Wednesday, December 26 2007
Suppose you were a defendant in a court case and, when you went to trial, you discovered that the judge was the employee of the plaintiff? In such a scenario, the judge would have no choice but to recuse himself. It would not matter if he argued that his financial relationship with the plaintiff would not affect his objectivity; or that he was not an employee per se but merely a director; or that he had already admitted to the court that he had a relationship with the plaintiff.
These, however, are essentially the same arguments that House Speaker Barry Sinanan has used to defend himself against accusations of bias brought against him by Chief Whip Ramesh Lawrence Maharaj on behalf of the Opposition. Mr Sinanan is a partner in the law firm of Hobsons, which gets many legal briefs from the Government. Mr Maharaj has asserted that this connection means that there could be actual or apparent bias on the part of the Speaker in the way he conducts the affairs of the Lower House. Mr Sinanan says that he had long ago declared his interests with Hobsons to the Integrity Commission; that Hobsons was a prestigious law firm with “discerning clients” which had been getting Government briefs before Mr Maharaj was born; and that Mr Sinanan did not take an active part in the firm’s work.
All this may be true, but none of it is relevant. Mr Sinanan may not be active in the firm but his name still appears as a partner on its letterhead. So does Mr Sinanan receive part of the firm’s profits at the end of the financial year and, if so, what are they paying him for if he does no work? If he receives profits, do any of these come from Government work? And was he under an obligation as the Opposition is contending to declare these interests to the House before being elected Speaker? Do he and the Integrity Commission see no conflict of interest in his sitting as Speaker and still being a partner at Hobsons? Does he not believe he also has to appear to be fair?
Mr Sinanan may argue, and may even believe, that his impartiality remains unaffected. But human beings are notoriously bad judges of their own biases and very good at justifying same. Mr Sinanan may express bias without even being aware of doing so. This is one reason that a judge is obliged to recuse himself in cases where there might be a conflict of interest, another reason being that the law is not always subject to objective standards.
And such factors apply even more strongly to politics.
Thus, insofar as it can be achieved, impartiality is even more important in Parliament than in the courts.
The easiest solution would be to change the system so the Speaker does not have any party allegiance. This, at least, would create an appearance of impartiality.
The Opposition — if unsuccessful in the local courts — are going to carry this issue of the Speaker all the way to the Privy Council, and it would be highly embarrassing to the Government if the Law Lords ruled against them. At this point, then, perhaps the best strategy for the Government would be to challenge the Opposition directly, by bringing a motion to change the way in which a Speaker is appointed. It would certainly be the best strategy for the country.
In the meanwhile, the Government may have got the Speaker they wanted, but he is now a Speaker facing legal action, a Speaker under a microscope. Mr Sinanan will have to thus, tread very carefully.