With the National Assembly and its speaker, Sooroojdev Phokeer, under withering criticism of late, the question must be asked whether the parliament was always like that? To answer to that, we must turn to Sir Harilal Vaghjee, the first, and longest-serving speaker of Mauritius' parliament, to see how far the institution has fallen from its halcyon days.
Just how dysfunctional has the National Assembly become is a question that can be answered by looking at how much of a contrast there is between the way it is run today and the way it was run under the tenure of its first speaker, Sir Harilal Vaghjee.
Vaghjee qualified as a barrister at Middle Temple in London and briefly had a 15-month stint in Rodrigues as a barrister before formally entering politics. In 1948, he was elected along with Sir Seewoosagur Ramgoolam and Aunauth Beejadhur (who would go on to become the first governor-general of the Bank of Mauritius) in Pamplemousses-Riviere du Rampart. However, by 1959 the constitution was changed, dividing Mauritius into 40 single-member constituencies and Vaghjee unsuccessfully contested a seat in Plaine-des-Papyes. Having bitten the dust in those polls, Vaghjee formally quit politics. In 1960, he was made the speaker of the colonial- era Legislative Council and was to go on to become the first speaker of parliament after independence in 1968. The legacy that Vaghjee would leave behind during his time as Mauritius' first speaker stands in clear contrast to the criticisms of his current counterpart, Sooroojdev Phokeer.
The first contrast is in the very manner that they became speakers in the first place and how their elevation was greeted by their political contemporaries. "Not very many people are aware of this now, but Vaghjee was not elected as speaker. At the Lancaster House talks in 1965, the first constitution that came as an order from the Privy Council was being thrashed out and in it was clause explicitly stating that Vaghjee was to be Mauritius' first speaker for life," Former Vice President Raouf Bundhun, who was an MP while Vaghjee was speaker, tells l'express. Unlike the elevation of Sooroojdev Phokeer, that was opposed by the Mouvement Militant Mauricien in 2019, Vaghjee's elevation was unopposed. "All the political leaders from Mauritius, Sir Seewoosagur Ramgoolam, Jules Koenig, Gaëtan Duval, Abdul Razack Mohamed, Sookdeo Bissondoyal, all agreed that Vaghjee could be Speaker as long as he wished, such was the level of trust and respect that all parties had in him" says Bundhun.
Parliamentarians serving under Vaghjee recall a style that was the polar opposite of the raucous National Assembly we see today. "He was not a brute, he was a very learned and cultured man; in terms of his oratory, he could match the greats such as Raoul Rivet, Gaëtan Duval or Harold Walter," says Harish Boodhoo, a former MP. Vaghjee read Tagore, Valéry, Verlaine, Baudelaire and, composed some of his own poetry too, titled 'Born Great Men', 'Cornelius Coldham Triumphs' and 'Life of Elsa' and would rush off whenever he could to Souillac to converse with the poet Robert Edward Hart.
This erudition bled into the manner that Vaghjee conducted parliament. "He would just come in with the lawyer's gown and the speaker's wig (a tradition that was discontinued by Alan Ganoo in 1982); it wasn't like today, there would be complete silence when he would walk in, so much that you could hear a fly buzzing in the chamber," Bundhun recalls. For others, it was the strict formalism of Vaghjee that stood out. "He always started parliament on time; even if the prime minister was still on his way, parliament would begin," recounts Jérôme Boulle, who was an opposition MP at the time. "Vaghjee would never call MPs by their names; instead by which constituency they represented; he eschewed familiarity, he never interrupted anybody while they were speaking and I have never heard him shout or lose his temper," says Boulle, adding that Vaghjee's mannerisms were consciously aped by future speakers who were in parliament when Vaghjee was there, such as Ramesh Jeewoolall, Alan Ganoo, Razack Peeroo, and Kailash Purryag. "None of them ever shouted or raised their voice while in the speaker's chair; this they got from Vaghjee in the sense that they all tried to adopt his style," Boulle explains, "having speakers shouting started first with Maya Hanoomanjee and now Phokeer," Boulle says. Vaghjee's parliament was a place of "intellectualism and culture" he adds, where Vaghjee responded with wit and humor to provocation and disorder within the chamber, he adds, "it certainly did not look like the rowdy schoolyard you see today; he used to say in response to loud parliamentarians that 'honorable members must realize that, amongst other things, parliament is also a gentleman's club'."
Unlike today, where Phokeer seems to be shutting down questions from the opposition with dogmatic interpretations of standing orders, Vaghjee was much more flexible. Bundhun recalls one incident; following a heated exchange with Gaëtan Duval in parliament, Bundhun faced an accusation of being anti-French in the press at the time. As a simple government backbencher, Bundhun could not spontaneously come up with a statement to the National Assembly. "I went to see him in his office and he simply told me that when parliament resumed, I should stand up and 'catch his eye' to use parliamentary jargon. I did and could make my statement, one of the rare and only occasions I can think of when a simple backbencher could make a statement to the National Assembly like that," the former parliamentarian recounts. "Vaghjee did not lord the standing orders over people's heads, he was flexible but always on the side of what was fair," he points out. Bundhun recalls a second incident: One of the perks of the speaker is to attend international conferences of parliamentarians, but Vaghjee singularly refused to go to these, preferring to send younger parliamentarians instead. So, in 1975, Bundhun found himself helping to organize a conference of French-speaking parliamentarians in Mauritius when he got to know that two French parliamentarians were planning to have him replaced. So Bundhun went to Vaghjee. "He simply said it was impossible to have me replaced like that and simply wrote a note that I was his personal representative at the conference; that's how I could stay and the extent to which he encouraged young parliamentarians like me to grow," Bundhun emphasizes.
Between government and opposition
One of the recurrent accusations against Phokeer - and his predecessor Hanoomanjee - is their full-throated defence of government and their distaste for opposition parties within parliament. This was the crux of a noconfidence motion that current Leader of the Opposition Arvin Boolell brought against Phokeer in June this year, just six months into Phokeer's tenure. So how did Vaghjee treat the opposition in parliament?
Ramduth Jaddoo was a parliamentarian of the opposition Mouvement Militant Mauricien (MMM) while Vaghjee was speaker. "We cut quite the figure in parliament as first-time parliamentarians from a radical opposition party, with full-grown beards and dressed in bush shirts," Jadoo says, "but that did not seem to matter to him, we never had to complain of bias on his part.". Jaddoo recounts what happened after he delivered his maiden speech in parliament; "I was in the opposition in charge of the education file for the MMM; so after I made my speech, Vaghjee called me into his office and invited me to come to his house.".At the time Vaghjee lived in a second-story flat in Arcades Sunassee in Rose-Hill. "When I arrived at his flat, he said that they appreciated my style and tone and said I had the makings of a great orator and encouraged me; of course, he must have said the same thing to other parliamentarians but that's the kind of man he was; he did not see his job as that of protecting the government, unlike what we see in parliament today," Jaddoo insists.
In fact, if anything, Vaghjee seemed to have a soft spot for the opposition side of the house. "Although he was in the Labour Party before, once he became speaker, he really did become a man of no party; as an opposition we never had to worry about the speaker being against us," according to Boulle. The most famous of Vaghjee's exchanges were in fact traded with the government side and senior ministers. In 1977 for instance, a senior minister in government, Sir Harold Walter, was annoyed by a remark from the opposition side and repeatedly tried to get Vaghjee to intervene. An unfazed Vaghjee simply turned and said, "What the honourable minister should know is that at times, the speaker chooses to turn a deaf ear in order not to interrupt debates." Unlike parliament today where nothing goes for long without interruption and arguments over whether or not to withdraw words; the continuation of the debate was much more important than the feelings of government ministers.
And government ministers were not spared Vaghjee's rod. "At one point Sir Seewoosagur Ramgoolam was behaving badly and had a tense exchange with Vaghjee who was threatening to apply the standing orders," Bundhun illustrates, "An irate Ramgoolam replied, 'you can apply any damn thing you like!', and at another point, it was Abdul Razack Mohamed who was incensed and got up to leave; when called out by Vaghjee to maintain order, Mohamed shot back 'al fer f*** to order!" Others such as Sir Veerasamy Ringadoo and Gaetan Duval were also on the receiving end of Vaghjee's discipline. His bête noire was not from the opposition at all, but actually, Sir Harold Walter. "It was with Walter that Vaghjee clashed the most and with a single remark Vaghjee would have a flamboyant speaker like Walter reduced to silence; Walter never liked that and would grumble or briefly take a walk outside to cool down," laughs Boulle. Boodhoo who later broke with the Labour Party remembers that after one MP resigned and he wanted to break ranks by demanding the re-introduction of by-elections (which were suspended at the time), he went to Vaghjee telling him he wanted to make a speech breaking with his own side at the time. "I made the speech and was criticized by other government speakers, but Vaghjee simply stood up and said it was a fine speech," Boodhoo remembers.
Unlike today's parliament where all the ingenuity seems to consist of how to use the rules to protect the government side, during Vaghjee's time, new things were introduced that actually increased government accountability. "Usually when asked about parastatal bodies, government ministers would refuse to answer saying they had no information about that; so in 1978 opposition MP Swaley Kassenally came up with a new idea, he would ask the prime minister his plans for the day and then if it was meeting with a parastatal head, Kasenally would demand that this or that minister ask a specific question when they met the heads of these parastatals," says Boulle, "it was quite a novel thing and what is more Vaghjee never disallowed these questions." Under Vaghjee, opposition motions were never delayed until the wee hours of the morning (as happened with the recent motion of disallowance put in by the leader of the opposition over the CSG) but were always heard as soon as possible and always before public business was heard. And although technically a speaker gets a vote in parliament, Vaghjee never exercised his - except once in 1969 in favour of constitutional amendments as part of an alliance between the Labour Party and the PMSD - even when the government hung by a knife-edge. Once the Clerk of the National Assembly slipped up and asked Vaghjee how he was voting on a bill, "Don't you know Mr Clerk, that the speaker never votes?" came the terse reply. "Even if he could, he consciously never voted either way" according to Boulle.
The National Assembly under Phokeer has become infamous for a number of controversies; just this month, Phokeer was criticized for changing a private notice question removing from it a question of whether the Prime Minister Pravind Jugnauth was under investigation for breaking the Financial Intelligence and Anti-Money Laundering Act. Did Vaghjee ever change questions? No, according to Bundhun and Jaddoo, one from the government and opposition side in Vaghjee's parliament. What about expulsions and suspensions of opposition parliamentarians that have become all too frequent under Phokeer? In fact, since becoming speaker in November 2019, Phokeer has ejected an opposition parliament at more than one out of every three parliamentary sessions he has chaired. The latest being the suspension of Labour Party parliamentarian Shakeel Mohamed for four sessions and his party comrade Patrick Assirvaden for the remainder of the session of November 17. So how many times did Vaghjee expel or suspend parliamentarians in his 19-year tenure, stretching from 1960 to 1979, as Speaker? "That never happened under Vaghjee as far as I remember," according to Jadoo, "If you misbehaved he would just call you in his office and explain your error like in a school." Bundhun, Boodhoo and Boulle likewise cannot recall Vaghjee ever chucking out or suspending a parliamentarian, neither from the government nor from the opposition. The tendency to expel and suspend parliamentarians is a habit of a more recent vintage.
"If the government thinks that such tactics right now are bringing wind to their sails they are wrong. Mauritians always sympathize with the underdog and you cannot just expel and suspend people with little explanation," says Boodhoo, "there is a world of difference between Vaghjee's parliament and the parliament we have today." He adds that Vaghjee was a historical figure for the small-scale setting of Mauritius and that Vaghjee's memory and famous library, should be preserved for posterity. A parliament is only a reflection of the speaker running it, Boulle argues, "if parliament is the way it is today it's because the speaker is unable to set the pace or has been setting the wrong example himself; if we had a speaker worth his salt, 80 per cent of the problems we see in parliament would disappear."
It was not always thus in parliament. And remembering yesterday's parliament is perhaps the first step in getting a better-run one tomorrow.
Timeline: Vaghjee's tenure in parliament
1951-1957: elected Vice President of the Legislative Council.
1957: Vaghjee becomes minister in the Legislative Council and briefly serves as minister of Education.
1960: Appointed speaker of the Legislative Council, replacing Sir Robert Stanley.
1970: Knighted by the Queen, named Sir Harilal Vaghjee.
1971: Vaghjee receives the Royal Mace, a symbol of parliamentary authority still in use today in the UK House of Com¬mons.
1972: Becomes Pro-Chancellor of the newly founded University of Mauritius.
1977: Becomes Officier de la Légion d'Honneur and Grand Officier de l'Ordre de la Pléiade et du Dialogue des cultures by France.
25 May 1979: Sir Harilal Vaghjee dies at age 67.