Are Members of Parliament in Cape Town too much?

sa-parliament
The National Council of Provinces in Cape Town (source)

ANC Chief Whip Stone Sizani touted a change to the parliamentary programme model in an interview published in the Sowetan. While no formal proposal is on the table yet, and my party hasn’t taken a position on it, it would see us, as Members of Parliament, in Cape Town for three months at a time for parliamentary work, and in our constituencies for three months engaging communities and voters.

Parliament currently sits four quarters a year, usually six weeks at a time with the parliamentary work week being Tuesday to Friday. Constituency periods are interspersed between these, with Mondays and weekends also dedicated to constituency or party work. Few committees meet or Sittings take place on a Friday as it is currently, and often Members leave Cape Town on Thursday evening already (explaining the lack of quorum in the ANC ranks, usually, on a Thursday).

Sizani’s basic argument is that it would be cheaper, voters and communities would see and engage with us more often, and Members of Parliament (and his party’s in particular) would have no reason to be absent denying the quorum to vote on key legislation and proposals. The latter clearly being an issue of (a lack of) party discipline, and not the fault of the current programme model.

While cost-cutting and more community engagement sound tempting, it is not difficult to accuse Sizani, and the ANC broadly, of sinister motives.

With local government elections anticipated between May and August (the latter currently seeming the most likely), it would be desirous for the ANC, and indeed all political parties, to have their representatives on the campaign trail for three months solid (this does of course mean that they would then disappear for three months shortly thereafter).

Secondly, with elections looming, it would also work in the ANC’s favour to take the spotlight, at the national level, off of parliament. The embarrassing exposés of the opposition, failure to pass legislation or deal with pressing issues, and the spectacle of EFF disruptions would be conveniently put aside for three months before the election. Of course, nothing prohibits the Speaker from summoning Members to a ‘special’ Sitting of Parliament to deal with issues as they arise.

However, it is important to look at the proposal beyond the speculation about politicking, by assessing its impact on the five core functions of Parliament1, and three of those in particular, namely legislation, representation, and scrutiny or accountability.

Parliament is the prime mechanism and platform for us, as duly elected representatives, to raise matters that affect our constituents, communities and South Africa more broadly.

For us to do this effectively, we must be responsive to issues – local or national – and raise and debate those issues timeously, in Sittings, through questions to Ministers, and in committees. A lot happens – Fees Must Fall, the sacking of Finance Minister Nhlanhla Nene sacking, a water crisis, crippling drought, food shortage, the Eskom and SAA crisis, being a few examples – that we must debate, demand answers for, and hold government to account. It is not feasible to do so every three months, Parliament must respond to, set and shape the public discourse.

Secondly, Parliament already has a massive legislative agenda and backlog. A general disdain for the legislative process by the Executive and the majority party has, in part, led to this, with Parliament largely being treated as a rubberstamp for Executive whims and wishes. Legislation, when it is dealt with, usually at the last minute in a term, is rushed through, public consultation is treated as a necessary evil, and committees dedicate very little time to engaging with the content of Bills before it.

Finally, in my assessment, the greatest casualty of the proposed parliamentary programme model, would be Parliament’s oversight role.

The two three month parliamentary terms would, arguably, take place around two key parliamentary events: the State of the Nation Address and debate and the annual budget process, on the one hand; and the annual reporting, annual performance and strategic planning process of departments and entities, and the mid-term budget process on the other.

However, even with more parliamentary working days this year, the budgetary review and recommendations process – the mini-budget or budget adjustment process – was rushed through to meet the end-of-year deadline. Committee reports were either rammed through or finished way beyond the deadline and engaging with the budget was severely cut short.

Furthermore, the President is currently required by the rules to answer oral questions once a term – in other words, four times a year. It is unclear how often the President would have to appear before Parliament in the proposed model, but it is clear that there would only be two three month periods for this. The current President already has a distaste for accountability during questions sessions, when he does in fact attend.

Similarly, opportunities for oral questions to Ministers on matters related to their departments and entities would also be cut short, denying Parliament critical opportunities to hold them accountable for their performance, or lack thereof.

Questions for written reply are also submitted , weekly, during term time only, in other words, when Parliament is in session. Unless the rules are changed we are denied the opportunity to ask questions, and the public and our constituents are denied answers on those issues that affect them.

Committees – the engine room of Parliament – will also have fewer, and indeed a three month long lack of, opportunities to haul departmental officials before them and deal with issues as and when they happen.

In the DA, we generally strive to be in our constituencies on Saturdays, where possible, in addition to the designated constituency periods. Our constituency work, as is our parliamentary work, is subject to an annual performance evaluation process.

The constituency I represent – Mabopane and Winterveldt in northwestern Tshwane, is represented by the ANC’s Deputy Chief Whip Mmamoloko Kubayi and Minister of International Relations and Cooperation Maite Nkoana-Mashabane. Deputy President Cyril Ramaphosa’s constituency is nextdoor, in Soshanguve. I can honestly say that I am not aware of any activities they have undertaken in their constituencies.

The Apartheid-era Parliament, if I have it correctly, also only sat six months of the year, with the other six dedicated to constituency work. They didn’t care much about representation, responsiveness or accountability, and Parliament was effectively a rubberstamp for the National Party government.

Parliament already sits Tuesday to Wednesday, the rules make provision for a Sitting on Friday. I doubt the addition of a Sitting on Monday would change the ANC’s culture or approach to representation, legislation and accountability.

It is difficult for me not to be skeptical about Sizani’s proposal. The current parliamentary programme is not effectively utilised, with a lot of time available currently being wasted.

Perhaps the ANC Chief Whip’s focus should be directed internally, to his own party and the performance of their Members and deployees as Speaker, other Presiding Officers and Committee Chairpersons.

1 Heywood, A. Politics (Second Ed.). Palgrave Macmillan: New York.

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