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The Presiding Officer as Effective Arbiter in Parliamentary Debate

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Observing First Minister’s questions from November 22, one is struck with the bitter acrimony, hectoring, and hypocrisy exhibited by the opposition leaders towards Alex Salmond. More than half the time was consumed hurling incessant criticism of his mistaken statistic on education funding followed with his responses, rhetorically seeking to elevate it to Watergate-level proportions. Rather than unsuccessfully seeking to annihilate Salmond’s credibility, this precious time could have been better spent addressing substantive issues. Aside from bitterness, this demonstrates that the Presiding Officer’s powers and role as presently constituted are woefully ill-equipped to maintain the integrity of parliamentary debate.

During the course of parliamentary debate, the PO appears to have no greater role than recognizing speakers and calling for order. In this limited role, the presiding officer does not have the power to intervene to assure the integrity and technical accuracy of the debate.

The PO and deputy Presiding Officers are currently selected among the MSP’s through an exhaustive ballot. This frequently means, as is also the case in the US House of Representatives and the Westminster Parliament, that a member of the majority party becomes Speaker.

The role and the method of selection of the PO could be modified under a written Scottish constitution to ensure that Parliamentary debate is accurate, respectful, effective, and serves the purpose of making good policy rather than scoring partisan points. Currently, the PO as a member of the majority party is open to accusations of partisanship if they appear to unduly rule against the minority party.

A novel alternative would be to select the PO from a list of experienced judges, which would be chosen based on their competence, fairness, and lack of partisanship. While they would no longer be part of the judiciary upon assuming office, which could potentially impinge on the separation of powers, their experience being an arbiter of trials would be a necessary qualification. The constitutional selection process could mandate that the PO be elected by a majority within each party, which would help ensure cross-party support and legitimacy.

This would assure that only non-partisan candidates well-trusted by all parties could be elected. Their election would be contested on the grounds of who is the fairest towards all parties, rather than biased towards any party or agenda. The role of the PO could be to serve as the principal neutral yet effective arbiter of the political process. Like a judge in a trial, the PO would allow the parties to vigorously debate, but would intervene with sanctions were the rules violated. When procedural and sourcing issues emerge in debate, the PO would have the authority to ask follow up questions of MSP’s for further substantiation.

Like witnesses at a trial, parliamentary members should debate under oath, swearing to abide by parliamentary rules of debate procedure. These rules should include telling the truth, being respectful towards their opponents, swiftly correcting any honest errors in parliament without penalty or having their integrity impugned, logically justifying broad assertions about the other party, and citing sources of statistics and information which are in turn open to methodological scrutiny. Penalties could include being excluded from debate and/or barred from voting for a certain number of days of parliamentary session. In case of serial or gross violations, it could include expulsion from parliament.

Like referees on a football pitch, a PO could call fouls, issue warnings, and eject politicians who defy the rules of debate. The PO would have no greater influence over policy outcomes than a fair referee does over a football match, provided the game is played according to the rules. If playing by enforceable rules is expected in sport, is can certainly be expected in parliamentary debate.

These suggested powers of the PO could also help assure that the legislative process is held to the same standards of accuracy, integrity of information, and officials’ conduct as the judiciary is required to exhibit. Why not apply the same high standards to the adoption of laws as is applied to their enforcement?

It is almost comical to fathom how differently the Westminster Parliament would function of these powers were granted to John Bercow. Imagine David Cameron and Ed Miliband at PMQ’s having to correct all the erroneous assertions they made at last week’s PMQ’s before proceeding to debate, under penalty of being excluded. Perhaps they wouldn’t make as many, and the quality of policy would increase accordingly.

Honest, accurate, substantiated, and respectful parliamentary debate is within Scots’ grasp. Carpe diem.

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