By Arley Gill
“I gave him fair warning, when I stand to my feet and call to order, he is to be treated no different to any other member of this house’’. That’s David Carter, Speaker of the House of Representatives in New Zealand as he ejected Prime Minister John Key from the house for disobeying his orders as speaker.
New Zealand is part of the British Commonwealth and as such they share the same parliamentary traditions as us, here in the former British West Indies. New Zealand is probably more British than the English, in the sense that just recently in a referendum, they voted to keep their old British-themed flag rather than a new design.
This story with the speaker’s action against the prime minister is more than newsworthy. In the British Commonwealth, the speaker is chosen by the government of the day which, of course, is led by the prime minister. In other words, he or she is the prime minister’s choice. The speaker owes his position to the prime minister.
High ethical standards
That is why I am thoroughly impressed by the speaker in this case of New Zealand. His action is of the highest human, moral and ethical standards. Not to mention his fearlessness and respect for the principles he swore to protect when he took the oath of office.
Basic human traits are revenge, hatred, hurting fellow human beings, knowingly making wrong decisions; just simply following a position, regardless of its consequences. But high social and ethical standards include selflessness, making the right decisions when the wrong decision is much easier to make; making the right decision knowing that you will be criticized by those closest to you (you may even lose friends); suffering personal losses for the greater good. Nelson Mandela and Mahatma Gandhi are easy exemplars of this human characteristic.
All of us have the basic instincts; it almost comes natural to us. We have to make an effort to achieve that higher standard. It is in this higher standard greatness resides. All of us have greatness within.
Incidences like the one in the New Zealand Parliament with Speaker David Carter do not occur with great frequency; that is, if it happens at all. It’s the first time I have heard of this; but I would not doubt that it has happened before. The fact is, it is usually the opposition that gets on the wrong side of the speaker. Even in cases where the government side may be in the wrong, it is often another member, hardly the prime minister, who is disciplined. Generally, though, when strong action is taken, it’s usually reserved for opposition members.
The FIU Bill
The action of Speaker Carter is a great example of fairness and integrity in public office. It is the type of example which should be emulated in our part of the world in the Caribbean.
It is not a case where the speaker is breaking ranks with the government, but rather setting a mark where no one should cross, regardless of who it is.
I recall some years ago, during my tenure as an opposition senator in the Grenada Parliament, the President of the Senate was one Leslie-Ann Seon, a rather intelligent and gracious Attorney.
A bill to establish the Financial Intelligence Unit (FIU) was tabled by the government. We, in the opposition, supported the bill in principle; however, in my presentation, I outlined some weaknesses in the bill which, in effect, were undermining the effectiveness of the bill. Further, there were terrible typographical errors, to the extent that some clauses were not making any sense.
I urged the government to withdraw the bill and send it back to the drafters, so that they can make the bill more tidy. Senators George Prime and Chester Humphrey more than ably assisted in the debate. The government declined to do so and in the voting a division was called. The vote was ties 6-6: the three members of the opposition were supported by the three independents and the six government senators voted en bloc in support of the bill.
Senate President Leslie-Ann Seon then had to cast her vote to break the tie. She voted in support of the bill being withdrawn. History was made!
Senator Seon was heavily criticized at the time by some of the supporters of the government. However, I am sure that the prime minister of the day appreciated that she did the right thing. We subsequently met with the current governor of the Eastern Caribbean central bank, who then was permanent secretary in the ministry of finance, and with Mr Hugh Wildman, and had some working discussions on the bill. Today, we have an act and, indeed, an FIU that we are all proud of.
The morale of the story is that sometimes it is not all about partisan politics. Persons can work across the political divide to achieve great things for the people they lead. In doing so, they will be practicing the highest moral and ethical standards of mankind.