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From classroom to Parliament

Having presided over two sessions of Parliament, Wangchuk Namgyel from Nyisho Sephu constituency in Wangdue, is carving a niche for himself as a non-partisan Speaker.

From reminding the prime minister about the need to carry debate materials in the House to voting against the Cabinet’s opinion, the Speaker has been candid in presiding over the proceedings of the National Assembly.

In the recent session of the Parliament, the Speaker told the prime minister who had come without a document that was required for the debate to carry such documents even without the Speaker’s reminder.

The Speaker cast the deciding vote for empowering a parliament committee to review State Owned Enterprises’ annual budgets after a rare tie of 20-20. Members of the Cabinet had rejected the recommendation from the economic and finance committee due to concerns about encroachment on the executive power.

“I didn’t want to go either with the Opposition or with the government,” Wangchuk Namgyel said. He says that although he was elected on a ruling party ticket, he does not have to always lean towards his party.

It was during the debate on the motion to establish a separate medical service access for differently-abled persons when some members expressed unhappiness about the Speaker allowing new suggestions outside of the motion.

However, he told the members that new ideas should be heard but it was up to the House to accept them and that the House needed to be decisive.

He cited the example of the drafting of a policy on differently-abled persons, which began in 2017 and remains incomplete even in 2019, to remind the House about how indecisions hinder progress. “We have not finalised this proposed policy in three years. Just talking about how important such policies are is of no use.”

Wangchuk Namgyel says the conduct of the House should improve with each session and that he is still learning to be a better Speaker. He said that his willingness to consult with colleagues made presiding over the sessions easier.

“The responsibility is big as the decisions of the House impact the nation. Presiding over the House was a bit difficult in the beginning, but each time is a learning process and I’m able to conduct the House more confidently,” he said.

The Speaker does not have a legal background. However, his experience as a principal has helped him.

“I use the classroom logic, which is to engage the members to make the deliberation fruitful. Wonderful ideas come up when you engage members,” he said.

The Speaker said that he did not differentiate between members of the ruling party and the opposition. The opposition, he said, ought to be given more time in the House as its role was felt most important during parliament sessions.

“The opposition has a role to play, but unlike the government, it does not have 365 and one-fourth days,” he said, adding that all were people’s representatives irrespective of their party affiliation.

Being attentive to both sides of the debate, he said, helped him conduct the House as a non-partisan Speaker.

Besides facilitating debates in the House, the Speaker distributes works to committees, whose report and recommendations are deliberated and voted in the Parliament. And that is how, he believes a Speaker can make a difference.

“This time, we questioned BCCI (Bhutan Chamber of Commerce and Industry) and the thromdes (based on findings of the performance audit reports),” he said.

The Speaker was not presiding over the sitting when a disciplinary issue involving Drujegang MP Jurmi Wangchuk and Panbang MP Dorji Wangdi came up. Asked whether the MPs deserved to be punished, he said that he wanted to take a humane approach in maintaining the code of conduct.

“It was a burst of human emotion. I reminded both the members in the House the next day about the decorum,” he said. He said it was not Jurmi Wangchuk alone who deserved the blame but that the Panbang MP also had played a part to the disciplinary issue.

Wangchuk Namgyel is perhaps the first Speaker who called off a sitting of the House due to lack of quorum.

He did not comment on one of the emerging issues in the parliament – whether the Speaker is above the National Council (NC) Chairperson and cabinet ministers.

The National Assembly had proposed for increasing the Speaker’s salary by 13 percent while keeping ministers’ at 6 percent. That implied that Speaker would be the head of the legislature. The House’s decision was later reversed after NC’s objections.

“It was for the Speaker, not for Wangchuk Namgyel,” he said.

Secretary General of the House, Sangay Duba, said the Speaker conducted the proceedings well despite the last session being only the second. Most members who wanted to speak got the opportunity.

“I could see that he (the Speaker) was focused on debates. Time was used effectively,” he said, adding that members were repeatedly asked to focus on the topic.

Gangzur Minjey MP Kinga Penjor, who described the Speaker as “candid person”, said he was satisfied with the moderation of debate. “He did better in the second session and I expect he will do even better in the coming sessions.”

Opposition MP from Dewathang, Ugyen Dorji, said, “The conduct of the Speaker during the session was very good. He was non-partisan at all times.”

A member from the Opposition, however, said that the Speaker took a significant  portion of time in the House. He said that the Speaker’s job in the House was mainly to moderate the debate.

However, the Speaker says that it is important for a Speaker to share his ideas with the House.

He said that even though the opinion of the mass must prevail in the House, it was the Speaker’s responsibility to shape the opinion.  “The post of the Speaker is not about power, but about responsibility.”

MB Subba

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