Dear readers, today’s word of the day, is “acclamation”. According to the Concise Oxford Dictionary, “acclamation” means: “an expression of approval with shouts or applause”.
It can also mean (in Canada, apparently) “an instance of electing or being elected without opposition”. In other words: “No need for a vote, just listen for the cheering”.
It turns out that this is the way Fiji’s Parliament has been voting for months, despite its own rules – and despite the Opposition demanding that Parliament follow its own rules.
So the vote on the last Budget was (apparently) “by acclamation”.
When the Opposition moved a resolution for $50 million to be allocated for COVID-19 assistance it was (apparently) rejected “by acclamation”.
The vote on the infamous Bill 17 to amend the iTaukei Land Trust Act was (apparently) “by acclamation”. This information is emerging in the unfolding case of SODELPA rebel Parliamentarian Mosese Bulitavu.
Mr Bulitavu has spent a lot of his time in Parliament supporting the Government. Nothing wrong with that, I suppose – it’s supposed to be a free country (unless you oppose Bill 17 or vaccination – then you might get arrested).
You may not know that under your Constitution – yes, the “true democracy” one – a member of Parliament can lose his or her seat for voting in Parliament against a party directive on how to vote.
That is quite an undemocratic rule by it- self – but we’ll leave that for another day. Anyway it seems SODELPA directed all its MPs to vote against Bill 17. Mr Bulitavu spoke in favour of Bill 17 during the debate.
Then Parliament voted on Bill 17 (by “acclamation”). SODELPA wrote to the Speaker to rule that Mr Bulitavu’s seat was vacated for voting against Bill 17.
But the Speaker wrote back to say that he couldn’t do that because he did not know how Mr Bulitavu had actually voted on Bill 17.
This was because (if you have been following so far) the vote was “by acclamation”.
Mr Bulitavu’s case is now in court, so no more talk about that right now.
When did all this start?
More interesting is the question of when this practice started. According to Ratu Epeli’s letter to SODELPA, “on March 26, 2020” (did he mean 2021?) “I decided…that all voting will now be done by acclamation”. Apparently Parliament’s Business Committee decided this in May and the Speaker told Parliament this in its May session.
In July, SODELPA whip Lynda Tabuya (apparently supported by the National Federation Party) wrote to the Speaker asking for this rule to be lifted and for a return to MPs voting.
The Speaker says he wrote back to her to say “there will be no change to the process of votes by acclamation in the Parliament”.
But at this point my head is spinning. Because I am now learning that on every Parliamentary vote that the Government has (apparently) won since May this year, there’s no actual proof that – well, that the Government won it. There’s no actual proof that the Government had the numbers.
Parliament has 51 seats. The Government has 27. The Opposition has 24. Of course not every MP turns up for every session. So, for example, if four Government MPs were away at the time of a vote (even on a bath- room break), the Government could lose. If two Government MPs changed sides and voted with the Opposition, the Government could lose.
But we don’t know anything about any vote. Because apparently, the Speaker is now deciding how Parliament has voted based on – what? Who shouts the loudest? For more than a year now, Parliament has also been meeting “virtually” – in other words, by Zoom.
Some Parliamentarians sit in the House, others “Zoom” in. Every so often a “Zooming” Parliamentarian might leave his or her screen. This might be, for example, to enjoy a bowl of grog, since (as the hapless Mr Joseph Nand now knows) you can’t be caught on camera having one on the side.
So when our “Zoom Parliament” votes, who knows who’s actually voting, let alone who is shouting the loudest?
What are the rules?
The rules of Parliament are its “Standing Orders”.
You can find them on Parliament’s website.
Standing Orders 53 and 54 tell us how Parliament is supposed to vote. The voting rules are not complicated:
when it’s time to vote, the Speaker puts the question to Parliament. If no one objects, the vote is deemed to have passed;
otherwise, MPs must vote “yes”, “no” or “abstain”, using an electronic voting system;
if the electronic voting system is not working or the Speaker says it is unreliable, voting must be by roll call. The Parliament Secretary-General calls each MP’s name and they call out their vote – “yes”, “no” or “abstain”; and
whether it’s an electronic vote or a roll call vote, the Secretary-General must declare the result and record it in the minutes. If you go to the link on the Parliament website at http://www.parliament.gov.fj/ voting-results/ you can see the results of electronic voting up to the end of 2019. So those are the rules.
Why is Parliament not following them?
Well, according to the Speaker’s letter on Mr Bulitavu’s issue, it’s because he decided that, under Standing Order 20, he could change those rules. Standing Order 20 says this: “The Speaker and the Secretary-General have the power to do everything necessary or convenient to be done for, or in connection with, the performance of their functions under these Standing Orders”.
The key word there is UNDER the Standing Orders. Standing Order 20 is meant to let the Speaker or Secretary-General do what is needed to make the Standing Orders work.
Standing Order 20 is NOT meant to let the Speaker do anything he wants which contradicts what the Standing Orders actually say. I assume that the Speaker gets legal ad- vice. We all know that he no longer gets the advice of his own Parliamentary counsel. This was the practice in the evil, bad and corrupt days of “past Governments” but seems to have stopped soon after “true democracy” dawned on the land.
The Speaker now gets his advice from the office of – well, we all know it, don’t we? – the Attorney-General.
So if you want an example of “counsel not doing a good job” – well…
Apparently there’s a TV series called “Stranger Things”. I am wondering if the producers could come down and have a look at our Parliament. Can things get any stranger? Is there anything more basic to a democracy than a vote?
And yet, in the so-called temple of our so- called “true democracy” – our Parliament – it seems nobody actually votes. Apparently they just shout “yes” or “no” and hope for the best.
This is so even though the rules of our Parliament say that each MP’s vote must be recorded. What about those other buzzwords we are so fond of – “transparency and accountability”? We voted for these MPs.
We pay their salaries. Shouldn’t we know how they have voted on any particular issue before Parliament? Let’s go back to the word “acclamation” – “approval with shouts of applause”. One can imagine, say, the Supreme People’s Assembly of North Korea greeting all legislation proposed by Mr Kim Jong-un as “approved with shouts of applause”.
Is this the future direction for our Parliament?
RICHARD NAIDU is a Suva lawyer. Don’t ask for him for legal advice today – his head is still spinning. The views expressed in this article are not necessarily those of The Fiji Times.