Thursday 16 March 2017
Today saw the launch of the Pacific Islands Westminster Seminar at the Parliament of Queensland in Australia. By holding the Westminster Seminar – now in its 66th year – for the first time in Australia, the programme on parliamentary practice and procedure, has brought together around 40 delegates from Fiji, Cook Islands, Samoa, Vanuatu, Kiribati, Nauru, Niue, Solomon Islands, Tonga and the Autonomous Region of Bougainville.
The Big Picture
Following the official welcome, Baroness Taylor of Bolton chaired the opening session of the programme, introducing the Westminster System. With most parliaments in the Pacific replicating the Westminster System, this was an opportunity to give a broad overview of parliamentary democracy including key challenges.
Baroness Taylor outlined some of her own experiences adapting to change during her 40 years as a parliamentarian, highlighting in particular the modernisation period the UK underwent while she was leader of the House of Commons in the late 90s and the present challenges of Brexit and House of Lords reform.
The discussion that followed touched on various issues including codes of conduct and ethics; fixed parliamentary terms; accountability; and the impact on stability of parliamentarians ‘crossing the floor’.
The second session, chaired by the Leader of the House in the Cook Islands, Hon. Willie Gifford MP, then focussed in on the legislative process. The session included input from Queensland MP and Deputy Speaker Di Farmer and Hon. Connelly Sandakabatu MP from the Solomon Islands, who shared about the role of committees in their respective legislatures. In the absence of an upper house in their parliaments, the MPs from Queensland and the Solomon Islands stressed the importance of committees in scrutinising legislation and acting as a check on the government.
Kate Emms, Parliamentary Adviser to the UK Cabinet Office, and Chloe Mawson, Clerk of the Journals in the House of Lords, gave a clerk's perspective on the legislative process. They outlined their advisory role in parliament as well as the need to be aware of the politics surrounding a bill while remaining non-partisan.
The final session of the morning then looked at the role of backbenchers. Yvonne Fovargue MP opened the session, sharing about her experiences as a backbencher and the importance of building relationships with parliamentarians from across the House in order to advocate for change.
Kate Emms gave her input on the role of a backbencher, echoing the importance of cross-party support in order for a bill to have more of an impact. As an illustration, she shared about her experience of the Modern Slavery Bill in the UK, which started out as a backbench motion and clearly demonstrated the influence backbenchers can have on the legislative process.
A Working Parliament
In the afternoon, delegates were split into parliamentarians and clerks. The parliamentarians from the Pacific met with their Queensland and UK counterparts for a roundtable discussion on balancing parliamentary and committee work with constituency and local community work. While the contexts in which the parliamentarians operate in vary significantly, some of the challenges remain the same. One such challenge is learning how to effectively represent a constituency while dealing with a demanding parliamentary workload.
Meanwhile, the group made up of clerks also met with their counterparts from Queensland and the UK to discuss their role in more detail and the challenges they face. With most of the parliaments in the Pacific Islands operating in English and at least one other regional language, the often laborious process of translation was highlighted as one particular challenge for clerks.
At the end of Day One, the delegates met for an informal dinner to discuss Brexit and trade. The closing discussion, chaired by Lord Balfe of Dulwich, was an opportunity for the delegates to explore how Brexit will likely effect the UK and its trading partners, and in particular what it might mean for the Pacific Islands.
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