Canadian National Convention functioning
by / on behalf of Universal House of Justice1982
Question to the Universal House of JusticeDavid D. Bowie
September 28, 1982.
The Universal House of Justice,
The National Convention appears to be a unique institution within the administrative structure of the Faith inasmuch as it is the only one of which I am aware which has a limited life span each year. Indeed in times of emergency it need not even be convened. And yet Shoghi Effendi referred to it as one of "the two leading Bahá’í institutions in America." (N.S.A. compilation, p. 25.) It would appear that this institution is worthy of study.
I realize that most, if not all, of the Guardian's major guidance is contained in the compilation on the National Spiritual Assembly, and in Principles of Bahá’í Administration. However, there must be a considerable body of clarifications by your institution written since 1963 to National Assemblies and Boards of Counsellors which are not generally available. I believe it would be advantageous to have all references from the House of Justice, and from Shoghi Effendi (whether written by himself or on his behalf) assembled under one cover, and thus request that such a compilation be made available to the Bahá’í world.
Should your body consider the general distribution of a compilation such as this to be unwise or untimely, may I request that such references be given to me to assist me in my own study which has been in process for some time now but which can proceed no further without access to your clarifications.
It is my understanding that the right to decide whether or not to call a Convention in any given year rests exclusively with the National Assembly, and that once a Convention has been called the N.S.A. has the obligation and right to prepare an agenda which can be added to on vote of the assembled delegates. However, once the Convention is convened the conduct of the Convention lies with the body of the Convention - providing it does not violate any primary-principle delineated by Shoghi Effendi, or transgress the provisions of the By-Laws as interpreted by the National Assembly.
I would appreciate the comments of the House of Justice on the manner of electing the officers of the Canadian National Convention. Enclosed are copies of a letter to the N.S.A. of Canada and its response. The wording of paragraphs three and four of the N.S.A.'s letter appear to me to be in danger of transgressing the spirit of the Guardian's directives about the election of Convention officers. If the election of those officers is vested in the Convention, then surely the method of election (if that is indeed a secondary procedure, and not a primary principle as my original letter suggested) is not within the purview of the N.S.A. to decide.
I notice the distinction made by the N.S.A. between "co-chairmen” and "vice-chairman", but feel that this is a matter of semantics since we are not asked to elect an "assistant chairman" but "co-chairmen" who function fully and independently as chairmen of the Convention chairing separate sessions individually.
A logistical question is also raised. If the one receiving the highest number of votes receives one hundred, and one receiving the second-highest number of votes receives thirty, with the balance distributed amongst other delegates, can the second person (the co-chairman) be said to have received a mandate from the one-hundred-seventy-one delegates who voted. It is also easy to imagine that if two names were voted for, the second choice of each delegate could receive more votes than any of their first choices. However, I believe the most important issue is the one of principle I raised originally in my letter to the N.S.A.
Another question, which I have, concerns the tellers' report. The practice in Canada is to announce the names of the nine newly elected members of the National Assembly plus the name of the individual receiving the highest number of votes. At several Conventions it has been suggested that a complete tabulated tellers' report be made available either at the Convention or subsequently. While there has been agreement that this is within the authority of the Convention to decide, the suggestion has always been treated as electioneering or an ego-trip by the delegate making the suggestion. My question really revolves around the statement made by the N.S.A. on page 2, item #8 of the enclosed report of actions taken by the N.S.A.
Does not the resolution of secondary issues rest with the Convention? Can one Convention make policy for succeeding ones? Can the N.S.A. decide what is an inappropriate use of the Convention's time (providing the Convention consultation is not violating principle)? Can the N.S.A. dictate whether or not the Convention will fully explore any issue raised for its consideration?
With loving greetings and appreciation for your continuous love and guidance to the Bahá'ís of the world.
Response from Universal House of Justice14 November 1982
Mr. David Bowie
Dear Bahá'í Friend,
The Universal House of Justice has received your letter of 28 September 1982 concerning various aspects of National Conventions, and has instructed us to send you the following comments.
The House of Justice does not judge it timely to issue any general compilation on the nature and functioning of National Conventions.
The principles are already clearly stated in the Constitution of the National Spiritual Assembly and in existing publications. However, for assistance to you in your study of the matter, we are instructed to share with you the following excerpts.
From letters of the Universal House of Justice
1. "Normal Convention procedure would call for a tellers’ report announcing the names of the nine believers elected to the National Spiritual Assembly plus statistical information as to the balance of the votes cast. However, if the Convention votes to have the complete report of the tellers, or any part of it, the Convention is entitled to have the information which will thereupon be presented by the tellers in accordance with the vote of the Convention." (16 December 1965)
2. "As you will see from the passage in the National Constitution which you quote, '...any matter pertaining to the Faith introduced by any of the delegates may, upon motion and vote, be taken up as part of the deliberation of a Convention'. However, the Constitution is silent as to whether the Convention may delete or change items on the agenda submitted by the National Assembly. Obviously the National Assembly is the ultimate authority in secondary matters not covered in the Constitution, but at the same time it would probably not want to interfere with the conducting of the Convention unless the vital interests of the Faith were to demand it or basic principles were being violated." (16 September 1969)
3. "National Conventions, like all other national Bahá'í activities, are under the jurisdiction of the National Spiritual Assembly. Until a new National Spiritual Assembly is announced the outgoing one is still in office and responsible for the affairs of the national Bahá’í community. While Convention officers and tellers are appointed by the Convention all questions of procedure, including those which you suggest might arise, should be referred to the National Spiritual Assembly. You suggest that there might not be a quorum of the National Spiritual Assembly present but it is the duty of that body to make arrangements for such eventualities, particularly at such an important occasion as the National Convention." (25 February 1971)
4. "The National Spiritual Assembly may assert its sovereign authority to curtail the freedom of a delegate if the delegate's intention or action is considered by the Assembly to be harmful to the Cause,..." (18 December 1974)
From letters written on behalf of the Universal House of Justice
5. "The Universal House of Justice has received your letter of 27 May 1975 inquiring whether it is possible to elect two chairmen at a National Convention to lead the consultations alternately. The House of Justice is of the opinion that the election of two chairmen would not be proper but there is no reason why the delegates should not elect, in addition to the chairman, a vice-chairman who could relieve the chairman when necessary." (5 June 1975)
6. "There are no specific texts on the timing of prayers for the election during the National Convention. It would be preferable, however, that these prayers be held immediately preceding the elections when those present at the Convention may concentrate on the prayers. Following the prayers the delegates may then, in an atmosphere of silence, write out their ballots." (9 August 1976)
7. "As to the choice of tellers, and whether they should be chosen from among the delegates or not, this is a matter that is not specified in the National Bahá'í Constitution, and is therefore left to the discretion of each National Spiritual Assembly." (9 August 1976)
8. "In reply to your query of May 18th as to whether the recording secretary at the National Convention should write down all the motions of the Convention as well as the individual suggestions of the delegates or only those motions adopted by the Convention, the Universal House of Justice instructs us to say that this is one of those matters not defined in the By-Laws of a National Spiritual Assembly and therefore being secondary lies entirely within the discretion of the National Assembly to decide." (16 June 1977)
9. "There is no objection in principle to the appointment by your Assembly of a competent believer to take down minutes of the Convention proceedings, and in this way assist the elected Secretary in preparing his report. Such a believer would not be regarded as an officer of the Convention. All matters related to the appointment of such an individual are left to the discretion of your National Assembly." (31 December 1980)
With regard to your specific questions relating to the Canadian National Conventions, the House of Justice notes that your question about announcement of the full details of the tellers' report is covered by quotation No. I above. As to the election of a Vice-chairman and Assistant Secretary for the Convention, the House of Justice sees no objection, once the Chairman and Secretary have been elected, to taking the next runner-up in the ballot for each of these offices to be Vice-chairman and Assistant Secretary respectively, rather than taking up further time by having two separate additional ballots, provided that the Convention itself does not object to this method. You will note from quotation No. 9 above, that if all that is required is someone to assist the Convention Secretary by taking down the minutes, such a person can be appointed by the National Spiritual Assembly but would not be regarded as an officer of Convention.
The guiding principles affecting the relationship between the National Spiritual Assembly and the Convention have been very clearly established by the beloved Guardian. Although you are no doubt aware of such statements as those which appear on pages 67 to 69 of "Principles of Bahá’í Administration" (1976 edition) it is felt desirable to quote them in this letter for emphasis. Writing on the Guardian's behalf, his secretary, in addition to stating the supreme authority of the National Spiritual Assembly, conveys the following:
"...it is the sacred obligation and the primary function of the National Assembly not to restrict under any circumstances the freedom of the assembled delegates, whose twofold function is to elect their national representatives and to submit to them any recommendations they may feel inclined to make. The function of the Convention is purely advisory and though the advice it gives is not binding in its effect on those on whom rests the final decision in purely administrative matters, yet, the utmost caution and care should be exercised lest anything should hamper the delegates in the full and free exercise of their function. In discharging this sacred function no influence whatever, no pressure from any quarter, even though it be from the National Assembly, should under any circumstances affect their views or restrict their freedom. The delegates must be wholly independent of any administrative agency, must approach their task with absolute detachment, and must concentrate their attention on the most important and pressing issues.
"The Guardian believes that the right to elect the chairman and the secretary of the Convention should be vested in the assembled delegates, lest any objection be raised that the members of the outgoing National Assembly are seeking to direct the course of the discussion in a manner that would be conducive to their own personal interests. The National Assembly, however, must at all times vigilantly uphold, defend, justify, and enforce the provisions of the Declaration of Trust and By-Laws which are binding on the Convention no less than on themselves. The N.S.A. has the right to lay down, enforce, and interpret the National Constitution of the Bahá'ís in that land. It cannot, if it wishes to remain faithful to that Constitution, lay down any regulations, however secondary in character, that would in the least hamper the unrestricted liberty of the delegates to advise and elect those whom they feel best combine the necessary qualifications for membership of so exalted a body."
With loving Bahá'í greetings,
For Department of the Secretariat