Max Sisulu: Whipping the whips

2013-06-23 14:00

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Max Sisulu speaks frankly about the behaviour of certain MPs. Gaye Davis takes notes

Green tea from China is National Assembly Speaker Max Sisulu’s favourite on-the-job tipple, and he needs regular infusions as he loses patience with misbehaving MPs, weak whips and glacial progress on new rules that will compel more time spent working.

In an interview with City Press, the usually calm and measured Sisulu expressed frustration with party whips’ apparent inability to instill discipline in wayward MPs, and the fact that finalising the new rules – a project that began during the first democratic Parliament – is taking so long.

Sisulu says: “Our biggest problem is that we still don’t have an attendance policy. It can’t be right that you have MPs who are not at their place of work and you have problems with (reaching) quorums. Some committees cannot do their work.”

It’s been left to parties to dish out discipline to errant MPs, but party whips’ failure to change behaviour made Sisulu decide that Parliament needed its own leave and absenteeism policy – one “with a bite”.

He says: “There must be consequences. It can’t be left to chance that people come to Parliament when they want to. They are earning full-time salaries.”

The mood of the House, he says, has lately “strayed quite far from the flexibility, accommodation and balance that ideally ought to exist”, and there is now “regrettably?.?.?.?a need to clamp down on unbecoming conduct”.

Sisulu sees the whippery – the engine-room of any Parliament – as less than effective. He’s well placed to judge, having previously served as the

ANC’s chief whip himself. This week the ANC replaced Mathole Motshekga, the party’s longest-serving chief whip, with senior MP Stone Sizani in a general shake-up of the caucus hierarchy.

“We wouldn’t need an attendance policy if MPs took their jobs seriously,” he said, while acknowledging the many who went “beyond the call of duty”.

For Sisulu, the absenteeism, misconduct and petty bickering in debates is a “deep-rooted problem”. And part of that problem, he says, is the “kind of people who come to Parliament”.

A significant percentage of MPs who came to the fourth Parliament in 2009 were first-timers who displaced old hands.

Such high turnover is a “big problem” he’s raised with parties, including the ANC, as they begin to prepare their lists ahead of next year’s general election.

A balance is needed between new and old blood so that skills and knowledge could be transferred.

City Press understands that party bosses’ use of Parliament to solve regional tensions by redeploying provincial politicians is a concern within the ANC caucus, as is the difficulty some MPs have in reading, with a number of them being out of their depth.

“We’re hoping some recommendations will come out of the review of the rules but it’s up to the parties who they send. We would want to influence the list processes so that good people come. We don’t want Parliament seen as a dumping ground.”

A better calibre of MP would boost the quality of oversight, the scrutiny of executive action, and make for better laws with fewer court challenges.

It will also enable a classier debate.

MPs needn’t be highly qualified but “you do need people who can read”, says the Speaker.

“At the end of their term, MPs should feel they have gained something and, more importantly, that they have given back to the people and the country.”

Under Sisulu, Parliament has acquired its own law drafters and set up a budget office, which will help MPs interrogate and even possibly amend the national budget.

He has taken a tough line with Cabinet ministers through the leader of government business in Parliament, Deputy President Kgalema Motlanthe.

“We’ve made it clear to members of the executive that being in Parliament when they’re required to be is not an option. We are not asking for favours, it is their duty.”

Ministers have also been informed that reports – like that on the Guptas’ wedding jet landing at Waterkloof Air Force Base – should be tabled before they’re debated.

Sisulu is pressing Public Works Minister Thulas Nxesi to table the Nkandla report. While it will go before the Joint Standing Committee on Intelligence, he says parts not dealing with security must be made public.

Unfinished business includes revamping the parliamentary precinct, with a price tag of about R1?billion, intended to provide rental accommodation for MPs within walking distance of Parliament.

“We need space,” says Sisulu.

The plans are still on the table, but he’s uncertain the treasury will give the go-ahead before his term ends.

It’s an open secret he was something of a reluctant deployee in 2009. Will he be coming back?

“I doubt it,” he says.

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