FRONT PORCH by Simon
LAST week, former Speaker of the House of Assembly, Halson Moultrie once again demonstrated why he should never have been elected to the Speakership. He suggested Long Island Member of Parliament, Adrian Gibson should resign his seat after being charged with a number of alleged offences.
The convention in a number of parliaments is that a sitting cabinet member should resign if charged in order to avoid distraction and embarrassing the government of the day. An MP need not resign while dealing with a court matter.
Mr Moultrie proved to be a poor Speaker. As noted in a previous column, he proved to be more peacock than owl. Incidentally, a group of owls is known as a parliament.
It was ill-advised of the FNM to promote his election as Speaker, which resulted in myriad problems and headaches for former Prime Minister Dr Hubert Minnis and his government.
Because the Speaker enjoys various powers that can stymie a government’s agenda, the FNM often had to sometimes tiptoe around Mr Moultrie, who should have been removed early on after various gaffes. But to save face the FNM unwisely kept the self-centered gentleman in the Chair.
One would have thought that Prime Minister Philip “Brave” Davis and the PLP would have learned the lessons of Mr Moultrie, who seemed to think the Speaker’s Chair was his bully pulpit and that he could opine on various subjects inside and outside of the House.
Recall, his bizarre meeting in Parliament Square after he was deselected as a candidate. His tenure often seemed like a reality show cum carnival.
Mr Moultrie expounded publicly and pontificated from the Chair on any number of issues, some of which did not come within his purview as Speaker. He also made a number of controversial rulings.
In Opposition, the PLP brought forward a motion of no confidence in Mr Moultrie. The motion of no confidence was defeated, but Mr Davis accurately assessed the then-Speaker on that occasion:
“You have embarrassed, debased and desecrated the office of Speaker. The majority should not protect or cloak you in your error and buffoonery. They should assist you in finding the exit. That is the right thing to do.”
The majority did not take Mr Davis’ advice but decided to give the Speaker yet another chance. Unfortunately, Mr Moultrie once again demonstrated he did not understand the role of the Speaker, did not have the judgment required to be a good Speaker and did not have the temperament to occupy that high office.
In a recent letter to the editor, former jurist Jeanne Thompson articulated the precipitous decline in standards in just about every area of national life, including in government and politics.
Respect for our institutions is essential for an orderly society, especially a democracy. Our institutions of state must be not only functional and efficient. They must also be respected by the people they serve.
In The Bahamas, long before we had a codified constitution we had a House of Assembly. The Bahamian people assimilated this institution, which evolved over generations to be our premier political institution.
This is no doubt the principal reason why we have been able to maintain stability even during intense political struggles. It should be a place of honoUr and respect.
Our Parliament is empowered to make its own rules and generally follows the practices and conventions of the United Kingdom Parliament at Westminster.
The Speaker is elected from among MPs and, once elected, is expected to conduct meetings of the House with impartiality and to refrain from involvement in controversial matters.
In the UK, once elected, the Speaker is generally not opposed by either of the parties in subsequent elections. That is one of the conventions of Westminster which is not practised in The Bahamas because of our small size.
The Speaker should be impartial, with sound and prudential judgment and temperate. Some Speakers, like the late Sir Alvin Braynen and Sir Arlington Butler, were men of intellect.
Some Speakers deployed humour to defuse tensions, most notably, Vernon Symonette, who had gravitas, an excellent personality and good temperament. Bobby Symonette was quite knowledgeable about the rules and conventions of the House.
The election of Halson Moultrie as Speaker was a prime example of the ongoing debasement of standards and our institutions. From the manner in which current Speaker, Patricia Deveaux, has conducted herself thus far, the decline continues unabated. She seems like a redux of the Moultrie show.
The outrage over her inexcusable attack on NEMA Director, Captain Stephen Russell, from the chair, was justified. Sadly, instead of a display of humility and an acknowledgment of error, Speaker Deveaux doubled-down in a crude and obnoxious display of arrogance and defensiveness.
Like Mr Moultrie, the current Speaker has embarrassed herself, the House, the governing party and the country.
Ms Deveaux must now decide what her legacy will be. Is she capable of humility, change and growth? Or will she be remembered poorly by contemporaries and history as is and will be Mr Moultrie?
Speaker Deveaux has three major tests before her: ethical, competency and political. The ethical test is about her character as Speaker. The attack on Captain Russell, who was unable to defend himself, was unethical and demonstrated more about her character than his.
The Chair of the House of Assembly is certainly not a personal perch from which the Speaker can sound off on public issues. It is also not a place from which to attack and abuse members of the public. Even floor Members of Parliament are not supposed to do that.
Yet it seems that Speaker Deveaux believed she was entitled to do such a thing from the Speaker’s Chair and with such vehemence.
British constitutional authority Walter Bagehot pointed out that to maintain the respect of the people, parliament must not only be functional, it must also be stately and dignified.
Every member is responsible for maintaining the stateliness and dignity of the House of Assembly, but responsibility for this rests mostly on the shoulders of the person who occupies the Chair: the Speaker. If stateliness and dignity collapse, respect will also decline.
It is the Speaker who most represents the House to the other institutions of government and to the public. It is the Speaker who is most responsible for the orderly and dignified conduct of a chamber that by its very nature can occasionally generate considerable passion.
Another test is that of competence. Over the years, Bahamian Speakers have distinguished themselves by their knowledge of the rules and the spirit of the rules, and by their own stately and dignified conduct in the Chair and in society.
They have, therefore, contributed to the maintenance of the high regard in which the institution of Parliament is held in the minds and hearts of the Bahamian people.
Unfortunately, Speaker Deveaux seems intent on applying a sledgehammer to the foundations of stateliness and dignity – not to mention the rules – of the House of Assembly.
The rules clearly state the Speaker must not participate in debates. The reason for that should be obvious: to maintain impartiality and the appearance of impartiality.
Ms Deveaux might wish to begin an in-depth and sustained tutorial with individuals at home and abroad who can mentor, train and school her in her role and the workings, rules and history of Parliament.
The Speaker may also need to have someone assist her with tutoring in the rules of the English language in order to avoid further embarrassment when she speaks.
The attainment of high office is not an occasion for arrogance and belligerence and thinking, “I reach!” Alternatively, it should be an opportunity for growth and personal and professional development at every level.
The third test is political. Speaker Deveaux is causing headaches for the government and her party. Because of her manner and behaviour so far she is becoming a political problem and embarrassment. The Speaker should not be a distraction. Mr Moultrie similarly caused political problems for the FNM.
But this is much bigger than Speaker Deveaux and former Speaker Moultrie. It is about a certain slackness, incivility, and the decline in public standards, ranging from how we conduct ourselves in public places from the grocery store to roadways, and – yes – the House of Assembly, which we should hold in esteem and respect.
Madam Speaker: What will be your legacy? Will you help us to maintain various standards and conventions, or will you contribute to our further decline?