The appointment of the Speaker is the inaugural task undertaken by a new parliament. Following his/her appointment to the position via the votes of the Parliamentarians, the Speaker is expected to carry out the tasks assigned to this prestigious position in a non-partisan and independent manner. The purpose of this brief is to analyse the evolution of the role of the speaker, from its beginnings in British history to contemporary times, with particular attention to its historical significance, responsibilities and the Speaker’s role in the Sri Lankan context.
The precise inception of the position can be traced back to 13th century Britain. At the time, the role of the Speaker was limited to providing parliamentary information to the King. At times, giving the monarch bad news resulted in consequences for the messenger; 7 Speakers were sentenced to death between 1394 and 1535 CE.
Although a power struggle between the King and the Parliament in the 16th century resulted in strengthening the position, the Speaker was yet to assume complete independence from the influence of the King and the Parliament. This phenomenon underwent a significant change between 1728 and 1761, during Arthur Onslow’s tenure as the Speaker of the House of Commons. While he showed the due respect for the crown, he also openly expressed his objections to the policies of the government and strived to protect the independence of the legislature. Onslow was re-selected to the position five times and managed to draw praise from even the king himself. The transformation that took place at the time allowed the parliament to establish itself as an independent institution. Accordingly, from 19th century onwards, it is commonly expected of the Speaker to be non-partisan and to do his utmost to safeguard the institutional independence of Parliament.
The Speaker in the Sri Lankan Parliament
In Sri Lanka, the Speaker is the third most powerful actor in government, and his certification is necessary for any parliamentary bill to become law.
Moreover, the Speaker upholds many responsibilities that could affect the independence of the parliament. Adding information to the Order Book, moderating parliamentary debates, maintaining discipline within the chamber, advising the assembly when necessary, and safeguarding the privileges of the members are among the many responsibilities entrusted to the Speaker. Additionally, the Speaker also holds chairmanship of many standing committees, and is the guardian of both the parliamentary grounds and the parliamentary complex.
Sri Lanka has had 21 Speakers since independence in 1948. Among them, 3 Speakers came from the opposition while 18 represented the ruling party. Sir Albert S. Pieris, who held the position for 7 years and 3 months, and T.B. Subasinghe who was in office for 24 days, were the Speakers whose tenures have extended for the longest and the shortest periods respectively. Stanley Tillekeratne remains the only Speaker to have represented a Constituent Assembly.
The role of the Speaker has been subjected to little criticism in the post-colonial era of Sri Lanka. Regardless of their respective Party affiliations, all Speakers have conducted the required duties independently following the assumption of duties. The fact that a motion of no confidence has never been brought forward against any Speaker in the history of the country provides further evidence to support this view.
Despite its roots as a mere coordinator between the King and the parliament, recent evidence suggest that the role of the Speaker has evolved over the course of time to its current status as the guardian of the parliament’s integrity.