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Burgeoning democracy must thrive: Consultations, compromises key - Speaker

BY: Nana Konadu Agyeman
The Speaker of Parliament, Mr Alban Sumana Kingsford Bagbin
The Speaker of Parliament, Mr Alban Sumana Kingsford Bagbin

The Speaker of Parliament, Mr Alban Sumana Kingsford Bagbin, has urged Members of Parliament (MPs) to strive to work together with a common focus to help Ghana’s burgeoning democracy to thrive to serve the interest of Ghanaians.

He said they must continue to overlook their partisan interests and strengthen channels of communication, foster dialogue and encourage stakeholder consultations to pave the way for the House to stay focused and work together.

In the Speaker’s view, it was the concept of “consultations, compromises and working together” on which the Parliament of the Fourth Republic had been captured by the laws of the country.

“And that is why it is different from the British system which is confrontational between the government and the opposition. We moved from using government and opposition to Majority and Minority caucuses. You are here on the left today; tomorrow you will be on the right, and vice versa, and we must learn to work together for the interest of our people,” he said.

“I’ll not superintend over weak House”

Presenting a statement on the rejection or rescission of the 2022 Budget Statement and Economic Policy of the government in Parliament yesterday, Mr Bagbin reiterated his solemn pledge to Ghanaians that he would not superintend over a Parliament to frustrate or obstruct government business.

“But I will equally not preside over a weak House or be tagged as an errand boy of the Executive arm of government. This House is fully focused on discharging its mandate and will do so without any fear or favour, affection or ill-will, in ensuring that the ultimate best interest of the Ghanaian people are served,” he said.

Background

For more than two weeks after the Speaker had travelled outside the country on November 17, the House was embroiled in several uproars that almost tattered its image.

It all boiled down to both sides of the House objecting to the rejection and the approval of the budget statement, a development that saw disorder and confusion defining greater parts of proceedings in the House.

Interest of our people

To put behind such disagreement, the Speaker reminded the MPs of the need to think about how to strengthen the work of the House, and by extension, strengthen Ghana’s democratic governance.

In his view, legislators needed to consider the precedent “we set by every decision and action we take in this House”.

“Over and above that, members must bear in mind that as MPs, you also represent the people – the citizenry – not just political parties,” he said.

Clarification on quorum

Setting the records straight on the confusion pertaining to quorum, Mr Bagbin said a quorum of one-third of members was required for the commencement of business, and that a quorum of not less than one-half of members was required to determine, for example, a resolution for approval of international loans, with a quorum of not less than two-thirds of members needed to amend some provisions of the Constitution.

He pointed out that precedent, practices and conventions of the House required that the issue of quorum should only be raised on the floor.

However, he said, when the matter was not raised on the floor, the only prima facie indication of the number of members present was in the record of the Votes and Proceedings of the House, and cited past instances when the House was suspended or adjourned when members raised objections over the lack of quorum.

Walk-out is parliamentary

The Speaker further explained that staging a walkout was a legitimate form of protest which was part of parliamentary norms and practices, citing many walkouts since 1997, which each side of the House had used as a legitimate tool to register its displeasure with one issue or another.

“The staging of a walkout, however, does not render Parliament incapable of performing its functions,” he said, referring to instances when walkouts and boycotts had been deployed, yet the business of the House continued, irrespective.

“On August 22, 2003, the Minority staged a boycott of the House in protest against the NHIA Bill. Business of the House continued, despite the boycott. The total number of Majority members used to justify a quorum was the number 101, recorded on the Votes and Proceedings of the day and not the number on the floor.

“On February 23, 2005, the Minority staged a walkout of the House because of the consideration of the Customs & Excise Petroleum Taxes Bill. Despite the walkout, proceedings continued and the quorum relied upon was the number of members recorded on the Votes and Proceedings as present, including names of the Minority who had all walked out,” the Speaker recalled.

He, therefore, said actions of the House on Tuesday, November 30, this year brought into sharp focus the powers of a Deputy Speaker vis-a-vis those of the Speaker.

Misconduct

The Speaker noted that on that fateful day, the First Deputy Speaker of Parliament, presiding, found that the vote taken on November 26, this year rejecting the budget was null and void, as the requisite number was not present, in accordance with Article 104 of the Constitution.

“The decision taken on November 30, 2021, which decision suggested I acted ultra vires of the Constitution when I put the question on the 2022 Budget Statement and Economic Policy of the government, appears strange to me.

“The House was duly constituted for its work for the purposes of business and voting, in accordance with articles 102 and 104, respectively, and the public record of the Votes and Proceedings of the House on November 26 lends credence to this position.

“Honourable members, as to whether a Vice-President can preside over a Cabinet which had earlier taken a decision on a subject matter presided over by the President, and without consulting the President, get the Cabinet to overturn the decision earlier taken is for your kind debate,” he said.

“But who am I to say my Deputy, the First Deputy Speaker, the Honourable Member for Bekwai, Honourable Joseph Osei-Owusu, the Wise, might have indulged in an act of misconduct tantamount to insubordination?” he quizzed.

Quorate number

The Speaker also addressed the decision by the First Deputy Speaker in declaring that the quorate number of 138 required to take a vote was met when the House sat on November 30, 2021.

Without a doubt, Mr Bagbin said, the Standing Orders and the 1992 Constitution clearly barred the one presiding in Parliament in respect of participating in debates or voting on any matter.

He said whether or not the principle applied in part with Article 104 was immaterial because a different issue at law arose which the First Deputy Speaker might not have averted his mind to.

In his view, a distinction must be drawn between the temporary absence of the Speaker from the Chamber, in which case any of the Deputy Speakers might preside, and when the Speaker was unavoidably absent, as provided for under Order 13(2).

He recalled that Order 13 created two different types of instances under which the Deputy Speaker might preside, in accordance with Article 101 of the Constitution.

“Under Order 13(1), any of the Deputy Speakers may be asked to take the Chair whenever Mr Speaker so requests due to his temporary absence from the Chamber. The Deputy Speaker presides until such a time that Mr Speaker is able to resume the chair to preside over the proceedings.

“It must be noted that under this ambit, the Deputy Speaker may be counted as forming part of the quorate number required for either business or voting because at the beginning of the sitting, he was not exercising the powers of the Speaker,” he said.

He, however, indicated that Order 13(2) presented a different situation under which the Speaker’s unavoidable absence from the precincts of Parliament meant the First Deputy Speaker assumed the authority of the Speaker and performed all the duties of the Speaker in relation to the Chamber.

“In this role, the First Deputy Speaker takes on the cloak of an acting Speaker, and for the purposes of our rules and the Constitution, assumes all the powers of the Speaker in relation to the business of the House.

“In this sense, therefore, the First Deputy Speaker for the period of my unavoidable absence from Parliament was the acting Speaker of Parliament and thus all rules and limitations applied to him in a manner that applies to the substantive Speaker of Parliament,” Mr Bagbin explained.

“By and large, the reasoning of the First Deputy Speaker outlining the fact that he is not the Speaker, he holds his membership and does not lose his privileges as a member when he takes the chair can be said to be correct.

“However, in so far as he takes on the role as the acting Speaker of Parliament, his decision to be counted as part of the numbers forming a quorum raises procedural challenges,” the Speaker said.

Seeming to overlook what occurred, Mr Bagbin emphasised the need for the House to make progress on the matter in a manner that was consistent with the country’s laws and ensure “we are allowing the governance of our country to thrive”.

Bring amended budget statement

Touching on the letter on concessions and modifications to the 2022 budget statement by the Minister of Finance, Mr Bagbin said he was aware of such a letter which purported to make some concessions and modifications to the budget.

He, however, said the legal basis for the laying of such a letter and what actions Parliament might take as a result left a lot to be desired.

“I have, however, held discussions with the leadership of the House to find a path that is faithful to law, respects our rules and processes and ensures the governance of the country does not grind to a halt,” he asserted.

He informed the House that he, together with the leadership of the House, had agreed that the Finance Minister should come before the House with an amended statement of the budget with the said modifications and concessions.

“These modifications and concessions will then be adopted by the House and the revised document, with the estimates, will stand committed to the various committees of Parliament,” he said.