In his statement in Parliament during the debate on the motion of no confidence last week, the Deputy Prime Minister Hon. Bob Loughman referred to a motion the Government would be moving during next week’s Ordinary Session to regulate the procedure whereby Members of Parliament can request a sitting of Parliament. This motion (which in fact had already been deposited with the Speaker of Parliament at the time the Deputy Prime Minister was speaking) proposes to amend the Standing Orders of Parliament to require that Members of Parliament who wish to request a sitting of Parliament have to all sign the request together at the same time in the Office of the Speaker in his presence. The Government believes that this amendment to the Standing Orders will finally put an end to allegations of MP’s signatures being forged and MP’s being “forced” to sign such callings.
Article 21(2) of the Constitution states that “Parliament may meet in extraordinary session at the request of the majority of its members, the Speaker or the Prime Minister”. The now famous document purportedly signed by 30 MP’s and deposited with the Speaker of Parliament on the 22nd of November was one such request by a majority of members for Parliament to meet to debate a motion of no confidence in the Prime Minister. As we all know, however, a number of Members of Parliament subsequently claimed that their signatures were forged, either because they had affixed their signatures at a different time for a different purpose, or because they had no recollection of having signed the document in question. As a result,during the debate on the motion of no confidence, a number of MP’s made interventions to “withdraw” their signatures from the calling as well as from the motion itself. The fact that the document containing the 30 signatures itself consisted of over 30 pages with a single signature on each page, with some signatures numbered and some not, and with none of them dated, also contributed to many questions about the integrity of the document and of the signatures on it.
The proposal that any request made by the majority of members of Parliament under Article 21(2) must be signed by the majority of members at the same time in the office of the Speaker and in his presence was originally put forward by the Government immediately after the 2016 general election as part of the Bill for the Constitution (Seventh)(Amendment) which was tabled in Parliament in June 2016. Item 9 in that Bill proposed to insert after subarticle 21(2) of the Constitution a new subarticle (2A) which stated, “A request made by the majority of members of Parliament under this Article must be signed by the majority of members at the same time in the office of the Speaker and in his or her presence.” Although the First Reading of this Bill was passed by Parliament, Parliament then referred the Bill for consideration by a Constitutional Review Committee (CRC) and also a special Ad Hoc Committee. While the CRC completed its work, the inability of the Ad Hoc Committee made up of seven MP’s to meet meant that the Bill to amend the Constitution never got returned to Parliament from the committee stage, and the Government was forced to withdraw the Bill in its entirety in a special session of Parliament convened for this purpose in June this year.
The motion that will be tabled next week makes the same proposal, but this time through an amendment of the Standing Orders of Parliament rather than the Constitution. This amendment will have the same effect as the proposed Constitutional amendment, but with the important difference that it will only require the support of a simple majority of members to be passed whereas a Constitutional amendment requires the support of two-thirds of members. This means that the Government side alone can pass the amendment even if the Opposition do not support it. The Deputy Prime Minister did, however, request the support of the Opposition for the motion to make the amendment during his statement in Parliament last week.
The issue of the signatures of MP’s on important Parliamentary documents being forged or allegedly forged is not a new one. Constitutional Case No. 3 of 2013 concerned the same matter, and the Chief Justice in his judgement in this case referred to the need to amend the Standing Orders of Parliament to address the issue, saying that:
This constitutional case also like the case of Korman v Republic of Vanuatu , raises an important question of the process of Parliament in respect to Standard Procedures and Practices to invoke Article 21(2) of the Constitution in the interface between the rights of the Majority and the Minority of Members of Parliament in Parliament within the constitutional principle of a responsible government before the Legislature (Articles 39 and 43 of the Constitution).
The present case also smells out fraudulent or other serious dishonest practices within the criminal laws of Vanuatu by individuals or outside bodies in the absence of clear standard procedures and practices to invoke Articles 21(2) of the Constitution. It is hoped that Parliament and those who are entrusted to assist Parliament put in place relevant, clear and simple Parliamentary Standard Procedures and Practices to minimize those fraudulent practices in the process of invoking Article 21(2) of the Constitution and to maintain the continuous and ongoing constitutional democratic development of the Republic.
It seems that, five years later, the Government is finally taking the Chief Justice’s advice.