The right to rule and the right to protest

(This post originally appeared on The Toastmaster blog.)

Two articles in the weekend newspapers gets me thinking on this topic Sunday morning.

Article one is from Saturday’s Globe and Mail. It’s an essay by Michael Ignatieff (yes that Michael Ignatieff) about a government’s right to rule.

In it, he says, that one of the tasks of government and perhaps the first task, is to protect, to defend and to secure.

Any government that does not, loses their legitimacy, their capacity and their competence.

Mr. Ignatieff then lists the failures of the American government  which include 911, weapons of mass destruction, Iraq, Afghanistan, Katrina, New Orleans, the economic crisis, the mortgage bubble, the Gulf of Mexico wellhead burst and the US national debt.

He says that when you look at this list of government failures there’s no surprise that the American people have grown cynical of government.

The second article, from the Sunday New York Times, is about a woman in India who has been on a hunger strike to protest government policy!

The 39-year-old poet and activist was returned to her hospital bed to be feed by a court-ordered feeding tube after she refused to drop her hunger strike.

And what is she protesting? Her cause is to get India to remove the laws that shield security forces from prosecution.

And she has held to this protest for 11 years.

So what’s this got to do with Toastmasters?

Here’s another illustration that might help to set the stage.

Another national organization of which I was an executive member until I resigned last year (somewhat in protest as I could no longer in good faith support the decisions being made or not made by the leaders of the organization) is facing total collapse as the membership falls and few, if any, seem inclined to put their names forward for office.

Why has this happened? IMHO it’s because the leaders of the organization ran the national association like a private business. Decisions were made that served the organization but didn’t serve the members and now the members are voting with their feet.

This is a failure of governance. The executive team lost its legitimacy to govern and the members are not supporting them and the organization is going to fail.

So back to Toastmasters.

We can take these lessons right down to the club level and apply them to individual meetings.

Our club executives are elected to serve and not govern.

Executive teams that understand this principle thrive even in difficult times. Why? Because they have the support of the members of the club behind them. And while there maybe differences of opinion, which is healthy, there is no descent or protest that results and the members will rush to the defence of its executive group and support their decisions if subject to outside attack.

Even the chairperson of the night is wise to remember that their agenda does not represent the sovereign will of the assembly. The agenda is merely a guide to what might happen during the night. The actual power to change the agenda rests with the assembly.

And it is the responsibility of every member to be ever vigilant and ready to protest whenever they think the will of the assembly is not being served.

Thankfully in Toastmasters we do not have to go on 11-year hunger strikes.

It is absolutely essentially and our duty as members that we remember that our leaders (whether they be the chair for evening, the executive team or our national leaders) are fallible and need our help and support. We can help support them by being vigilant and willing to share our thoughts with the greater assembly every time we think we can be helpful.

In Toastmasters we find how to do this in Robert’s Rules of Order.

Every member should be aware of what is happening during the meeting.

If for any reason you are not certain of what to do, you are allowed to stand and say “Mr. Chair, I rise to a parliamentary inquiry.”

The chair may reply or ask the Parliamentarian for an opinion.

BTW when you’re the Parliamentarian, you are not expected to know all the answers.

If you do not know you may ask an individual from the assembly to offer an opinion of which you may or may not take. The chairperson should not allow members to comment without being first recognized and then asked to stand.

In the situation where you believe that procedurally something is out of order you again rise without waiting to be recognized (and you may interrupt a speaker who has the floor) and say: Mr. or Madame Chairman I rise to a point of order. You do not need a seconder.

The chair is obliged by our procedural law (Robert’s Rules) to recognize you immediately and say “State your point of order.”

If the chair makes a decision that you disagree with or you feel offends the will of the assembly then it is your responsibility as a member to rise (again without being recognized) and state (loudly) “I appeal from the decision of the chair.” This appeal requires a seconder and the chair may choose to explain their decision but he or she is obligated to call for a vote of the assembly.

Chairpersons and executive groups and national leaders don’t make perfect decisions. They do the best they can. It is up to the rest of us to offer them our guidance. If we fail to do so, we have no right to complain when they attempt to fulfill their roles.

By the way, when challenged the chair may ask the assembly to comment and thereby start a debate.

The chair may also ask the Parliamentarian to give an opinion and when the Parliamentarian rises all debate must cease and all other members, which the exception of the chair, must be seated and be silent.

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One response to “The right to rule and the right to protest

  1. Michelle Gillies

    Peter,
    I learn something every time you tackle a “Parliamentarian” issue. Thank you for that.