“That the freedom of speech and debates or proceedings in Parliament ought not to be impeached or questioned in any court or place out of Parliament.”
This quote from Article 9 of the United Kingdom’s Bill of Rights is the foundational law for the principle of freedom of speech in democratic legislatures.
Even though it was directed at the king, it laid the basis for the independence of Parliaments from the courts also. It is intended for parliamentarians to speak unfettered in Parliament free from fear of any reprisals from the executive or the judiciary. This unfettered speech also requires freedom from abuse by other members of Parliament.
If you watched the proceedings of the House of Assembly on Monday October 26, 2020 during the debate to extend the emergency powers for yet another month, most reasonable viewers would not believe that the principle of freedom of speech applied to Philip Davis or Chester Cooper.
Michael Foulkes, the member of Parliament for Golden Gates, continually and repeatedly stood up on false points of order to interrupt both the leader of the opposition and his deputy.
It became abusive, so much so, that Cooper had to request the protection of the speaker from the abuse.
The speaker indicated that the rules require that once a member rises on a point of order, he as presiding officer was duty bound to recognize him. Hogwash!
The speaker had the opportunity to listen to Foulkes’ repeated interferences, and the fact that he ignored each and every point that he raised, proved that he considered them illegitimate.
The speaker ought not to have allowed Foulkes to violate the freedom of speech of the opposition leaders.
I don’t know why Foulkes felt so compelled to audition publicly, but he understood that the ministers were absent and probably watching his performance. He may have considered the performance worthy of some reward, but it came over as boorish and obnoxious.
The rules of the House and convention intended that members should speak in the House without interruption.
Rising on a point of order is one of the few reasons members could intervene during another member’s debate. A point of order is some violation of a rule of the House that a member draws to the attention of the speaker.
It is not an opportunity for a member to interrupt another member simply because he disagrees with what the member said. I maintain that is exactly the pretense for the large majority of interruptions in the House.
Historically, the members of the majority party are the ones who use this unparliamentary device. You seldom see members of the opposition stand on a point of order.
They usually stand after a member’s speech to draw a matter to the speaker’s attention. The speaker has a duty to put an end to the abuse when he sees it being used deliberately to interfere with a member’s speech as was the case with Foulkes.
Freedom of expression in debates implies that members of Parliament have the right to say whatever they want so long as they do not breach any rule of the House.
They are not required to continually use the prefix “in my opinion” or “my view is”. Freedom of speech assumes that everything a member says is his express opinion or his considered view.
Members of the opposition are not bound by the dogma or the intolerance of members of the majority party.
Tolerance of other people’s views is an essential element of the democracy that we cherish. How dare Foulkes and others manipulate the traditions of parliamentary debate to censure opposition contributions to debates!
The speaker must begin to use his discretionary powers to protect the rights of the minority.