long Island MP Adrian Gibson was not permitted to do so.

Perspective reviewed the footage of last week’s proceedings, which revealed that not only had Opposition Leader Dr. Hubert Minnis been granted extra time by the speaker to make his debate contribution, but Deveaux also denied a government member the opportunity to go beyond his allotted time.

We describe Lewis’ manner of protest to the speaker as disrespectful not only in his tone toward the chair, but because there is an established mechanism in the rules whereby a member is to dissent a ruling of the chair.

That mechanism is a substantive motion, which could be either a resolution of condemnation or a resolution of no confidence.

Beyond this, members do beg leave of the chair to make suggestions regarding how the speaker might view a matter on the floor, but the same must be done respectfully, recognizing that the authority to make rulings rests solely with the speaker.

When Deveaux, in our view, rightfully responded to Lewis’ manner of protest by asking him if he is telling her how to do her job, and Lewis responded from his seat in the affirmative, the Central Grand Bahama MP was out of order, and disrespecting both the authority of the chair and the person in the chair.

Deveaux’s admonition to Lewis to “be very careful” was, in our view, putting the member on notice that his behavior toward the chair will not be tolerated.

While the speaker’s authority to order a member removed for disorderly conduct ought to be executed with temperance, that authority nonetheless exists, and is affirmed regardless of how a member feels about who occupies the office of speaker.

Real talk on Deveaux criticisms

Regardless of sex, those who occupy high office must serve well. 

That being said, scrutiny is more intense on a woman in authority, and the expectation is she must prove her worth simply because she is female.

Responses to the execution of authority by women are invariably colored by societal and religious views about the role of women, and what the posture of a woman ought to be.

In our September 20 piece “Do the right thing”, we spoke to the departure from parliamentary convention which began in the first Christie administration, wherein an MP is put forward for election to House Speaker without having previously served in the Parliament.

This makes the learning curve for a parliamentary novice turned speaker unduly steep, which in general does not best serve the essential interests of the legislature.

During an appearance on the Eyewitness News program “Beyond the Headlines” last week, the country’s first female House Speaker Italia Johnson categorized recent criticisms of Deveaux as substantively unfair, urging, “As a people, we have to give the new speaker an opportunity to settle in.”

When questioned on whether she believes patriarchal mindsets play some role in the criticisms, Johnson said, “Absolutely it does, because that is the society in which we live. And quite frankly on a practical level, it bothered me at first but after much thought and advice, men, I find in powerful positions, have a problem accepting women.

“… [T]he same way they interact with the women in their families, they will bring that to the Parliament, and you must find a way as speaker to gently advise them that you are a competent, educated, well-rounded person … and you must command the respect of the Parliament by your performance.”

Our observation of criticisms levied at Deveaux however, go beyond patriarchal views to a denigrating mode of thinking rooted in self-hate, pseudo-elitism, and ideas about social class and pedigree.

We note that rather than criticisms being lodged based on fact or knowledge of House rules, most commentary is instead centering on Deveaux’s style of speaking, her appearance, and her previous work as a food vendor.

Whether some Bahamians want to admit it or not, there are conclusions that tend to be drawn about the acceptability and competence of dark-skinned, assertive women with a style not always considered sophisticated by Eurocentric standards.

Without knowing what such women bring to the table, there is a tendency to judge them as being unsuited for positions of prominence.

It is our observation that beyond politics which classically taints our perspective, some Bahamians are bent on looking for reasons for Deveaux to be wrong, rather than educating themselves on whether her rulings are sound.

We are also of the view that too often, Bahamians focus on the wrong things, and are more concerned with form over substance and appearance over aptitude, with a bent toward pretentiousness that causes far too many of us to see ourselves as being above others based on how they look, where they come from, their level of formal education, or in what social circles they are embraced.

Our concern with respect to the speaker of the House is not with her personality, but with whether her rulings are consistent with House rules and practice, and whether she executes her authority as speaker in a considered manner, and without fear or favor.

We do not require her to be demure, prim or delicate, and she does not need to be liked by us to be deemed effective by us.

We require her to be well-prepared, competent and assertive where necessary, recognizing that whenever a woman must put a man in his place and establish order, some among us will be triggered and take their discomfort and cognitive dissonance out on the woman in authority.

Meantime, there are some who have sought to deride Deveaux by, presumably in their minds, reducing her to being “just a hotdog vendor”.

They ignore that Deveaux served as a senior executive secretary in the Ministry of National Security for 30 years.

Put downs about her also being a former food vendor suggest that Deveaux is not worthy to ascend to high office in the Parliament, not to mention such comments being rank hypocrisy coming from those who are content to eat packaged meats, but not content to see upward mobility for small business owners who sell them as part of a legitimate enterprise.

We have had lawyers, doctors, accountants and other professionals assume high office in this country, and if these resumes in and of themselves were supposed to translate into exceptional leadership and service, The Bahamas ought to have been light years ahead of where it is today.

Regardless of one’s trade, being an entrepreneur is noble, and is the resume of many current and past parliamentarians.

As former Speaker Johnson indicated, we believe that with time, Deveaux will grow in her post and develop more comfort with her role as Parliament’s presiding officer, and making correct rulings as she has done thus far, is a good start.

We urge the new speaker to be given to much study, to be open to sound advice, and to keep always at the forefront her responsibility to ensure that the people’s business in the people’s House is carried out through the proper functioning of the chamber over which she presides.

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