Friday, March 28, 2014

The ‘House of Hunger’, Pining For Quality Debate
Members of Parliament in the Republic of Zimbabwe.
March 28, 2014
Mr speaker sir, Opinion & Analysis
Lloyd Gumbo

Members of Parliament have lately endeared themselves to Zimbabweans because of the unity of purpose they have exhibited in the august House, especially in light of the unfolding corruption saga.

Members of Parliament have summoned ministries and State entities to appear before portfolio and thematic committees on various issues but the common denominator at every hearing has been how much management were paying themselves.

Our representatives are angry that some executives were paying themselves insane salaries at a time the country is struggling to fund social services.

The fact that Treasury is failing to pay legislators’ allowances on time has compounded the situation because they believe this is a result of these “greedy executives” taking everything for themselves including what is due to MPs.

As such, emotions always boil over when these executives appear before the parliamentary committees and witnesses have been chucked out where it was felt they were hiding something.

Lawmakers have queried the morals of people who pay themselves obscene salaries, citing in particular former Premier Service Medical Aid Society chief executive officer Cuthbert Dube, who allegedly could afford to pay all the 300 backbenchers from half his monthly salary and allowances.

One would be tempted to share the MPs’ frustrations and the general public’s distaste of this behaviour by these executives. But for all the outbursts and rage when debating in the House or when they summon officials to appear before their committees, our MPs still display shortcomings that can reduce effectiveness in Parliament. There is need to enhance the quality of debate in the two Houses and in committees and, gladly, the Speaker of the National Assembly, Jacob Mudenda, has said much needs to be done to capacitate MPs to raise the quality of debate.

There is a saying that goes, “You can lead a horse to the river but you can’t make it drink”.
This is indeed true as we can do everything to capacitate MPs but the onus is on them to utilise the opportunities.

For instance, there is a research department at Parliament specifically created to enable our legislators to have accurate and well-researched information. But as long as they do not utilise that department, we will always have uninformed contributions in the House. Recently, MDC-T MP for Mbizo, Settlement Chikwinya said there was need for them to have more researchers like what happens in other parliaments in the region and beyond. But if their contributions during committee and House sessions are anything to go by, our legislators have so far failed to justify the relevance of the research department.

Our Constitution clearly states that there is no restrictions to standing as a Member of Parliament except age and a few other disclaimers such as insanity and a criminal record.

This makes it clear that there is bound to be a mix in the legislature because some of the MPs may not have attained a reasonable level of education.

As such, it becomes important that they at least cover up their educational deficiencies by reading a lot of stuff before saying anything.

Taking a cue from John Stuart Mill in the book “Representative Government”, he says: “Ideally, the best form of Government, is one in which ultimate power resides with the whole body of citizens.”

He goes on: “Since all cannot, in a community exceeding a small single town, participate personally in any but minor portions of the public business, it follows that the ideal type of Government, must be a representative one.”

That is the justification that we, after every five years, have to go to the polls to choose representatives to tackle our issues in Parliament. Citizens should question value of what they vote for in Parliament.

Are our MPs doing enough research before they go into committees, in the Chamber and any other platform that they are given to air their views?

Is Parliament itself doing enough to put our MPs in a good frame of mind to tackle debates in a manner that makes it worthwhile for taxpayers to continue putting their hard-earned dollar towards this institution? It goes without saying that more still needs to be done to improve the capabilities of Members of Parliament.

In countries like South Africa, there are research teams that help MPs in their daily tasks to ensure that their output becomes substantive, fair, valid and relevant to what is obtaining during that period. This is aptly captured by Christopher Kuruneri in his 1999 article “Private Members” that was subsequently published in the book “Parliamentary Committees, Enhancing Democratic Governance”, compiled by Gordon Barnhart.

Kuruneri says: “While Government has vast and highly sophisticated administrative machinery and organisation manned by experts, specialists and seasoned civil servants at its disposal, Parliament finds itself handicapped in this regard.”

It is for that reason that Parliament must also play an important role in making sure legislators are capacitated so that they represent us well.

Our representatives in both Houses came via different means: some were good at singing at rallies, some threw stones while others were selected for their contributions in the community.

It is high time that Parliament builds men and women of honourable character with the ability to debate meaningfully. We want a Parliament whose vibrancy is not defined by the level of heckling among members but quality of issues raised.

We want MPs who when they invite witnesses, go on to research on the subject matter so that they will not appear lost during meetings. Parliament, as the third pillar of the State, is there to play an oversight role on the executive and making laws, as such it takes someone who reads to challenge Government’s stance on various issues, complex or simple.

As long as MPs do not read, they will remain rubber stampers regardless of the vuvuzela noise they make in their lame contributions. With growing calls for live television coverage of parliamentary proceedings, some MPs look set to embarrass themselves.
That is, if they do not shape up.


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