The Solomons Parliament resumed sitting on 11 March and no doubt MPs will be focused on constitutional amendments that aim to improve political stability by regulating the operation of political parties.
This will be the last sitting of the Eighth Parliament and, according to the Solomons Parliament web site, it is expected to continue sitting for about seven weeks before Parliament dissolves on or before 24 April.
The reforms to the integrity of political parties are set out in two bills: Constitution (Political Parties) Amendment Bill and the Political Parties (Registration and Administration) Bill.
In this post, I’ve had a go at summarising the key proposals, focusing primarily on the constitutional amendments. Aside from the Bills themselves and their Explanatory Memoranda, another useful source of information (and commentary) is the Final Report of the Constitution Review Committee.
If the Bills are passed, the most significant change is that Prime Ministers will usually be appointed rather than elected by Parliament.
Specifically, the nominee of the party with the highest number of seats will be automatically appointed PM. If this fails to produce a PM (ie, if that party does not nominate anyone) then the coalition with an absolute majority may nominate a coalition member and, again, that nominee will be automatically appointed PM. Only if this process also fails to produce a PM (ie, there is no coalition with an absolute majority) will the position be put to election by Parliament.
In effect, these Bills would abolish the notorious ‘second election’ that follows each general election, where money and allegiances flow freely prior to the election of Prime Minister. I’ve included a short discussion of what might transpire after a general election and I’ve also tried to describe a scenario where a PM may still have to be elected by Parliament.
There are four other key elements to the proposal.
- Coalitions: the formation and operation of coalitions will be formalised under the constitution and legislation.
- Motions of no confidence may still be used to unseat a PM however the new PM would not be elected by Parliament. Instead, the selection of a new PM would follow the process described above. Thus, in the first instance, motions of no confidence would only unseat PMs, not governments. There is also a new provision that allows members of the ‘governing coalition’ to replace them PM.
- A Political Parties Integrity Commission (PPIC) would be established to register and monitor political parties and coalitions.
- Independents and party-swapping: In general, independent MPs would be unable to join coalitions. Independents may join a party however, like all party members, if they later decide to leave their party, this will also mean that they automatically vacate their seat.
Appointment of Prime Minister
At present, the process for selecting the Prime Minister is governed by Section 33(1) of the Constitution:
33.(1) There shall be a Prime Minister who shall be elected as such by the members of Parliament from amongst their number in accordance with the provisions of Schedule 2 to this Constitution.
The constitutional amendment’s would amend Section 33(1) and Schedule 2 so that the Prime Minister would, in most cases, be appointed by the Governor General rather than elected by Parliament. The proposed appointment process is set out in Schedule 2 (Part 1) and allows for four scenarios:
First, suppose that a single party commands an absolute majority in Parliament. In this case, the Speaker will invite it to nominate a party member to be Prime Minister, who will then be duly appointed by the Governor General.
Second, if no party commands an absolute majority then the Speaker will invite the party with the highest number of seats to nominate a party member to be Prime Minister. Once again, that nominee will then be duly appointed by the Governor General.
Third, if for some reason no PM is appointed through either of the steps above, the Speaker will invite a nomination for PM from the coalition of parties that has an absolute majority in Parliament. Note that this coalition must have been formed before the general election and independents who seek to join the coalition after the election will not count in determining whether the coalition has an absolute majority. Once again, that nominee will then be duly appointed by the Governor General.
Finally, if for some reason there is still no PM is appointed through any of the three steps above, the Speaker will arrange a parliamentary vote. The process for election is set out in Schedule 2 (Part 2).
After a general election …
Since only one party has ever achieved an absolute majority (the PAP in 1989), I will ignore that possibility. The more likely scenario is that a party with the highest number of seats (but lacking an absolute majority) will nominate a prime ministerial candidate.
At the same time, that party will have an opportunity (under the new Schedule 2 to the Constitution) to invite other parties or independents to join them in a ‘governing coalition’. Invitees then have three days to accept or reject the invitation.
How would a governing coalition work? Many governing coalitions and alliances have been formed in the past (eg, the Grand Coalition for Change, the Coalition for National Unity and Rural Advancement etc) however as far as I’m aware, these have been purely private arrangements between the parties and have had no formal status under the constitution or legislation.
Under the proposed Bills, all coalition agreements would be governed by provisions in the Political Parties (Registration and Administration) Bill, particularly Part 6 (Coalition Agreements) and Schedule 3 (minimum rules for a coalition agreement).
These provisions would allow parties to enter into coalitions with other parties but not with independents (except when the party with highest number of seats is attempting to form a governing coalition). All coalitions would have to be registered with the Political Parties Integrity Commission. There would also be rules governing:
- when and how a party could go about leaving a coalition,
- the selection of the leader and deputy leader of the coalition, and
- coalition policies, strategies or plans, which are binding on coalition members.
Election of Prime Minister
The only case where Parliament will be given the chance to vote for a Prime Minister after a general election is if somehow the appointment process described above fails to produce a PM.
I’m still a little unclear on how this might occur. It seems that this could only occur if:
- the party with the highest number of seats chooses not to nominate anyone to be PM, AND
- no coalition (formed prior to the election) has an absolute majority.
Here’s how it might work. Suppose the I Like to Party Party wins the highest number of seats but not an absolute majority. Suppose also that none of the other parties or independents in parliament wish to support the I Like to Party Party (perhaps they regard the Party’s objectives as too frivolous!) but they had not formed a coalition amongst themselves prior to the election.
Initially, the I Like to Party Party exercises its prerogative to nominate a candidate for PM, who is duly appointed. It also attempts to form a governing coalition but the other parties and independents resist the offer (despite the temptation of some kick-arse parties!) and instead pass a motion of no confidence.
At this point, the party enthusiasts in the I Like to Party Party see that further nominations for PM would be futile and so they do not nominate another candidate. Since no pre-existing coalition has an absolute majority, the Speaker would then put the matter to a vote.
All in all, this seems a pretty unlikely scenario to me. But one interesting point that arises is the different role that motions of confidence would play, which brings us to …
What about motions of no confidence?
At present, motions of no confidence are governed by Sections 34(1) and 34(2) of the Constitution:
34.(1) If a resolution of no confidence in the Prime Minister is passed by Parliament by an absolute majority of the votes of members thereof the Governor-General shall remove the Prime Minister from office, whereupon the members of Parliament shall meet as soon as possible during the same session of Parliament to elect a new Prime Minister in accordance with the provisions of Schedule 2 to this Constitution.
(2) A motion for a resolution of no confidence in the Prime Minister shall not be passed by Parliament unless notice of the motion has been given to the Speaker at least seven clear days before it is introduced.
Under the constitutional amendment to Section 34(1), Parliament may still pass a motion of no confidence in a Prime Minister. However, if the motion is successful, the process for selecting a new PM is the same as that described above – the party with the highest number of seats may nominate someone to be Prime Minister and that person will then be duly appointed by the Governor General.
Thus, in the first instance, a successful motion would only bring down the PM but not necessarily the governing coalition, since the party with the highest number of seats would retain the power to nominate another candidate for PM.
A new method for replacing the Prime Minister
The constitutional amendment also proposes a new Section 34A entitled ‘Replacement of the Prime Minister’ which would also give the members of the governing coalition the opportunity to replace the PM. They can only do this if a majority of members of the governing coalition have lost confidence in the PM. In that case, a member of the governing coalition can submit a motion of no confidence to parliament.
However, the key difference from other motions of no confidence is that the power to nominate a new PM would now lie with the members of the governing coalition (not just the party with the highest number of seats). Nonetheless, as before, the Governor General is obliged to appoint whoever is nominated by the governing coalition.
Independents and party-swapping
The Bills substantially changes the status of independent MPs. Since independents will never be the members of the largest parliamentary party, they will have no say in the prime ministerial nominee after an election. (That said, independents may be invited to join the governing coalition and the proposed Bills appear to impose few restrictions on independents in such circumstances.)
The constitutional amendment also removes all references to the ‘Independent Group’, which is currently recognised in the constitution as an entity separate from either the government or the opposition and is designated its own leader. (I may write a separate blog on the history of this unusual arrangement.)
Newly elected independent MPs may foresake their independent status and join a political party. Party membership is not to be taken lightly, however, because the constitutional amendment would also amend Section 50 (Vacation of seats by members) so that any member who resigns from her/his party automatically vacates her/his seat.
Thus, a member of a party that is not part of the governing coalition cannot switch camps during the term of parliament (unless she/he takes the rather drastic step of resigning from parliament and then contesting a by-election).
Political Parties Integrity Commission
The constitutional amendment would introduce a new Section 69D (Political Parties Integrity Commission and regulation of political parties) into the constitution which would both establish the Commission and give parliament the power to make laws in relation to the Commission’s operations. Hence the need for the separate, complementary Political Parties (Registration and Administration) Bill.
A final note of caution
Just in case it is not already clear, this commentary is merely that of an interested lay-person – I’m no expert and I may easily have misinterpreted or overlooked important aspects of the proposals. So, it the details matter to you, check them yourself and if you see any errors, corrections are most welcome 🙂
Tags: Solomons politics