PRESS RELEASE: NGO Coalition on Human Rights questions changes to Parliamentary rules

16 February 2016

The NGO Coalition on Human Rights is concerned about last week’s amendments to the Parliament of the Republic of Fiji's Standing Orders. During the sitting of Parliament on Thursday 11th February, the Government proposed, and passed, a number of amendments to the Standing Orders. Many of these were minor changes or amendments to help facilitate Parliament matters better, but there are also more substantial changes that are a cause for concern.

“Parliament is a very important space for democratic engagement and debate – a place where our leaders are to be held accountable to us, the voters. However, it seems that some of the recent changes to the Standing Orders may stifle or limit this essential role,” said incoming Chair of the NGO Coalition, Tara Chetty.

“We need genuine effort by all Members of Parliament to work in a democratic manner on policies that serve the best interests of all of us. This cannot be achieved if the opportunities for the public to engage meaningfully with policymaking are narrowed.”

The NGOCHR highlights the amendments to Standing Order 37, which describes how people can petition Parliament. Instead of petitions going automatically to a Standing Committee, as under the 2014 rules, it will now require a vote of 40% of all Members of Parliament, that is, the support of 20 MPs.

Under the old rules, Lautoka residents had used a petition to raise the issue of the re-zoning of Shirley Park, which was then examined by the Standing Committee on Natural Resources. Under the amended rules, such petitions may be quickly disposed of if they do not make it past the initial vote in Parliament. This is particularly troubling in the context of a single national constituency, where there is no formal relationship between voters and their local MP.

A further concern is with Standing Order 117, which outlines how the Chairperson of a Standing Committee is chosen. The original rules said that the Chair of the Public Accounts Committee must be from the opposition, providing an important check and balance for our national financial governance. This clause has now been removed, and the Chairperson, and Deputy Chair, of any committee could come from the same party.

Research shows that in two-thirds of Commonwealth countries, the Chair of the Public Accounts Committee is an Opposition Member of Parliament, in line with either Parliamentary rules or as an unwritten convention of practice.[1]

“The recent changes to the rules may damage people’s perception of Parliament as a democratic, accountable body,” said Chetty.

“We hope that our elected leaders take the opportunity to rethink the recent amendments and choose to work together to address these concerns.”

The NGO Coalition on Human Rights is made up of civil society organisations working towards the recognition, protection and promotion of human rights in Fiji.

ENDS

For further information contact Tara Chetty on +679-9268342 or
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[1] Wehner, J., n.d. Principles and Patterns of Financial Scrutiny: Public Accounts Committees in the Commonwealth. Commonwealth & Comparative Politics, 41(3).