W.J.M. Lokubandara - Lawyer, poet, song writer,
author, humanist and philosopher:
The role of the Speaker of Parliament
As the budget comes to an end, we the people should be aware of the
importance of the budget vote and the role of the Speaker.
When Sri Lanka's 13th Parliament met on April 22, 2004 it took nine
hours to elect a Speaker. After the final vote count, the tally was 110
for the candidate of the United National Front (UNF), the main
Opposition group, and 109 for the ruling combine. Five Buddhist-Monk MPs
abstained and one Tamil MP was absent. Speaker W.J.M. Lokubandara
pledged to perform his duties in an independent manner, safeguarding the
dignity and decorum of Parliament and upholding its traditions.
As a secret ballot was called and the ballot papers were distributed,
seven monks of the JHU started to leave the House as they had decided to
abstain. As the presiding officer was reading out the Standing Order for
voting - that each member should write the name of one candidate and
affix his/her signature - procedural points were raised by MPs on
whether the signatures were required. Meanwhile, the first of the
several interruptions of parliamentary business that day was about to
Finally, voting began with a fresh set of ballot papers, which were
kept near the ballot box in the well of the House. The MPs voted as the
presiding officer called out their names. The result, announced at the
end of a two-hour-long voting process, was along predictable lines - the
ruling party's candidate got 108 votes, which included the votes of two
monks from the JHU. The Opposition candidate had also won 108 votes. One
vote was declared invalid. The few seconds of silence that engulfed the
House during the announcement of the result was the only patch of quiet
on an otherwise noisy and chaotic day.
The presiding officer had to announce a second vote, and the ballot
papers were distributed again. While the second voting process was on,
the presiding officer called it off after ruling party members objected
to Opposition MPs showing the written ballots to their frontbenchers
before putting them in the box. As the first round had ended in a tie,
many MPs had shown their written ballots to their frontbenchers,
including at least one prominent MP from the ruling party, in the second
round. Citing procedural violations, ruling party MPs said the secrecy
of the ballot was lost if an MP displayed it. Opposition members
contended that if a member volunteered to do so, it could not be
In the chaos that followed, government MPs invaded the well of the
house - one of them sat on the ballot box - and demanded that the vote
be cancelled and the ballot box be shifted from the well to a secure
place. As a way out, the presiding officer moved the ballot box to a
place behind the Speaker's chair and placed screens around it to ensure
secrecy. W.J.M. Lokubandara, was then elected Speaker.
The final vote started late in the evening. Meanwhile, at every
interruption, government and Opposition MPs were seen persuading the
abstaining JHU MPs to vote. As the final result was announced, the
prospect of the UPFA being defeated by a single vote loomed large.
Ruling party members were up on their feet heckling the monks who voted
for the Opposition candidate. Finally, at 7.15 pm, Lokubandara's
election as Speaker was announced - Speaker Hon. Wijesinghe Jayaweera
Speaker W.J.M. Lokubandara, pledged to perform his duties in an
independent manner, safeguarding the dignity and decorum of Parliament
and upholding its traditions. He also called on all members to extend
their support to safeguard democracy and Parliamentary traditions.
"Everyone should be dedicated to safeguard democracy and we must move
away from confrontational politics marching beyond petty party
politics," the Speaker stressed.
While recalling his 27 year political journey, Speaker Lokubandara
said he was grateful to former President J.R. Jayewardene for the
opportunity given him to enter politics. "I highly appreciate that
opportunity extended to a person like me who came from a village and the
strength given to make the journey in the political arena. I am proud to
state that I have always stood on behalf of the ordinary class of this
country," he said. The Speaker also recalled his alma-mater Yahala-Bedda
School, Bandarawela Maha Vidyalaya and Peradeniya University where he
gained his education and higher education.
During his long and distinguished political career he has held
several portfolios; he was Minister of Indigenous medicine, Cultural
Affairs and Information, Minister of Education and Higher Education,
Minister of Buddhasasana, Minister of Justice, Law Reform and National
From 1994 to 2001, he was the Chief Opposition Whip of Parliament.
From 2001 to 2004 he was the Leader of the House of Parliament during
the UNP Regime.
Lokubandara, a Lawyer by Profession too to active politics. He is
also known as a Poet, Song writer, Author, Philosopher and a humane
Being what he is and the way he has disciplined his own life,
Lokubandara is a religious God fearing Man who is kind and gentle but
firm and strong as a Speaker. The office of Speaker dates to the 14th
century. The Speaker presides over the House's debates, determining
which member may speak. The Speaker is also responsible for maintaining
order during debate, and may punish members who break the rules of the
House. Conventionally, the Speaker remains non-partisan, and renounces
all affiliation with his or her former political party when taking
office. The Speaker does not take part in debate nor vote (except to
break ties). Aside from duties relating to presiding over the House, the
Speaker also performs administrative and procedural functions, and
remains a constituency Member of Parliament. (MP).
The office of Speaker is almost as old as Parliament itself. The
earliest year for which a presiding officer has been identified is 1258,
when Peter de Montfort presided over the Parliament held in Oxford.
Early presiding officers were known by the title parlour or prolocutor.
The first "Speaker" of the House of Commons was Sir Thomas Hungerford,
who took office in 1376.
Until the 17th century, members of the House of Commons often viewed
their Speaker as an agent of the Crown. As Parliament evolved, however,
the Speaker's position grew into one that involved more duties to the
House than to the Crown; such was definitely the case by the time of the
English Civil War. This change is sometimes said to be reflected by an
incident in 1642, when King Charles I entered the House in order to
search for and arrest five members for high treason. When the King asked
him if he knew of the location of these members, the Speaker, William
Lenthall, famously replied: "May it please your Majesty, I have neither
eyes to see nor tongue to speak in this place but as the House is
pleased to direct me, whose servant I am here."
The development of Cabinet government under King William III in the
late 17th century caused further change in the nature of the Speakership.
Speakers were generally associated with the ministry, and often held
other government offices. For example, Robert Harley served
simultaneously as Speaker and as a Secretary of State between 1704 and
1705. The Speaker between 1728 and 1761, Arthur Onslow, reduced ties
with the government, though the office did remain to a large degree
political. The Speakership evolved into its modern form-in which the
holder is an impartial and a political officer who does not belong to
any party-only during the middle of the 19th century.
By convention Speakers are normally addressed in Parliament as Mr.
Speaker (or Mr. Deputy Speaker for their deputies).
Members of Parliament (MPs) elect the Speaker from amongst their own
ranks. The House must elect a Speaker at the beginning of each new
parliamentary term after a General Election, or after the death or
resignation of the incumbent. Once elected, a Speaker continues in
office until the dissolution of Parliament. Customarily, the House
re-elects Speakers who desire to continue in office for more than one
term. Theoretically, the House could vote against re-electing a Speaker,
but such an event would be extremely unlikely.
In England, on important ceremonial occasions, the Speaker wears
black and gold robes. On less formal occasions, the Speaker wears plain
black robes. The Speaker's primary function is to preside over the House
of Commons. Whilst "in the Chair" (that is, presiding), the Speaker
wears a uniform consisting of a black court suit and black robe with a
train. On important ceremonial occasions, the black robe is replaced
with a long black and gold robe with lace frills and lace jabot.
Formerly, the Speaker also wore a full-bottomed wig when presiding and
on other occasions; in 1992, however, Betty Boothroyd decided to end
this practice. Her successor, Michael Martin MP, also eschewed the wig;
moreover, he chose to simplify other aspects of the uniform, doing away
with the once customary buckled court shoes and silk stockings. However
, although in Sri Lanka we adapt the old system of the wig at ceremonial
sittings it should be done away with as we have the oriental language
and an English garb absolutely irrelevant to each other.
Whilst presiding, the Speaker sits on a chair in the front of the
House. Traditionally, members of the Government sit on his right, and
those of the Opposition on his left. The Speaker's powers are extensive.
Most importantly, the Speaker calls on members to speak; no member may
make a speech without the Speaker's prior permission. By custom, the
Speaker alternates between members of the Government and of the
Opposition. Members direct their speeches not to the whole House, but to
the Speaker, using the words "Mister Speaker" or "Madam Speaker."
Members must refer to each other in the third person; they may not
directly address anyone other than the Speaker. In order to maintain his
impartiality, the Speaker never makes any speeches.
During debate, the Speaker is responsible for maintaining discipline
and order. He or she rules on all points of order (objections made by
members asserting that a rule of the House has been broken); the
decisions may not be appealed. The Speaker bases decisions on the rules
of the House and on precedent; if necessary, he or she may consult with
the Parliamentary Clerks before issuing a ruling. In addition, the
Speaker has other powers that he may use to maintain orderly debate.
Usually, the Speaker attempts to end a disruption, or "calls members to
order," by repeating "Order! Order!" If members do not follow his or her
instructions, the Speaker may punish them by demanding that they leave
the House for the remainder of the day's sitting.
In addition to maintaining discipline, the Speaker must ensure that
debate proceeds smoothly. If the Speaker finds that a member is making
irrelevant remarks, is tediously repetitive, or is otherwise attempting
to delay proceedings, he or she may order the member to end the speech.
The present Speaker, Michael Martin, has been especially active in this
regard; in May 2004, for example, he rebuked the Prime Minister (Tony
Blair) for answering a question on his policies by attacking those of
the Opposition. Furthermore, before debate begins, the Speaker may
invoke the "Short Speech" rule, under which he or she may set a time
limit (at least eight minutes) which will apply to every speech. At the
same time, however, the Speaker is charged with protecting the interests
of the minority by ensuring sufficient debate before a vote. Thus, the
Speaker may disallow a closure, which seeks to end debate and
immediately put the question to a vote, if he or she finds that the
motion constitutes an abuse of the rules or breaches the rights of the
Before the House votes on any issue, the Speaker "puts the question";
that is, he or she verbally states the motion on which the members are
to vote. He or she then assesses the result of a voice vote, but any
member may demand a division (a recorded vote). The Speaker may overrule
a request for a division and maintain the original ruling; this power,
however, is used only rarely, usually when members make frivolous
requests for divisions in order to delay proceedings.
'Ayes' and 'Noes'
The Speaker does not vote in the division, except when the 'Ayes' and
'Noes' are tied, in which case he or she must use the casting vote. In
exercising the casting vote, the Speaker may theoretically vote as he or
she pleases, but, in practice, always votes in accordance with certain
unwritten conventions. Firstly, the Speaker votes to give the House
further opportunity to debate a bill or motion before reaching a final
decision. (For example, the Speaker would be obliged to vote against a
Secondly, any final decision should be approved by the majority.(Thus,
for instance, the Speaker would vote against the final passage of a
bill.) Finally, the Speaker should vote to leave a bill or motion in its
existing form; in other words, the Speaker would vote against an
Speaker is also responsible for overseeing the administration of the
House. He or she chairs the House of Commons Commission, a body that
appoints staff, determines their salaries, and supervises the general
administration of those who serve the House. Furthermore, the Speaker
controls the parts of the Palace of Westminster used by the House of
Commons. Also, the Speaker is the ex officio Chairman of the four
Boundary Commissions (for England, Wales, Scotland, and Northern
Ireland), which are charged with redrawing the boundaries of
parliamentary constituencies to reflect population changes. However, the
Speaker normally does not attend meetings of the Boundary Commissions;
instead, the Deputy Chairman of the Commission (usually a judge)
Finally, the Speaker continues to represent his or her constituency
in Parliament. Like any other Member of Parliament, he or she responds
to letters from constituents and attempts to address their concerns.
It is the tradition in the Parliament of Sri Lanka that the Speaker
comes to the Office of the Chief Government Whip of Parliament on every
sitting day and leaves from the Office of the Chief Government Whip of
Parliament with the Serjeant Arms carrying the Mace to the Chamber to
open the sessions. This reveals the importance of the Office of the
Chief Government Whip of Parliament. The man who holds the highest
Office in Parliament is the most humble man outside the Chamber. He has
no party affiliations- independent by nature and the office he holds. A
fearless defender of democracy and the Principal Officer who safeguards
the Standing Orders of Parliament to the very letter. Speaker
Lokubandara is a self disciplined man and is seen at Buddhist and Hindu
Temples. He respects all religions and observes the religious
formalities of all religious festivals with the entire staff of
Parliament. He is a devotee of Mayuramman Badra Kali Temple in
Wellawatte and is seen regularly. In vehicle which he is driven,
according to very reliable sources he is often meditating with his legs
folded on the seat. His strength is derived from his inner self the
soul. He does not engage himself in the petty bickering of party
politics. He is a man of content without want.
(Dr. T.C. Rajaratnam LL.B (SL)., LL.M (Lond)., Ph.D (Lond).,
Solicitor (England and Wales), Barrister and Solicitor (Australia),
Attorney at Law (US) was the Co-ordinating Secretary to the Chief
Government Whip of Parliament, late Jeyaraj Fernandopulle; The Member in
Charge of the English Media of the Media Observation Unit founded by
late Jeyaraj Fernandopulle for the Presidential Election campaign of
President Mahinda Rajapakse in 2005; Candidate for the Colombo District
for SLFP-PA in the 1994 Parliamentary General Elections; Author; Member
of the World Lawyers and Poets Society; International Legal Consultant;
CEO of the Chambers of Academic and Professional Studies).