“If a clod be washed away
By the sea
Europe is the lesse
As well as if a
As well as if a manor of thine own
Or of thy friends were”
The house that I am going to speak to you about is not an abode. It is a place in a building which sits on a hill in our capital city, Belmopan “radiating light and love and peace and hope” as the poet wrote. Or rather that is what it should be doing and have done.
It is really a meeting place for the finest minds and, bravest hearts that the nation of Belize can produce, to consider and make decisions, which will have the effect to secure peace, order and prosperity for the citizens of our country.
It is called the House of Representatives and, our citizens elect members of this house to govern us for a period of five years, which is their term of office. During their term of office, they enjoy certain powers and privileges bestowed on them by the Constitution, including the title of honorable – a title fitting and proper for those chosen by the people to govern, hopefully proved to be deserved by their performance.
Members of Parliament sit on opposite sides of the House. Members of Government side sit on the right hand and, members of the Opposition on the left hand of the Speaker. They are adversaries but, they have the same purpose – to serve the nation.
During debates, it may appear that there is ill will between the two sides. It is more apparent than real. This is due to the fact that there will be a clash of views expressed with passion and conviction.
In the House, all the members are equal and are governed by the same rules expressed in the Standing Orders. The Speaker, presides over meetings of the House, calls on members to address the House, keeps order, make rulings when appealed to, puts the question at the end of debates, goes through the business on the Order Paper, opens and adjourns meetings and appoints the dates for new meetings. The power of the Speaker comes from the Constitution and the Standing Orders of the House, all of which are specific except order 90. This order gives the Speaker discretionary powers. Lest you may be led to think that the Speaker is a dictator, let me assure you that the holders of this office understand that they are the humble servants of the House.
One of the most important duties of the Speaker is to make rulings on points of order, when one of the Standing Orders has been contravened. He has the choice to intervene immediately or wait until he is appealed to by a member. The proper procedure is for the member who would like to raise a point of order to stand in his place and ask permission of the Speaker. If another member is standing, he should resume his seat. With the Speaker’s permission, the member speaks on his point of order and the speaker makes his ruling. His ruling is final and may not be disputed. To remonstrate against a ruling by the speaker is contempt of the House, which is a very serious offence. A Speaker may rely on the ruling of a previous Speaker in similar circumstances, which may be firm ground on which to stand but, he is not obliged to.
In order to maintain a high level of decorum and, to ensure that members of the House treat each other with respect, certain forms of address and reference should be observed. Members should be addressed or referred to by the division they represent prefixed by the title honorable thus: the Honorable Member for Fort George or Collet or Albert. When speaking, a member may address another member of the same side as My Honorable or Rt. Honorable Friend then the name of the division he represents. In addressing or referring to a member of the opposite side, he should say the Honorable or Rt. Honorable Gentleman. For example: The Honorable Gentleman of Port Loyola or the Rt. Honorable Gentleman of Fort George. Your fellow members are not your colleagues. Also, they should never be addressed or referred to by name or use of personal pronouns.
The title honorable given to persons elected as Members of Parliament represents the respect and dignity due to the constituents of the division the member serves. That is why the standing orders seek to ensure that a high level of civility is maintained.
Members of the public may interact with the House of Representatives in three specific ways. They may attend house meetings as spectators and sit in the gallery, with the permission of the speaker. Whilst there, they should behave as if they were in a court of law, because the House is the highest institution in the land. Also, improper behavior may be considered contempt of the House, which is punishable as a crime.
House meetings may also be reported on in the press but, newspaper editors would be wise to refrain from doing so, without consulting with and following the explicit advice of the Clerk to the National Assembly. This is very important because inaccuracies in printed reports may give offence to the Speaker. Furthermore, it must be borne in mind that what was said in Parliament is absolutely privileged and may not be cause for legal action, repeating them is not a privilege.
Finally, citizens or newspaper editors may write to the Clerk to National Assembly seeking information or advice, which cannot be obtained elsewhere but, the Clerk has a full slate of business to attend to and, his reply may be only an acknowledgement of receipt of your letter.
The foregoing was intended to be a review of some things the ordinary citizen may like to know about the House. Perhaps, someone more knowledgeable, with more writing space, may be persuaded to write a dissertation on the subject, however, if you are really interested, go to the National Library and read Mr. Erskine Mays book on Parliament. It’s all there.
Let me conclude by making this observation. At Independence time, when the Government was considering national symbols, it decided that there should be a national Prayer to be said at the beginning of House Meetings to ask God’s blessing, protection, guidance, assistance etc. etc. to the nation. In the opinion of many, the prayer chosen is an excellent composition. It covers the ground of petitions that a nation would present to our Creator and, the prayer does not belong to any political party. The practice of saying the national Prayer at House Meetings should be renewed is the humble opinion of this columnist. Amandala