Recent fracas and rules of order and decorum in the house

Recently Parliament descended into chaos culminating in the dismissal of some opposition Members of Parliament (MPs) from the House.

Pictures of an MP carried out of the chamber by the security personnel circulating on social and print media tell in part the extent of the problem in Parliament on that day. The social media is still abuzz with comments and debates on what transpired in Parliament. For some the disruptions by some opposition MPs were warranted because they were venting out their anger against an unfair ruling of the Speaker whilst others think that MPs were being unruly and out of order and reminisce on what they sometime see happening in the Parliament of South Africa. There are also debates about how the Speaker could have handled the matter.

I do not want to belabour the reader with what happened as the matter is now public knowledge. However, a summary of what happened is necessary. The bone of contention was a motion on water and electricity which a Member sought to table on urgency in terms of Standing Order 50. However, the Speaker had outside the chamber that morning advised the MP that his office had received Ministers questions on the same matter in accordance with Standing Order 40(A)1 and that preference should be given to the same MP to bring the matter to Parliament as he has approached his office first. Moreover, the Speaker advised that the two MPs discuss on who and how to bring the issue to the House. The discussion between the two MPs was inconclusive. The MP who sought to bring a motion on urgency contended both outside and inside the chamber that he didn’t need the consent of the other MP to bring an urgent motion and that there was no rule that precluded him from bringing a matter simply because there are questions on the same matter before the house. The MP was right. He even further argued, post the incident, that the refusal to let him table the motion because he had not complied with Standing Order 50.1 which requires that an MP wishing to bring a motion on urgency must furnish the Speaker with a written notification and get consent was unfair because he was caused not to comply by the Speaker who asked him to go and consult with another MP.

While I do not suspect any bad faith or ill motive on the Speaker, I think he was wrong in application of the rules in particular that he shouldn’t have asked the MP wishing to notice a motion on urgency to go and consult an MP who intended to ask Ministers questions because there is no specific rule on that. Those who have been in Parliament longer also say there is also nothing like that in the traditions and practices of Parliament. The Parliamentary Counsel (PC) should also be blamed for failing to properly advice the Speaker on the application of rules on this matter.  He can be excused if the Speaker refused his advice. The two MPs also ought to have approached the Speaker before the commencement of the session to avoid confrontation in the House. To avoid the matter snowballing into a crisis that it was, the Speaker should have adjourned the House and called party whips at his chambers or all MP to the General Assembly. It was within his right to order the Sergeant at Arms and his personnel and the police into the camber to forcibly remove MPs in terms of provisions of the Powers and Privileges Act (however flawed the provision is) but it was wrong given the ramifications of the action, specifically the public confidence in Parliament and the sanctity of the institution. 

The matter became the subject at the General Assembly on Thursday. MPs across the political divide discussed the matter extensively with almost everybody admitting their part in what transpired. Members who disrupted the proceedings were indubitably in violation of the rules of order and decorum in the House even though they tried to justify it. Emphasis was placed on the integrity, of Parliament; that is a sanctified and or august place which must be accorded the necessary respect by everybody. The general consensus was that what happened this week should not be allowed to happen in the future as it may detract from the integrity and public confidence in the institution. I will not discuss everything that was said in the General Assembly. What it is clear is that there seems to be no hard feelings or grudges as MPs can now joke about the incident however embarrassing it was. There are many things which need to be attended to avert similar incidents. It is important that the Standing Orders are periodically reviewed to smoothen proceedings, avoid rigidity and accord MPs adequate time to represent their people. Most importantly, Parliament as an institution must be independent of the executive, in particular the Office of the President.

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