“The chief characteristics attaching to the speaker in the House of Commons are authority and impartiality.” — Erskine May
Last week, we recounted some of the reasons for asserting that the present speaker of the House of Assembly was out of order. The reasons given in that column related to his oversight of the House of Assembly within months of assuming that high office.
We recounted how, in the early months of the new Parliament that was comprised of 35 government members and four opposition members, in a deplorable display and flagrant abuse of power, the speaker of the House of Assembly suspended her Majesty’s entire Loyal Opposition from Parliament. He also launched a scathing verbal assault on three Parliamentarians, as well as against an individual who could not defend himself in Parliament because he was not a member.
Two weeks ago, the speaker once again confirmed that he is unfit to hold that office because of his treatment of a member, Glenys Hanna-Martin.
This week, we will consider this — has the speaker of the House of Assembly once again confirmed that he is out of order and has lost his moral authority to continue to preside over the House of Assembly?
The role of the speaker of the House of Assembly
Erskine May is the expert on parliamentary procedures that have developed in the Westminster system. His extensive expertise is detailed in his landmark literary opus: “Parliamentary Practice”, which is the primary reference source for members of Parliament.
According to May, and the conventions of the Westminster parliamentary system, the speaker has four main roles:
1. He is the principal officer of the House [of Assembly] (the House). In this role, he oversees the House staff inclusive of the clerks, clerical staff, the Hansard (the recording of the House proceedings) and the sergeant-at-arms;
2. The speaker presides over the meetings of the House, which is the role that most people recognize. He maintains order, issues rulings on matters that arise and recognizes members to speak on their feet;
3. He is the spokesman for the House in its relationship with other parliaments, institutions and the governor general. He signs all bills, resolutions, messages and letters from the House; and
4. The speaker protects the privileges of the House and its members individually and collectively and is empowered to make rules to govern the behavior of members of the public who attend House meetings.
The speaker’s most recent deplorable decorum
When the House met on June 30, 2020, the speaker ordered guards to escort Glenys Hanna-Martin from the House following a screaming match that erupted after the government abruptly moved to suspend its proceedings.
The suspension came shortly after the prime minister tabled a proclamation of emergency that ordered a new state of emergency, after the attorney general admittedly bungled the extension of the existing state of emergency, necessitating the government to scramble to rectify this oversight.
After the prime minister tabled the proclamation, Philip E. Davis, QC, MP, rose to speak, but the speaker refused to acknowledge Davis, allowing the leader of government business in the House to move the suspension. This prompted an outburst by the official opposition, including vigorous protests from Hanna-Martin, albeit from her chair, which, it should be noted, like remarks made by MPs not recognized to speak by the speaker, were not a part of the proceedings.
Speaker Moultrie saw fit to condemn Hanna-Martin’s comments anyway, although made while in her seat and therefore not officially part of the House proceedings of the day. He also ordered her to remove herself from the House. She refused to accede to the speaker’s order, resulting in the latter instructing the House guards to remove her from the chamber physically. Hanna-Martin did not budge, after which the speaker sought and obtained the approval of the House to suspend to the next day.
To add insult to injury, the speaker then informed Hanna-Martin, by correspondence from the clerk of the House, that she would not be allowed to re-enter the House “until and unless a written apology, signed by the member (Glenys Hanna-Martin) is presented to the speaker of the House”.
Davis responded that the speaker had no authority to remove Hanna-Martin, stating, “This is an assault on democracy and all people of goodwill should join us at the House of Assembly tomorrow morning to resist this tyranny. Our attorneys will be seeking to move the courts if she is unlawfully excluded from the House.”
At the final moment, the speaker relented from this capriciously undemocratic and unsubstantiated position to prevent Hanna-Martin from taking her seat at the next sitting of the House. He also demonstrated a rather concerning confusion about the functioning of the House, when he informed Hanna-Martin he would be expunging her remarks (that she had made off the record, while seated) from the Hansard. This entire episode clearly demonstrates the speaker’s unwarranted assault on and careless disregard for established democratic norms.
Is the speaker qualified to preside over Parliament?
We believe that there are at least 10 reasons why the current speaker is neither qualified nor suitable to preside over the House of Assembly.
First: Speaker Moultrie does not demonstrate that he has the temperament or the personality to be speaker. He is too thin-skinned and impulsive. As in the most recent case of Hanna-Martin, he demonstrated that his impulsive and indiscriminate disparagement of the member was capricious and unsustainable.
Second: He imposes himself too frequently in the debates, interfering mostly in the debates of opposition members. Like the characters in “Animal Farm”, the speaker has decided that “all members are equal, but some are more equal than others” and has therefore deliberately decided to denigrate members of the official opposition.
Third: He wants to be seen as a stickler for the rules of the House, but his unfair application of the rules, primarily against the official opposition, does not allow for normal give-and-take of debates. Quite often, he has been adversely entangled in those rules, a situation he has blamed on what he claims are two different editions of the rules that he encountered when he assumed the office.
Fourth: He does not seem to understand that in the Westminster system, the speaker is the speaker of the whole House and is supposed to be fair, neutral and protect the rights of the minority. There have been numerous instances where the speaker has refused to allow the official opposition the right to have its say.
Fifth: The fundamental problem is that he is too inexperienced for the role of speaker. With few exceptions, a first-time parliamentarian should never be speaker of the House.
There are too many nuances that a member only grasps by learning and witnessing first-hand. He has not had the benefit of attending many parliamentary conferences to network and learn best practices of being a presiding officer. However, he behaves as though he is not aware of the limitations of his knowledge and makes inadvisable rulings and interventions as if he had written the rules himself.
Sixth: The speaker believes his legal training has prepared him to fill the role of speaker. While legal training should help to shorten the learning curve, it is not sufficient in and of itself. Moreover, legal training alone, coupled with the inadequacy of extensive experience, is undoubtedly insufficient to qualify him for his position. It is most interesting that he more frequently cites his “scientific” training as a meteorologist than he does his legal instruction.
Seventh: Oftentimes, the speaker does not appear to avail himself of proper procedural advice.
Eighth: While in the chair, the speaker has repeatedly – and unfairly — castigated individuals who are not even members of the House and are therefore unable to defend themselves from his wanton attacks.
Ninth: The speaker utters cynical and sarcastic remarks from the chair that are intended to embarrass and disconcert members and non-members. This kind of conduct does not contribute to the harmonious running of the House that a speaker is supposed to encourage and oversee to facilitate fully accomplishing the people’s business.
Tenth: This speaker has done more than any of his recent predecessors to inspire a lack of confidence in the proceedings of the House. Neither has he worked to contribute to its longstanding reputation as the honorable House of Assembly. In the minds of the public, this speaker has done little to lift the House of Assembly to new heights.
One of the readers of this column, a professed and ardent long-term Free National Movement supporter, texted me last week after reading the first instalment of this series, saying, “Unfortunately, there’s no hope for this speaker, the worse one in the annals of Bahamian history!!!”
Unfortunately, the holder of this office has reduced the elevated position of speaker to such low levels, over and over again.
We can only hope that, for the remaining months of this speaker’s tenure, he will recognize the urgent need to reform his behavior in the chair.
Perhaps, then he will be able to redeem himself and return that office – and his legacy and reputation — to a level that is respected both inside and outside the honorable House of Assembly.
• Philip C. Galanis is the managing partner of HLB Galanis and Co., Chartered Accountants, Forensic & Litigation Support Services. He served 15 years in Parliament. Please send your comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.