Editorial | Speaker got it right
Although she did it without reference to her previous ruling on the matter, Speaker Marisa Dalrymple-Philibert’s endorsement of an on-demand divide in the House last week was an important acknowledgement that there was a fundamental error, under which a red line may now be drawn. Parliament, therefore, can return to operating in concert with its Standing Orders. But more importantly, last week’s event is an opportunity for Mrs Dalrymple-Philibert to reset her speakership by removing the doubts of her ability to transcend her partisan affinities when presiding over the legislature.
Mrs Dalrymple-Philibert caused consternation last month with a novel interpretation of the rules, which would have ended the decades-old practice of allowing parliamentary divides, or members actually being asked to declare their votes on a matter, once a member of parliament called for it. Its use, in this case by the Opposition, she said, was “just disruptive”.
Most decisions in the House are taken by collective voice votes, with members declaring “aye” or “nay” after the Speaker, in the arcane language of Parliament, puts the question. The Speaker, on the basis of that voice vote, then declares whether it is the ayes of the nays who “have it”.
That, though, is not necessarily the end for the process. Standing Order 45 provides that “any member may challenge the opinion of the chair by claiming a division”. There is no qualification of the circumstances in which a divide may be called for.
DEVICE LONG BEEN USED
The device has long been used, mostly by opposition members, when there are issues on which disagreements are so sharp and feelings so deep that it is felt the votes of individual members should be specifically recorded for posterity, marking out who stood for what. It is also, on occasion, used by the government side in conscience votes, where the party’s whip is removed from members.
The Speaker’s assault on the practice last month came after she had allowed divide, called for by opposition members, on a motion to exempt contracts for the Montego Bay Perimeter Road from the Government’s procurement rules. Passage of the motion means that the contracts do not have to go to public tender. The government side was upset at the call for the vote.
Overnight, the Speaker apparently came to the conclusion that she had erred in her decision. The next day, she returned to the House with a declaration that in the future, divides would not be automatic. The divide, Mrs Dalrymple-Philibert argued, was a tool intended for large parliaments and situations where there might be uncertainty over who carried the voice vote. In the circumstances, the Speaker insisted, divides were entirely at her discretion.
“.. If there is a preponderance of ayes, there is no way [that] there is need for a divide,” Mrs Dalrymple-Philibert said. In any event, because the divide was historically available on demand, did not mean that it was right.
We, like many other people, were surprised at the Speaker’s overnight flip in her interpretation of the unambiguous language of Standing Order 45 and were especially concerned that her actions, including her posture in the George Wright matter, appeared to be in concord with the political manoeuvres of the governing Jamaica Labour Party, of which she is a member. Her latest ruling, however, has revived hope that the Speaker may be transcending her political moorings.
Last Tuesday, opposition members strongly disagreed with the Government’s proposed salary structure for the coming office of information commissioner. They argued that the pay was too low, and were not assuaged by promises that this would be fixed in an imminent overhaul of public-sector salaries. The Government’s majority carried the voice vote. Someone called from the Opposition’s benches for a divide. Government members howled in protest.
Against the backdrop of her previous ruling, the Speaker’s response was surprising. She said: “It is my considered view that each member of the House has the right, under the Constitution, to have their vote recorded and the nation know what it is they are saying.”
Mrs Dalrymple-Philibert did not address her previous stance or say what reflection had brought her to the current position. Whatever it was, it seems to have included a bit of constitutional extrapolation. Jamaica’s Constitution does not establish a process by which MPs should vote. It creates the basis for a Parliament and at Section 51, leaves it up to each House thereof to “regulate its own procedure and for this purpose may make Standing Orders”. Which, in the case of the House of Representatives, includes Standing Order 45 and the right, under that clause, of members to call divides.
The larger issue on this matter, though, is the Speaker’s recognition of the right of each member, if she or he so wishes, to have their vote recorded for posterity. That right is part of the democratic norm. That the Speaker is no longer hung up on the motive behind a member’s call for a divide should free her psychologically to transcend any lingering partisan constraints, which is a sine qua non for a productive and successful speakership.