Parliament faces mammoth task

THIS year there is expectation that the eighth parliament will deliver more than 280 pieces of legislation necessitated by the adoption of a new constitution that came into effect on August 22 when President Robert Mugabe was sworn-in for a new five-year term following his landslide triumph at the July 31 general elections tainted by opposition allegations of rigging.

Paidamoyo Muzulu

Parliament, due to resume sitting on January 29 after a festive season break, is now expected back on January 21 to pass the 2014 national budget, presented in December, as prescribed by the constitution.

Besides passing the budget, the legislature is also expected to expeditiously deal with urgent law reforms to operationalise new state institutions, namely: the National Prosecution Authority (NPA), Constitutional Court (ConCourt), Provincial and Metropolitan Councils, Gender Commission, National Peace and Reconciliation Commission and Zimbabwe Land Commission.

Veritas, a lawyers’ grouping with keen interest in parliamentary activities, released the new sitting schedule for the House this week.

Veritas said: “All committees of parliament will resume business on Monday January 13 to enable them to consult on the 2014 national budget statement. Consultation will run from January 13 to 16.”

However, parliament’s effectiveness this year will come under the spotlight considering 2013 went down as the least productive year after the legislature passed less than five Bills as the emasculated body suffered long adjournments and session breaks to accommodate the constitutional referendum and July 31 general elections.

Political analyst Ricky Mukonza says people should not expect from a Zanu PF dominated parliament new Bills outside the executive.
“Zanu PF holds the aces and changes to laws will only be implemented on its terms since it has the majority and can simply out-vote any proposals from the opposition MDC because of its more than two-thirds majority in the national assembly,” Mukonza said.

For parliamentarians, 2013 began end of February after a long Christmas break of more than two and a half months. The seventh parliament then sat for just a week and adjourned to allow legislators to campaign in their respective constituencies for a “Yes vote” in the March Constitution Referendum.

The legislature did not sit in April before resuming for the final sittings in May as it awaited its automatic dissolution on June 29, as the parties in the coalition government bickered on the date for crucial national polls to end the tenure of the unity government.

Former ministers Tendai Biti (Finance) and Elton Mangoma (Energy) were the executive members whose Bills were passed in the House of Assembly (now the National Assembly) and Senate.

Biti successfully steered through the Income Tax Amendment Bill; ditto Mangoma with the Electricity Amendment Bill. Both have however attracted negative comments from Zanu PF legislators who are now pushing for the withdrawal of the Income Tax Bill which made multiple changes to the tax regimes and calculation of some taxes that had become archaic over the years.

The Electricity Amendment Bill sought to unbundle Zesa into strategic units and the privatisation of electricity distribution. The Bill, however, is gathering dust on the President’s desk awaiting presidential assent.

The other bills passed were the Customary Statutory Bill, 2013 Appropriation Bill and Incomes Tax Bill.

The parliament that lapsed on June 29 will also be remembered for failing to complete the passage of three Bills brought by backbenchers as the executive dithered on reforms. Among the legislative reforms left to lapse on the National Assembly’s Order Paper in the past five sessions are the Public Order and Security Amendment (Posa) Bill, Urban Councils’ Act Amendment Bill and Criminal Procedure and Evidence Act (CPEA) Amendment Bill.

MDC-T chief whip Innocent Gonese in his Posa and CPEA Amendment Bills proposed amendments that would have made it easier for political parties to conduct their activities without police interference and to remove the despised Section 121 of the CPEA. This section allows courts to continue detaining accused persons for up to seven days even after courts grant them bail once the state shows an intention to appeal against bail.

Former Buhera Central legislator Tangwara Matimba in his Urban Councils Act Amendment Bill argued the Act gave too much power to Local Government minister Ignatius Chombo, particularly the sections empowering him to suspend and dismiss councillors or even entire councils.

The three Bills were thwarted by the executive after Chombo approached the Supreme Court arguing that under the coalition arrangement only executive members could steer Bills in the House.

In the last four and a half years, parliament eschewed passing legislative reforms or adopting key motions deemed unfavourable to the two main parties in the tripartite alliance, Zanu PF and the MDC-T, a development which riled civil society and progressive forces within the country.

The government also failed to implement any of the recommendations from parliamentary portfolio committees such as Budget and Finance, as well as those of Mines and Energy that dealt with sensitive issues. Budget and Finance committee chairperson Paddy Zhanda unsuccessfully moved a motion that called for an investigation into the conduct of the Reserve Bank of Zimbabwe (RBZ) between 2004 and 2009 on quasi-fiscal activities.

Parliament also failed to push for an audit into the RBZ’s Agriculture Mechanisation Programme with senior members of Zanu PF shootingit down as witch-hunting. Ministers also deliberately avoided responding to questions on the Order Paper that were likely to ruffle feathers.

Gonese conceded that parliament was hamstrung by the coalition government as only agreed motions and bills could be passed by the House.

“We made so many compromises because everything had to be negotiated by the executive first before it came to the House,” Gonese said.
Zanu PF chief-whip Joram Gumbo concurred with Gonese that the dynamics of the coalition government restricted independence of the legislature from the executive.

“Our whipping system makes sure MPs have to do as instructed by their political parties hence we only discussed and debated issues from the executive,” Gumbo said.

In the last quarter of 2013, parliament failed to pass any Bills despite Zanu PF enjoying a two thirds majority in the restructured 275 member national assembly after winning the July 31 elections. The growth from 210 MPs was necessitated by the constitutional amendments that created 60 seats for women and allowed the president to appoint up to five ministers from outside parliament.

The seventh parliament will,however,be remembered for passing the new constitution to replace the Lancaster House charter and that for the first time since Independence, the speaker came from the opposition, with the MDC-T’s Lovemore Moyo and even his deputy Nomalanga Khumalo presiding over the House of Assembly.

Going by new speaker Jacob Mudenda’s acceptance speech, the current eighth parliament is likely to remain emasculated by the executive. Mudenda confirmed the public perception that he was a willing tool in implementing Zanu PF’s political projects without any qualms when he defined to the House what parliamentary democracy meant to him.

“While the minority will have their say (in debates) the majority will have their way,” he said to applause from Zanu PF MPs.

While it is too early to pass a verdict on the eighth parliament,its prospects of delivering do not look good as it is yet to start debating the 280 Bills earmarked for amendment to align them to the new constitution.

However, parliament’s work is also being negatively affected by severe budgetary constraints.

The sitting calendar of the new parliament is constantly being adjusted and some committees failed to undertake field visits on issues they were investigating. Morale among MPs fell as did their zest for duty as the institution failed to pay them their sitting allowances in time.

Parliament is saddled with unpaid hotel bills accrued from the previous session amounting to more than US$750 000. Legislators from the last parliament are owed allowances ranging from US$10 000 to US$20 000 each.

Legislators in the current parliament are yet to be paid sitting allowances thus far.

According to an official employed by parliament, if both Houses sit they need a combined US$200 000 a week in sitting allowances and accommodation atbetween US$100 and US110 per legislator a night. The legislature has 355 members — 275 National Assembly members and 80 senators, with each parliamentarian getting US$75 a sitting, while committee sittings attract the same payment.

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