Info bill briefing - opposition walks out
Cape Town - Opposition parties on Tuesday walked out of a government presentation on the contentious protection of information bill because they claim that the lifespan of the committee drafting the bill was extended unlawfully.
"It is our view that there is no ad hoc committee," Democratic Alliance MP Dene Smuts objected, challenging the ANC position that the lifespan of the committee had been extended to March 31.
Her colleague from the Inkatha Freedom Party, Mario Oriani-Ambrosini added: "We are just a group of MPs shooting the breeze."
He said the lack of mandate from the National Assembly meant that any decision of the part of the committee would have no standing and any resources used by it would amount to unauthorised expenditure.
The African Christian Democratic Party joined the DA and IFP in walking out from the meeting, before the department of state security began its briefing on international best practice on the classification of information.
Acccording to the opposition, the speaker's office has no authority to reconstitute the committee and its recourse to Rule 2 of the legislature was flawed.
"(It) gives the Speaker the power to frame a rule where no rule exists and in case of an unforeseen eventuality. This rule only applies in the respect of the conduct of proceedings," Oriani-Ambrosini said.
Committee chairperson Cecil Burgess rejected the views of the opposition parties as plainly "wrong" and said he was bound by a decision by the deputy speaker in January to extend the life of the committee.
"The issues you raise are insignificant," he added.
The issue arose because a sitting of the National Assembly on January 28 at which the committee had to report to Parliament was postponed.
That date also marked the expiry of a the lifespan of the committee, which has repeatedly been extended as controversy about the wide powers the bill gives the state to keep information secret rages on.
Culture of secrecy
Burgess told the media at the end of last month that committee meetings would carry early this month, but afterwards the committee disappeared off Parliament's schedule until Tuesday.
The DA told Sapa it had formally objected to the Speaker's office.
The Speaker's office confirmed that the lifespan of the committee was extended in terms of Rule 2, in a letter dated January 28.
Earlier on Tuesday, the South African Human Rights Commission (SAHRC) in a presentation to the portfolio committee on justice signalled its concern about the bill, and what deputy chairperson Pregs Govender termed "the culture of secrecy" in the South African government.
Govender told MPs the SAHRC's mandate to monitor compliance with the Protection of Access to Information Act (PAIA) had made it keenly aware that South Africa was struggling to shake off a mindset of state secrecy.
"It has been difficult to get government departments to understand the culture of openness and transparency," she said.
"We came out of a culture of secrecy as a country in 1994 and that culture is a very hard one to break."
Govender said the SAHRC was therefore "wary" of a call by the ANC, backed by several opposition MPs, to link PAIA and the protection of information bill by stipulating that any request for declassification should be made using the provisions of the earlier legislation.