We Need a Culture of Accountability

PRIME Minister Morgan Tsvangirai in his inaugural address to parliament on Wednesday appealed to MPs to actively participate in parliament’s question time to enhance openness and transparency of the inclusive government.


Tsvangirai added that the government cannot fulfill its mandate without “respect and a  spirit of cooperation” between ministers and parliament.

“Also in the spirit of openness, today we are launching the Prime Minister’s website that will not only serve to keep the people informed about the activities of our government, but will also provide an interactive forum for the people to participate and contribute to the affairs of government,” Tsvangirai told parliament.

The prime minister’s call is laudable as transparency and accountability should be the most important priorities of the transitional government.

To increase accountability, government should re-introduce the Prime Minister’s Question Time in parliament.

Zimbabweans may recall that between 1980 and 1987, before the introduction of the all powerful executive presidency, the leader of government (the Prime Minister) was an MP who would routinely have to answer questions in the august House.

That facility, which helps in building a culture of accountability, was lost in 1987 with the Unity Accord that brought the merger of Zanu PF and PF Zapu and the new executive presidency whereby President Robert Mugabe simply gave what the British call the “speech from the throne” and left MPs to debate its contents for months thereafter.

Mugabe is not answerable to parliament on a regular basis and MPs knew there would be no response to their protests.

It is therefore of vital importance that the Prime Minister’s Question Time be reinstated. It would also be an affirmation by Tsvangirai and the MDC that they not only want to see democracy developing but are actually doing something positive to build that culture and to subject themselves to scrutiny.

The problem is that we may effectively have a de facto one-party system in the current House as the parties are likely to whip their members into line to support executive decisions reached via compromise and consensus.

The chances of the same MPs asking critical questions of their superiors may therefore be limited.

Nevertheless, the lawmakers can still take their role seriously regardless of party affiliation –– especially if they are educated on their responsibilities and expectations of their constituents who are, effectively, their principals.

In most countries where the Prime Minister’s Question Time is in place, robust debates are the hallmark of parliament.

In the United Kingdom, the Prime Minister’s Question Time is a convention where every Wednesday when the House of Commons is sitting, the prime minister spends 30 minutes answering questions from legislators. Other countries with the same facility include Canada, Australia, New Zealand and Northern Ireland.

In Israel, it has been recently suggested that such practice should commence in the Knesset twice a year.

Sweden’s prime minister also answers direct questions from parliament every Thursday and in 2008, United States Senator John McCain pledged to institute an American equivalent of question time if he had been elected president.

Besides the Prime Minister’s Question Time, the inclusive government may innovate and give the floor to other interest groups, such as civil society groups and others, to air their views and present questions to the leadership.

This could be done easily using the media platform –– television, radio and newspapers where different politicians and civil society leaders “face the music” and answer questions on a regular basis.

These programmes could be done in different locations across the country.

Not only does it make the government and civil society leaders responsive to people’s enquiries, it also makes citizens active participants in the process of governance.

It does not happen overnight but all these initiatives incrementally help to build the culture of accountability –– where politicians know that they have to account to the people and people know that they have the right to ask challenging questions.

Editor Memo with Constantine Chimakure

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