Parliamentary ethics

2008-10-24 00:00

The government’s intention to disband the Scorpions has probably disturbed more South Africans than any other recent policy decision. Businessman Hugh Glenister’s valiant attempt to obtain an interdict to prevent parliamentarians who have been investigated by the unit voting on its future went to the very heart of political morality. Had they any sense of shame, they would have recused themselves already. Instead, the last rites for South Africa’s most successful crime-fighting unit will be expedited by individuals of criminal inclination.

The Travelgate fraud was a national disgrace that brought Parliament into severe disrepute. Most of those involved continue to serve in Parliament as a result of some nimble procedural footwork by former National Assembly Speaker, Baleka Mbete. This saga involves serious abuse of trust by the country’s legislators, the very people responsible for laws that regulate relations between state and citizens; and between individuals.

Ironically legislation is under consideration to give Parliament greater control over broad fiscal policy and the appropriation and allocation of budgets. In theory this makes a great deal of sense, reining in the growing power of the executive. Some commentators, however, have urged a phased approach to the expansion of parliamentary decision-making over financial matters.

It is highly disturbing that staunch democrats have to think twice about this. The list system that paves the way to a seat in Parliament inevitably favours party loyalty above the ability to exercise individual conscience and independent, intelligent thought. Some parliamentary time-servers have been found with their fingers in the nation’s till. Others have wide-ranging business interests. Are they worthy of a say in matters such as the national debt, borrowing policy and tax rates?

The fact that these questions need to be asked raises serious concern about South Africa’s electoral process. One way of addressing it would be to introduce a constituency system for at least a proportion of parliamentary seats. Voters would then have a greater chance of regulating the level of integrity and competence in the Assembly. It is another salutary reminder of the responsibilities as well as the rights that accompany democracy.

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