A brief history of Prorogation

By Hawk’s Eye

History is full of instances of military victories being followed by the ascent of top generals or the gownsmen involved in war efforts to power. Some such military leaders took the easy path by staging military coups while some did so democratically. And there are also many instances of such generals leading their nations to prosperity, some even building empires. They surely did one thing – they changed the course of history.

Incumbent president Gotabaya Rajapaksa is one of those who were instrumental in winning Sri Lanka’s war against the LTTE. He scored an impressive win at the recently concluded presidential election, and last week appointed his Cabinet of 16 ministers as well as 38 State Ministers as part of the interim Government, which will be in place till the next General Election. It is against this backdrop that the prorogation of parliament for one month till Jan 3, 2020 should be viewed.

There are some interesting facts about prorogation of Parliament in Sri Lanka.

A prorogation is a temporary recess of Parliament for about two months, However, the President can summon Parliament earlier if he so wishes, through another proclamation.

During the prorogation the Speaker continues to function and the Members retain their membership even though they do not attend meetings of Parliament.

Prorogation, however, leads to the suspension of all current business before the House and all proceedings pending at the time lapse except impeachment motions.

When the new sessions commences, the President makes a statement of Government Policy at the commencement of each new Session. This was something that was done by the Governor General before Sri Lanka became a republic in 1972. His address was known as the Throne Speech.

President Rajapaksa will open the new session of Parliament on Jan. 03 and is expected to deliver the policy statement of his government.

The President can prorogue Parliament under Article 70 of the Constitution and he is empowered to make a Statement of Government Policy at the commencement of each Session of Parliament and to preside at ceremonial sittings of Parliament.

The current Parliament will be dissolved on March 1, 2020 by the President as it will have completed the constitutionally stipulated four-and-a-half years by that time. Before the introduction of the 19th Amendment to the Constitution, the President could dissolve Parliament one year after its formation.

All parliamentary committees other than the Committee on High Posts cease to function when Parliament is prorogued. So, after the beginning of the new session, the committees including Committee on Public Enterprises, Committee on Public Accounts, Committee on Ethics and Privileges, House Committee, Committee on Parliamentary Business will be reconstituted. The COPE was to present a forensic audit report on Treasury Bond scam on Dec 3, but the prorogation that came to effect at midnight Dec 2 prevented it.

All Bills before the House by the time of prorogation are needed to be re-introduced. Those which had been listed on the Order Paper of Parliament have to be re-introduced if the movers so desire.

History of parliament prorogations is an interesting one. There is a unique occasion when a Parliament is summoned during a prorogation. On May 27, 1958 parliament was summoned during prorogation by Governor-General Sir Oliver Goonetilleke. He did so to announce the declaration of the State of Emergency when communal violence broke out. In response to the summoning Parliament met on the June 04, that year.

Sri Lankan Parliament is prorogued in keeping with the Westminster traditions, some precedents in India and the Standing Orders as well as local traditions. Parliament records reveal that Parliament has been prorogued about 51 times to date since 1947 and there have been more than 26 Sessions since 1978.

The last prorogation of parliament was on Oct 27 in 2018. The then President Maithripala Sirisena initially prorogued parliament and later dissolved, having sacked the UNP-led UNF government. On Nov 13, the Supreme Court in a landmark decision ruled that President Sirisena’s decision to dissolve parliament and hold snap elections was unconstitutional. That happened in the Third session of Eighth Parliament. The one to be inaugurated by President Rajapaksa on Jan 3 will be the fourth session of the Eighth Parliament.

Both legislatures follow the words of 19th century British parliamentary affairs expert, Thomas Erskine May in his guide to parliamentary practice entitled ‘A treatise on the law, privileges, proceedings and usage of Parliament’, commonly referred to as Erskine May (or simply ‘May’) is held to be the most authoritative reference book on parliamentary procedure. It is called – the “Bible” of Parliamentary procedure (Since July 1, this year, it has been made available on the parliament.uk website.

May states:

“The prorogation of Parliament is a prerogative act of the Crown. Just as Parliament can commence its deliberations only at the time appointed by the Queen, so it cannot continue them any longer than she pleases.  But each House exercises its right to adjourn itself independently of the Crown and of the other House. In the House of Commons, the duration of a periodic adjournment, as opposed to the adjournments which occur each day, is determined by a Resolution. The effect of a prorogation is at once to suspend all Business, including Committee proceedings, until Parliament shall be summoned again, and to end the sittings of Parliament.  Until recently, all proceedings pending at a prorogation were quashed, except for impeachments by the Commons and judicial proceedings before the House of Lords, and private Bills and hybrid Bills, which may be suspended from one Session to another.  As a result of recommendations by the Select Committee on Modernisation of the House of Commons the Commons passed a Standing Order to allow public Bills to be carried over by order from one Session to another, subject to certain restrictions.  The Lords have also endorsed the carry-over of public Bills in certain circumstances.”

Our Parliament has also borrowed from Kaul and Shakdesh. Commonly known as Kaul and Shakdesh, the book titled Practice and Procedure of Parliament, by M.N. Kaul and S. L. Shakdher is considered a treatise on parliamentary affairs. In India, both Houses and state legislatures follow the guidelines set out by that book to solve issues on procedural problems. It states: “Termination of a Session of the House by an order made by the President under Article 85 (2) of the Constitution of India is called ‘prorogation’. The President, in exercising the power to prorogue the House, acts on the advice of the Prime Minister.  The Prime Minister may consult the Cabinet before the advice is submitted to the President.  Prorogation of the House may take place any time, even while the House is sitting. Usually, however, prorogation follows the adjournment of the sitting of the House sine die.”

After the commencement of new parliamentary session on 03 Jan, 2020 or even earlier, as speculated in some quarters, the government is expected to move some constitutional amendment with the concurrence of the main Opposition party, the UNP-led UNF to clear some ambiguities in the 19th Amendment.

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