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The disciplinarian of the House

Sri Lanka’s Parliament is an interesting, yet highly serious place, and what those who were sent to Parliament by the public say and do is what gives the Parliament such qualities. Sometimes, they make decisions that steer the country forward, and at other times, their actions border on comedic – or tragic, depending on whom one asks. Such is the nature of the country’s main law making institution.

There is an ongoing discussion in Parliament about Parliamentarians’ conduct. It began after Speaker Mahinda Yapa Abeywardena and several MPs started criticising a certain statement that was said to be tantamount to verbal harassment, made by Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP) MP Thissa Kuttiarachchi recently.

However, seeing MPs conduct themselves far below expected standards is not new to Sri Lankan voters. In fact, this is not the first time a MP used their freedom of speech in a manner that does not reflect the gravity of their role and responsibilities – hearing outright fallacies and uncouth insults from Parliament chambers has become a common occurrence.

What we must look into is, how did these things, which are looked down upon even in a regular societal context, become so normal among those tasked with building the nation? Who is responsible for maintaining their good conduct?

The Speaker, who has a unique and powerful role, is usually considered an unbiased person, and is responsible for running the show in Parliament. However, despite the said power, when it comes to guiding MPs, which is one of their main objectives, what we have seen from the current Speaker, as well as many of his predecessors, appears to be only lethargy, or at the very least, an unwillingness to bring down the hammer.

If a Speaker does not do what is expected of them, especially at a time when more rigourous and creative measures have become necessary to maintain decorum within Parliament and save MPs from further tarnishing its reputation, does that mean that the Speaker is actually powerless, or not as unbiased as we envision the role to be? These are questions asked by the public.

During the past few years, Sri Lanka has seen many incidents of poor behaviour on the part of MPs. There have been an astronomical number of other instances where MPs have made obscene and degrading statements, all of which were let slide with merely a warning issued by the Speaker, or an announcement that such statements would be expunged from the Hansard, which is the Parliamentary record.

If this is how the Parliament exhibits to the country the manner in which freedom of speech is exercised, it is not only a wrong message, but it also only serves to frame our so-called public representatives as a laughing stock among the international community.

The most embarrassing of such incidents happened in November 2018, when a brawl broke out in Parliament, leaving a lasting stain on Sri Lanka’s Parliament and political system. The MPs, engaged in what could only be described as a typical bar-brawl, not only threatened the safety of police officers that entered Parliament to pacify the situation by throwing chairs at them, but also threw books and chilli powder-mixed water at others. Spilling water on the Speaker’s chair and destroying the Speaker’s properties were a few of the other unbecoming acts committed during this humiliating display.

What followed were the standard inquiries and investigations and valuation of the destroyed property. However, as far as action against the MPs who misbehaved was concerned, the results were naught. International media and rights groups then rightfully questioned the impunity enjoyed by MPs, despite having ample evidence to prove which MP committed which offence.

Protecting the Parliament’s reputation is one of the duties of the Speaker, and when MPs do not do the same despite it being expected from them as well, the Speaker should be able to take a stance and exercise their powers for the intended purpose. There have been instances in Sri Lanka’s Parliamentary history when the Speaker did not put the same effort to stop a misbehaving MP as he did to stop an MP that took a few more minutes than the allocated time to finish a speech. In the instant case of the matter concerning Kuttiarachchi, Speaker Abeywardena had also rightly (yet only partially so) pointed out the need for the chief organisers of the political parties to act to ensure etiquette among their respective MPs.

The person appointed as Speaker usually comes from an existing political party, and therefore, expecting them to be completely unbiased might be somewhat impractical. However, the fact that the Speaker’s role has not been performed to its fullest, as far as protecting Parliament’s reputation is concerned, calls for a revisit of the qualities and responsibilities of the Speaker.