Melanie Verwoerd

Study on moving Parliament 'a waste of money'

2016-08-17 07:50

Melanie Verwoerd 

While most of us were focussing on the local government elections, Parliament recently issued a tender for the conducting of a feasibility study on the move of Parliament to Pretoria. This of course originates from President Jacob Zuma’s state of the nation address earlier this year, when he suggested that amalgamating the legislative and administrative capital will be a major cost saving for the national fiscus. The tender for the feasibility study, which had to be submitted by 5 August, is apparently worth more than R1m. The successful service provider should apart from their own calculations and research on the socioeconomic impact of such a move also look at previous studies done on the issue.

What a total waste of money!

I can save everyone time, effort and R1m. This issue had been debated and researched extensively in the post-1994 period. Every study I am aware of, said it was a really bad idea and so after months of discussions and passionate contributions by various interests’ groups, the idea was dropped, because it did not make either economic or political sense.

Benefits in the distant future

Yet, 22 years later the president suddenly raises it again stating cost saving as the reason. And now we are going to spend at least R1m to do the same analysis again. What has changed, except that the proposed move will now be even more expensive?

Of course, nobody denies that there is a cost to having a dual administrative/legislative capital. But this is what we inherited and to try and combine the two in the current economic climate would be unaffordable, with benefits only accruing in the distant future.

Any future savings will also apply only to the members of the executive and not the legislature. If Parliament is moved to Pretoria the only thing that will change in terms of MPs, is that Western Cape MPs will now have to travel to Parliament instead of the honourable members from Gauteng.

So any real savings will come down to the 35 members of the executive and their staff who occasionally attend parliamentary sittings and committee meetings. The fact that Ministers currently need houses, cars and security in both cities as well as the travel cost for support staff are often mentioned. This is true, but the houses are already there – built decades ago. Surely the only costs now are maintenance and utility bills.

On the other hand, if Parliament were to move, a new parliamentary chamber will have to be built in Pretoria as well as parliamentary villages to accommodate all the out-of–town MPs. We are talking big money. After the president mentioned it in his speech, Nomura economist Peter Attard-Montalto estimated the cost of relocation to be around R7bn, with annual savings of R500m to R750m.

Less risky ways to cut costs

It is important to note that accurate sums have not been made recently; presumably that is what the feasibility study is for. But with our recent record of keeping within construction budgets, one can safely assume it will be at least double any estimate. Even the ever efficient Germans originally estimated that it would cost $6.5bn to move the capital from Bonn to Berlin in the 1990s. In the end the actual costs was around 20 times more.

To move Parliament to Pretoria would involve massive capital outlay in the short term, with any savings decades later. That is not something our already fragile economy can afford.

There are numerous, less risky ways for Cabinet and Parliament to save costs. The idea of reducing Cabinet has been raised repeatedly. Under Madiba’s presidency we had 28 members of cabinet. Currently the cabinet consists of 35 members. The EFF last year estimated that R10m is spent per annum on every member of Cabinet for salaries, security, housing and transport. If they are correct, a return to the post-1994 Cabinet will result in a massive saving of about R70m per annum.

Then there is the issue of the president and his deputy’s entourage. At SONA earlier this year, the deputy president arrived with 11 cars, and the president with 14. The few times I was privileged to travel with President Mandela, he had three - one in front and one behind. Perhaps on official occasions there were more, but never 14! So if the president and his deputy both follow Madiba’s example of three cars there would be an extra car for every member of Cabinet.

There is also the option of reducing the National Assembly. The constitution stipulates that there shall be no less than 350 and no more than 400 members in the National Assembly. At the moment we have 400 - the maximum number. Significant savings can be made by reducing parliament by 50 members and with due respect to my former colleagues, I don’t think the country would really notice.

Who is going to benefit?

It is of course true that support staff also incur significant costs to travel to Cape Town. As with the cost saving measures announced for overseas travel by Minister Pravin Gordhan, only essential staff should travel. During my eight years in Parliament, it often happened that a big delegation of officials from Pretoria would arrive, whilst only one person would present to the parliamentary committee. In the post-1994 period the government invested extensively in audio-visual equipment which makes it possible for far more work to be done by video links, thus saving time and money.

It is unlikely that the ANC will get much support for Parliament to move. The DA has called it complete madness and is now considering taking parliament to court for issuing this tender. Even Cosatu has expressed concern, pointing out that it could uproot and affect the lives and families of at least 1 400 workers. They said in a statement: “The estimated cost of moving Parliament is R7bn and we don’t know where such money would come from. While we fully support cost cutting, it must not come at the expense of workers and their families.”  But of course their majority in Parliament the ANC does not need any support.

Knowing this, Cosatu suggested that the country should be consulted about the move. Let’s hope they can insist on this, because the whole idea of moving Parliament is nonsensical. One can only wonder who is really going to benefit from all of this. One thing is for sure, it won’t be the tax payers.

*Melanie Verwoerd is a former ANC MP and SA ambassador to Ireland. 

Disclaimer: News24 encourages freedom of speech and the expression of diverse views. The views of columnists published on News24 are therefore their own and do not necessarily represent the views of News24.

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