Külli Taro: Riigikogu session chair is more than a glorified announcer

Külli Taro.
Külli Taro. Source: Rene Riisalu

The work of the Riigikogu needs managing. The task of the chairman of the session goes beyond introducing speakers. And it is the obligation of the Board of the Riigikogu to organize the parliament's work. Our parliament has become an example of undignified behavior because it has been allowed to happen, Külli Taro writes.

Last July, Labor Party MP Dawn Butler was removed from the work of the lower house of Parliament for a day after calling the PM a liar. Scottish National Party MP Ian Blackford was thrown out of a session for a similar reason in January. He claimed the PM had knowingly misled the Parliament.

The speaker gave both the chance to take back their words as calling the other side a liar is not conduct befitting an MP. Since neither backed down, the two MPs were removed from the work of the Parliament for breach of good practice.

The President of the Riigikogu had no reaction last week when an Estonian MP styled a colleague a pedophile. Something as "trifling" as calling the prime minister a liar would merit no attention whatsoever. Unfortunately, we have been forced to get used to limitless insults being hurled at colleagues or members of the government in the Riigikogu. Without any consequences.

The Estonian Constitution provides that members of the Riigikogu do not bear legal responsibility for how they vote and political statements made in the parliament or its organs. This means that statements made in the Riigikogu cannot result in misdemeanor or criminal proceedings, nor do they come with disciplinary or civilian responsibility. The principle of the indemnity of MPs is to protect free execution of mandate. Make sure opinions, assessments and proposals could be made without fear of litigation.

But taking legal responsibility out of the picture does not equal everything being permitted. The Constitution Annotated provides that the parliament can take measures against misuse of the freedom of speech to be applied by its organs.

When [Prime Minister] Kaja Kallas was still serving as an MP, she introduced the Riigikogu members' good practice. The Board of the Riigikogu and party groups approved these principles in late 2014. Among other things, the code reads that a member of the Riigikogu is respectful and courteous toward colleagues and fellow citizens and avoids improper language. Since then, the document seems to have been shelved and forgotten.

Such codes of conduct are regularly updated, compliance guidelines provided, while making sure that what has been agreed on is observed. It is emphasized that voters' assessment of a Riigikogu delegate's conduct is not enough. In addition to its representative function, the parliament is a place of work where we cannot tolerate behavior that would be unacceptable in other professional settings.

However, no consequences presently follow when the Riigikogu ignores this good practice. In several countries, including the aforementioned United Kingdom, sanctions apply in the case of disrespectful conduct. Usually, the speaker's reaction starts with interrupting the MP's statement. It is possible the MP will not be given the floor again, required to take back disrespectful comments or make a verbal or written apology.

Further sanctions could include shorter or longer-term removal from work or even holding back the MP's salary. More serious measures are usually decided by parliamentary bodies or an organ made up either partially or in full of outside experts.

Professional literature has seen debates in recent years over whether outside parties should be involved in disciplining MPs. The general necessity to call parliaments to order from time to time is seldom questioned.

I believe that ordering more serious sanctions or involving outside experts is a slippery slope. It would come with the risk of too much political manipulation, as well as lessening the parliament's responsibility for self-regulation. I also do not believe that complementing legislation with additional requirements or constraints could be a magic wand.

We need to start with much simpler things. The work of the Riigikogu needs to be managed. The task of the chairman of the session goes beyond introducing speakers. And it is the obligation of the Board of the Riigikogu to organize the parliament's work. Our parliament has become an example of undignified behavior because it has been allowed to happen.

Riigikogu Question Time sessions that have caused a lot of headache lately could be conducted very differently. The chairman of the session has quite a lot of say there. When processing draft legislation and regulations, it needs to be made sure that organization of work, efforts to limit statements, do not get in the way of important procedural rules as that could culminate in the legal act being declared unconstitutional.

It was suggested last week that the session chair has the possibility to switch off the microphone or ask for it to be switched off. It is also possible to interrupt statements and convincingly call colleagues to order. Not all procedural questions must we allowed.

Members of the government or others addressing the parliament do not have to be made to answer questions the aim of which is not to gather information but to insult and ridicule the person instead. Meeting insults with insults is also no help as it makes the responder no more mature than their interrogator.


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Editor: Marcus Turovski

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