Candid Comment: Meaning of Parliamentary Democracy

THE long-awaited establishment of the Standing Rules and Orders Committee of Parliament (SROC) is good news for many of us with a keen interest in parliamentary democracy.   

The SROC, now a constitutional body thanks to Constitutional Amendment Number. 19, is the supreme decision-making organ of Parliament. Among its other functions, the SROC, chaired by the Speaker of the House of Assembly, is tasked with setting up portfolio committees of Parliament. The portfolio committee system is the key mechanism for Parliament to exercise oversight over the Executive. Now there is no reason  portfolio committees cannot be immediately set up in order for them to deal with a number of pressing social and economic problems bedevilling the country. Over the years, portfolio committees have proved beyond reasonable doubt that they can be a viable mechanism for objectivity, consensus building and conflict resolution. They should therefore be allowed to work unhindered so as to significantly contribute to the spirit of inclusivity and national healing clearly espoused under the Global Political Agreement.
An immediate task for the SROC is the review of Standing Rules and Orders of Parliament so as to bring them in line with the coalition arrangement that has created the post of prime minister who will become the Leader of Government Business. The Standing Rules and Orders govern the operations of Parliament. The rules should be reviewed in order to give Parliament and its portfolio committees more teeth. In the past, some ministers have not taken the business of Parliament and its committees seriously, as evidenced by the failure to respond meaningfully to committee reports and question time. The rules should ensure that the ministers respect the constitutional role of Parliament in the democratic governance system.
The role of Parliament is to make laws for good governance. The Constitution provides for clear separation of powers between the Executive, the Legislature and Judiciary. Parliament’s constitutional mandate is to make law; the Judiciary interprets the law and the Executive implements. This must be respected fully as we embark on the long journey of building a democratic Zimbabwe.
The days of fast-tracking legislation in Parliament should be a thing of the past. While it is appreciated that the recent fast-tracking of Constitutional Amendment No. 19 and National Security Council Bill were for the common good (as political parties were grappling with the formation of an inclusive government), this should not become a habit. Fast-tracking (although allowed by the Standing Rules and Orders of Parliament) is not good practice and negates the spirit of parliamentary reforms to open up the institution of Parliament to the public and allow more time for Parliament involvement in the legislative process. There is a danger that Parliament will lose credibility if it is viewed by the public as a rubber-stamping institution. It has happened in other parliaments and should be avoided in Zimbabwe.
Events this week pertaining to the 2009 National Budget are disturbing. While it is appreciated that we have already gone three months into the financial year and that the country must operate on a budget approved by Parliament, there is no justification for the revised budget by Finance minister Tendai Biti to be approved by the House of Assembly in one sitting. The national budget is a key policy instrument affecting the lives of all Zimbabweans. MPs, who have a duty to account to the people that voted them into office, must thoroughly scrutinise the budget and have public hearings whereby civic society, interest groups and the general public must be given an opportunity to make submissions before the House debates the estimates of expenditure and the revenue proposals. Allowing MPs to interact with the public on the budget and any other pieces of legislation before Parliament is exactly what representative democracy is all about. Fast-tracking the budget through the House is a negation of the reformed budget process that Parliament itself has adopted allowing for meaningful participation by MPs at all stages which are as follows:
lformulation;
ldebate and approval in Parliament; and
limplementation/execution.
While the formulation and implementation of the budget is a prerogative of the Executive, meaningful consultations must be carried out with Parliament, with the former having a critical role to play in monitoring the execution of the budget so as to ensure that monies approved are effectively used and that the government delivers on its promises.
As Parliament gets down to serious business, the presiding officers must have as their strategic agenda the building of a modern and democratic Parliament. A modern and democratic Parliament is characterised by the following features, according to the Inter-Parliamentary Union:
  Representative: that is a Parliament socially and politically representative of the diversity of its people, and ensuring equal opportunities and protection for all its members.
  Transparent: a Parliament that is open to the nation through different media, and transparent in the conduct of its business,
  Accessible: this means involving the public, including the associations and movements of civic society in the work of Parliament.
  Accountable: this involves members of Parliament being accountable to the electorate for their performance in office and integrity of conduct.
  Effective: this means the effective organisation of business in accordance with these democratic values.
A rubber-stamping Parliament obviously does not qualify as a modern and democratic Parliament. As the central institution of democracy, Parliament must embody the will of the people in government, and carry all their expectations that democracy will be truly responsive to their needs and help solve the most pressing problems that confront them in their daily lives.

Makamure is  the executive director of the Southern African Parliamentary Support Trust based in Harare.      

BY JOHN MAKAMURE

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