Editorial: Impartiality, or lack thereof

Photo taken from: writinglives.org

For better or for worse, for good or for bad, our system of government is one that we adopted from our former colonial masters.  There is a continuous raging argument as to whether the British parliamentary system suits our size and culture, but that debate is for another day.  For now, it is the system that is in place, and for our government to function effectively, we must make the parliamentary system work, as best we can.

One of the key positions in the system is that of the Speaker of the House.  That post in our bit of paradise is currently held by Sir Gerald Watt, Q.C. While the speaker is “elected” and must be qualified, the reality of our tribal politics effectively makes the position one that has as much baggage as any political appointee.  It is interesting to note that in the United Kingdom (U.K.), the speaker is an elected Member of Parliament (MP) who must then be elected by other MPs to become the Speaker. As such, the tenure of the Speaker in the U.K. is not entirely based on political changes, but rather the support of other MPs.   For example, John Bercow, the current Speaker in the U.K. was first elected in 2009 during the Gordon Brown Labour administration. He has since been re-elected twice, and has seen the transition to a Conservative-led government.

At the core of a speaker’s ability to function is his or her impartiality.  This is something that is foreign to us, but it is considered as the key to keeping order in the House of Commons in the U.K.  To get some idea as to how serious the Brits consider impartiality to the position and the process, one need only look at the following description from parliament.uk: “The political impartiality of the Speaker is one of the office’s most important features – and most-emulated or aspired-to outside the U.K. Once elected, the Speaker severs all ties with his or her former party and is, in all aspects of the job, a completely non-partisan figure.”

The impartiality, or rather lack of it, of our speaker, Sir Gerald Watt, QC, came into sharp focus recently when Sir Gerald took the rare move of criticising a judgment delivered by a sitting judge of the High Court.  In a stinging criticism of Justice Rosalyn E. Wilkinson’s decision to grant an injunction in the Barbuda Airport matter, Sir Gerald described her judgment as “madness.” You see, Sir Gerald’s law firm, Watt, Dorsett and Company is handling the injunction on behalf of the government; the same way his law firm handles many other matters on behalf of the government and local politicians, including the prime minister.

Before anyone goes off half-cocked and insinuates anything, let’s be clear, no one is accusing the learned Q.C. of doing anything in secret or untoward, because this apparent conflict of interest is done in open.  But it raises questions as to how any debate in Parliament can be handled impartially when the speaker of the house is a quasi-political appointee and also leads the law firm of choice for the government and the top politicians.  For example, in a debate on Barbuda issues, how can the Speaker defend the arguments supporting the injunction and the course of action being sought by the Barbudan plaintiffs, when the good Speaker’s law firm is an advocate for the government on the airport matter, and he is a vocal critic of the justice dispensed by the courts?

It is one thing for someone in the legal fraternity to say that they disagree with a judgment, however, it is another thing entirely to so strongly advocate for your client’s position that you describe the judge’s decision as “madness.”  And cloaking it in the “I have to say it as I see it” defense does not help. We know that we are not in the league of a “leading Queen’s Counsel,” as Sir Gerald immodestly describes himself, but we are pretty sure that we would be hauled in front of any judge if we were to ridicule his or her judgment as “madness.”

The defenders of this lack of impartiality are going to say that we didn’t say anything when Gisele Isaac was the Speaker, or that there is nothing wrong with the lack of impartiality, but both would be wrong on both points.  Plus, this is not a Sir Gerald or Isaac issue, it goes further than the individual performing the job as Speaker. It is a fundamental issue that needs addressing in our system of government. In much the same way that our Senate is nothing more than a rubber stamp, ‘a pappy show,’ if you will, and needs reform to be truly effective.  

Further, impartiality has never existed in the role and it needs to be introduced.  As our democracy evolves and matures, we must take every step to ensure impartiality rules the day.  ‘Free and fair’ must be the hallmark of all of our government institutions because government is for all of the people, not just some. Each MP who stands up in Parliament must be guided by the same fair hand, without the overriding pressures of knowing that the Speaker supports the government or is a trusted advocate of the government’s agenda.   Just like justice, not only must impartiality be the order of the day, but it must also be seen to be the order of the day.

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