THERE has been much technical legal discussion of whether the speaker of the Perak legislative assembly may speak, act and seek legal representation on his or her own behalf and that of the assembly, independent of the ruler and state administration and its federal allies.
All these issues need to be placed in some historical context. Some precise knowledge about the origins, development and standing of the speaker in derivatively English parliamentary systems is necessary.
Consider the following background:
Sir John Finch (Public domain; source: Wikipedia) In 1629, shortly after the accession of Charles I, the speaker Sir John Finch sought to “square the circle” and be the dutiful servant of two contending masters. “I am not the less the King’s servant,” he declared to his parliamentary fellows, “for being yours”.
Seeking to remain true to the notion of his office as the King’s agent rather than the Commons’ servant, he sought to leave the speaker’s chair but was held down in place by two strong young members of the House.
Tearfully, Finch still declined to act in defiance of the King’s orders.
After more than a decade of royal absolutism and the sidelining of the people’s representatives, a notable step forward was taken.
In 1642, Charles I came to the House of Commons with an armed guard seeking to arrest five of its prominent members for defying his will and hence, in his royal view, of committing treason.
One member of the Commons, Lenthall, apparently not himself the speaker, had moved into the speaker’s chair for the moment. When Charles demanded of him to say whether he saw any of the five troublesome members there at the time, he insisted that he had “neither eyes to see nor tongue to speak in this place but as this House is pleased to direct me, whose servant I am here.”
Respectfully falling upon his knees, he continued that he could “not give any other answer than this” to what His Majesty was “pleased to demand of me.”
This moment and Lenthall’s rejoinder mark the point when, hitherto the King’s agent in the House, the speaker became, and was thereafter to remain, the servant solely of the parliamentary house itself and its membership.
This honourable tradition is not just dead history. Its implications live on and retain their constitutional force.
Dare one say that, whatever some may now think and do, these constitutional foundations still retain their cogent validity in Perak?
12 March 2009
Clive S Kessler is Emeritus Professor of Sociology and Anthropology at the School of Social Sciences and International Studies at the University of New South Wales in Sydney, Australia.