This week speaker Rebecca Kadaga called on government to respect parliament following what she thought was criticism of her work by Prime Minister Amama Mbabazi.
She took exception to Mbabazi’s claims that opposition members were visiting her privately in her chambers and the suggestion that they maybe influencing her work.
Kadaga argued that she was a speaker of the house and not only of the NRM, in which she is a senior member and of which Mbabazi is the Secretary General and she is supposed to be neutral in her dealings and not lean towards her parent party positions.
This incident raises interesting questions about the separation of powers between parliament and the executive and revives the debate of whether the speaker of the house should belong to any party or even be a serving MP.
The UK, with the world’s oldest parliamentary system, has a speaker who is an elected MP and retains his seat in the constituency while severing all ties with his party.
The speakers position started as an agent of the King or crown but evolved over the last 500 years into the non-partisan position that it is today.
One of the key moments in this evolution was when King Charles I in 1642 stormed the house of commons with an armed force to arrest five MPs who he accused of treason. The speaker of the day refused to give them up arguing that he works at the behest of parliament and not the King.
In referring to best practice we largely cut-and-paste this formula into our constitution.
However the writing into law is one thing and the actual practice is another.
In the UK centuries of practice has created a tradition not all of which is written down but is understood and appreciated currently.
Our parliamentary procedure is less than 20 years old, too short at time to create enduring tradition.
The current situation therefore is a useful one. It may cause some discomfort on both sides but its resolution will only serve to improve our democratic practice.
The two options are to retain the status quo and muddle towards the ideal following many tests of speaker’s neutrality or write it into the law that the speaker once elected relinquishes elective office and any affiliations he or she may have to the mother party thus allowing him a semblance of independence.
The principle of separation of powers is an important pillar of any democracy and an ideal we should be actively working towards.
The current spurt between the speaker and the prime minister shows how difficult it is to maintain this separation’s integrity and we can expect that more friction will be witnessed in the future.
Of course opposition to a totally independent speaker would come not only from the party with the majority in the house but even from a seating speaker.
The majority party which invariably calls the shots as to who will be speaker want someone they can rally to their course whenever the need arises. That is understandable. But any speaker, a politician in their own right, may not relish the idea as this may distance them from the central government and throw a spanner in future ambition.
The UK has settled on an interesting middle ground that allows the speaker to eat his cake and keep it.
The UK speaker remains an elected MP during the duration of their tenure in the chair. They however cut off all ties with their parent party. When they seek reelection in the next election the speaker does not run on any party ticket but is referred to as “The speaker seeking re-election” but in addition there is an unwritten rule that the speaker is not opposed by a candidate from a major party.