Cronin vs Leon

2009-08-13 10:15
Die Burger is currently running a series called Big Ideas (“Groot Idees”) in which keen minds debate the important issues of our time. Jeremy Cronin, the deputy minister of transport, and Tony Leon, former DA-leader, tackles the burning issue of whether the ANC government should firstly be accountable to Luthuli House or to Parliament.
Jeremy Cronin’s opener:
The executive’s first accountability is to the citizens of SA. In a modern democracy, there is not just one single plug-in point between citizens and the executive. Besides parliament, there are other institutions and practices, ranging from NEDLAC, the Human Rights Commission, political parties, the media and izimbizo – that are all playing (or should be playing) a role in ensuring greater executive accountability.
In this array of institutions, parliament must certainly rank high. But our parliament has not risen to its potential. Many argue it’s the consequence of the ruling party’s overwhelming majority. Comfortable in its majority, an executive might not take parliament seriously enough. In addition, our PR system runs the danger of making elected representatives more answerable to party leaders than constituencies. I don’t deny these factors have sometimes been a challenge. But I believe a majority of my ANC parliamentary caucus colleagues have always been committed to engaging robustly with their comrades in the executive.
There are additional issues that weaken parliament. Long ago Max Weber observed that in modern states the bureaucracy’s specialisation and possession of detailed information always leaves transient elected representatives at a serious disadvantage. We need to redress this imbalance as much as possible. The more adequate resourcing of parliament’s research capacity is critical.
Until recently, parliament didn’t have the power to amend budgets. But there’s nothing like the possibility of being able to amend a budget item to capture the attention of a government department. Even big business has often treated parliament with disdain, knowing the real decisions were made elsewhere. We now have legislation empowering parliament to amend budgets.
Actually amending a budget is possibly less interesting than the power to do so, which should increase the inclination of the executive to brief parliament in public hearings well in advance on major projects. In seeking timely support, the executive will be affording the public, in turn, an opportunity to help shape such projects.
Which brings me to a more substantive issue. So far I’ve couched this discussion in narrow, 19th century liberal terms – how to check and balance executive power. That remains important. But we need to move beyond this narrow conception, liable to reduce citizens and parliament to little more than watch-dogs. Executive accountability needs to be nestled within a more comprehensive set of participatory interfaces – school governing bodies or a national planning advisory council, for instance. Citizens (and parliament) need to be more than critical watch-dogs, they need to assume an active, co-governance role in transforming our society.  
One of the dismal features of the late-20th century was a technocratic de-politicisation of politics. We were told the global market had solved humanity’s problems. The role of government was simply to make an occasional technical correction.
Our 1990s rainbow reconciliation sometimes encouraged a similar attitude – let’s bury ideological differences. I hope this Big Ideas series has illustrated that ideological debate, and therefore party political contest, is important. Tony Leon and I agree on many things. We disagree on many others. The disagreements are as important as the agreements for democracy.
And this is where answerability to “Luthuli House” comes in. I have been elected on the basis of an ANC manifesto informed by policy assumptions - that is, by a particular political orientation to our reality. As deputy minister I’m accountable to parliament and all South Africans regardless of political affiliation, yes. But the ANC also has every right to hold me accountable to its policy vision on behalf of the millions of voters who endorsed that vision. Both things are possible and necessary.
Leon responds:
Jeremy locates his answer as "both/and" rather than "either/or" in response to the question of accountability being to Parliament or Luthuli House. Unfortunately, the overall record of government over the past fifteen years has seen a whittling away of Parliament's importance and centrality.

He is also rather disparaging of the concept of checks and balnces, dismissing them as a 19th Century construct. Yet it was Nobel Laureate Amartya Sen in "Development as Freedom" who pointed to the centrality of parlaimentary democracy.

He asked why China, under Commnist authoritarian rule had in the 20th Century seen countless famines under which millions starved to death; whereas in India, mass hunger had never resulted in national famines. His answer was the presence of parliamentary democracy and a free press in the latter, and its absence in the former. As South Africa grapples with a host of challenges, we must reinvigorate the role of Parlaiment as a central pillar in governmental accountability.
Tony Leon’s opener:
South Africa’s constitution answers the question of the location of government’s and the cabinet’s accountability without ambiguity and evasion.

Section 92 (2) of the Constitution states that “Members of the Cabinet are accountable collectively and individually to Parliament for the exercise of their powers and the performance of their functions.” Section 92 (3) further provides that members of the Cabinet must provide Parliament with full and regular reports concerning matters under their control.
It is too early in the life of the new Parliament to determine whether or not these constitutional provisions will be obeyed, or whether, in the manner of the past two parliaments these fine imperatives will be honoured in the breach.

The signals so far are mixed: on the one hand, President Zuma has indicated that he will seek a closer engagement with both parliament and the opposition. On the other hand, some early warning lights have started to flash. For example, the ANC has used its majority to oust an opposition representative in the NCOP from serving on the Judicial Services Commission which is tasked with the crucial matter of judicial selection. It is also clear that the President did not take the constitutional duty of consulting the opposition leadership seriously when he announced the nomination of the new Chief Justice.

I have the vantage point of having served in the dying days of the Tricameral Parliament before being elected, with Jeremy, in 1994 to the democratic parliament, elected and re-elected by the overwhelming majority of South Africans.

The Tricameral obviously lacked legitimacy and a democratic mandate. But it took its duties seriously, and even the most junior MP, such as me, could harass Ministers every week in Question Time, for example, for which every Minister arrived promptly and engaged Parliament with a degree of seriousness.

I had high hopes that after 1994, the new Parliament would be the fulcrum of democratic discourse and decision-making. After all, it was everything its predecessor was not:  racially integrated, constrained by checks and balances and, crucially, representative of all the people.

President Nelson Mandela had some regard for the seriousness of Parliament and, in fact, a high regard for interacting with the opposition. However, as early as 1994, Cyril Ramaphosa, then the Secretary General of the ANC obliged all his MPs to sign a code of conduct forbidding “any attempt to make use of Parliamentary structures to undermine organizational decisions and policies.”

Within a few years, question-time was reduced; Ministers treated Parliament as an annoying encumbrance (very often MPs would read in the newspaper of government’s decisions, rather than receive them for debate in Parliament); and legislation was drafted in broad terms, leaving the details to be determined by ministerial regulation over which parliament had no influence.

Under the Thabo Mbeki administration, with the support of Speaker Baleka Mbete matters deteriorated. Independent-minded MP’s, of whom Jeremy was an excellent example were sidelined. This came into the sharpest focus when the Arms Deal scandal surfaced. The Opposition-headed SCOPA was undermined in its enquiry, and another independent-minded MP Andrew Feinstein quit the assembly altogether. Reading his account of the bullying strong-arming to which he, and other MPs were subject, is to read a horror story of Parliament’s surrender to the whims of the ruling party.

Then the structural elements of the system further undermined Parliament’s role: extreme proportional representation and closed party lists, vests power in the hands of party bosses (in all parties) rather than with the voters and the individual MP; floor-crossing and the feather-bedding of cheating Travelgate MP’s further undermined instutional respect and credibility; the exiting of high-quality MP’s, particularly from the ranks of the ANC  impaired the quality of debate.

Some of these impairments, such as floor-crossing, have been removed. Others await the attention of the new Speaker and Parliament. But, beyond question, we need to restore executive accountability back where it belongs-to Parliament and the people. The ANC has a hefty majority, and its MPs must account to Luthuli House. But the Constitution imposes on government a higher commitment: to be accountable to Parliament, not just in word, but by deed and in practise.
Cronin responds:
Yes, I largely agree. In the past 15 years parliament has not lived up to its responsibilities. We seem to concur this is attributable to both executive high-handedness (notably during the Mbeki presidency), and to weaknesses in parliament itself.
I am optimistic that our new parliament will see a marked improvement. The high-handed disdain with which opposition parties were often treated by the Mbeki executive was, ironically, not dissimilar to that experienced by the broader ANC (and alliance) leadership from the same quarters. The internal Polokwane turmoil within the ANC was centrally about changing this style of operation.
In the coming months, I’m looking forward to a more open, robust and constructive engagement between the executive and colleagues in parliament, from both the ANC and opposition benches.
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Read more on:    jeremy cronin  |  tony leon


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