Ghana: Should the President take part in the debates before the Chamber?

Ordinarily, Rule 90 answers this question conclusively as follows:

“The President does not take part in any debate before the House”

But is that all and does Standing Order 90 provide all the answers? Considered a standalone item that should be. It is final that the Speaker does not take part in any debate in the House. But the articles of the Rules of Procedure are not autonomous articles. They are intended to be read and considered as a whole, holistically and in tandem with the 1992 Constitution. Moreover, precedents, traditions, conventions and the powers given to the Speaker by the Standing Orders might, after all, not not make section 90 absolute. If that is our understanding, the debate is not over yet. The question deserves to be clarified and explained.

In 1998, I had the privilege of being invited by the National Democratic Institute (NDI) of the United States as a resource person to organize an orientation course for the legislature of Liberia. The first thing I asked for when I got there was the Standing Orders of the Legislative Assembly. I was very surprised when I was told that there were no written standing orders.

According to them, the Speaker “was the Standing Orders” of the Legislative Assembly. The Speaker presided over the Legislative Assembly and, as such, controlled the procedure, conduct and business of the House.

This surprised me because in all democracies, the legislatures I have known had written standing orders to guide, direct, and regulate the business and procedure of the House. The absence of written standing orders in the legislature of Liberia compelled me to take a second look at the standing orders of the Parliament of Ghana. Read and considered holistically and as a whole, I realized that the Speaker of the Parliament of Ghana was in some, if not all, cases the personification of the Standing Orders. How could that be, you may ask? Just look at sections 5 and 6 of the Regulations and tell me what they mean or imply.

Order 5 reads “When in doubt, these orders are to be interpreted by the President as he sees fit”

Order 6 reads: “In all cases not provided for in these orders, the President shall take such action as he deems appropriate”

These are enormous powers granted to the President. Note that in case of doubt, the President interprets and that his interpretation is final? But in all cases not provided for in the Standing Orders, the President will provide as he sees fit. If the Speaker can interpret the Rules and his interpretation is final and if the Speaker can provide for cases not provided for in the Rules as he sees fit, then his influence on the House is unambiguous, especially when the Rules do not define the “doubt” of whom and even went further by giving the President the power to interpret orders and make arrangements “as he sees fit”

The ‘suspended’ or ‘paralyzed’ Parliament of the 8th Parliament of the 4th Republic exposed the weaknesses and shortcomings of the Standing Orders of the Parliament of Ghana. If this were the 1998 Liberian legislature, there would have been no problems because the Rules of Procedure were in the hands of the President and all he had to do was adjust his mood, position and opinions to the new parliamentary situation or culture. .

Ghana’s situation is different because it has written standing orders, but the president has powers of interpretation. For the strange 8th Legislature of the 4th Republic to function properly and efficiently, the rules of procedure would have had to be modified, if not rewritten.

The problem with the Ghanaian parliament is that it uses inadequate and moribund rules of procedure to run a remarkably different type of parliament. For example, in a House of equal number, 137/137, a majority and minority groups have been declared. How was this determined? There are majority and minority leaders in the House. It’s weird.

For me, the leader of the ruling party could have been designated “Leader of Government Business” and not Majority Leader; a title to which he is not entitled or which he does not deserve. A decision taken by the House under the chairmanship of Mr Speaker was overturned by his deputy. A Deputy Speaker assuming the Chair could relinquish the Speaker’s seat to constitute a quorum of the House or vote on a motion that he or she has admitted to debate.

In a House of equal number, 137/137, almost all parliamentary committees are chaired by the ruling party. How? ‘Or’ What? The second vice president who should not belong to the same party as the first vice president has been allowed to join and work with the party of the first vice president and no action is taken against him.

Due to the deadlock in the House, soldiers could be deployed to Parliament without the consent of the Speaker or the Clerk of Parliament. The chair admits a motion and it is debated. Instead of asking the question for decision in the Chamber, he decides to decide it; yes, rule on that. It was unprecedented! The Leader of Government Business in Parliament (incorrectly referred to as Majority Leader) will rise up and openly chastise, ridicule and defame the Speaker of the House and walk away unscathed. This unfortunate behavior is repeated in public and in the media.

Is this a demonstration of impunity and disrespect towards the President? What is happening to the Parliament of Ghana? Obviously, I attribute this, in part, to the lack of well-structured, decent and appropriate standing orders to guide, direct and regulate the business and conduct of Parliament. Does the President preside over chaos?

There seems to be a lot of confusion in Parliament! The source of the confusion is clear. The House lacks proper, proper and practical rules to guide it and regulate its procedures and activities. Thus, actions and decisions are made in bizarre and unconventional ways.

The prevailing confusion would have been avoided had the House been patient and proactive in amending or rewriting its Rules before beginning any serious work. Despite the moribund nature of the Standing Orders, some hon. members have made a point of accusing the Speaker of participating in the debates of the House.

But is the President totally excluded from participating in the debates before the Chamber? The argument is that he is not a deputy and therefore cannot take part in the debates. But it is the same rules that gave him the power to control and redirect the debates in the House. The president can use the powers of intervention conferred on him to “participate in the debates before the House”, at least indirectly.

It accepts proposals for debate. What if he refuses to admit them, and he does from time to time? There will be no debate, let alone allowing the President to participate.

The President can intervene to guide, comment on, redirect and regulate the debates on the floor of the House and yet he is not a Member of Parliament. He can recognize a member to take part or not in a debate. In other words, the Speaker controls and influences the direction of debate in the House. He is the only person who has that authority and that power in the House.

If the Speaker corrects or draws a Member’s attention to faulty and unparliamentary procedure for debate, do we consider that to be the Speaker participating in a debate? Beyond the semantics, can we admit that the power conferred on the President to intervene in the debates is more important than the simple participation in the debates?

Taking part in a debate is a right exercised by honorable Members, but this right is exercised at the discretion and on the initiative of the Speaker who is not a Member. If a Member attracts the Speaker’s attention, the Speaker may allow him or her to speak. A Member may rise several times, but if he does not attract the Speaker’s attention, he may in no way contribute to the debate. But the Speaker, in the name of guiding and correcting a Member, can make a substantial contribution to the debate in the House.

It is obvious that the influence exerted on the debates by the president is much greater than that of the right of debate of the deputy. The Speaker determines the trend and direction of debate in the Chamber. No one should be mistaken or naive in thinking that in practice Mr. Speaker does not participate in the debates of the House. It does so, directly or indirectly.

In the 4th republican legislatures, the presidents often used their power of intervention and orientation to take part in the debates, even to the point that they sometimes contribute more than the deputy.

Rt. Hon. Judge Annan did, and Rt. Hon. Peter Ala Adjetey did it even more. I had the unpleasant personal experience of debating Rt. Hon. Peter Adjetey on the floor. For many minutes we were locked in a debate with each other on the floor (see Hansard February 13, 2004, columns 1230-1245). Our debate seemed endless, but in the end, the President had the last word. He “ordered” me to “sit down”, and I did. This is a juicy precedent and a tradition too tempting for other Presidents not to follow. Who said Speakers could not participate in debates in the House? They do it, and who can stop them? Worse still, by the powers conferred on them by the Standing Orders, they can adjourn, stifle and truncate a debate! If in doubt, you can consult Hansard.

The writer is a former MP for Hohoe South

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