Rowdy MPs to get whipped

2013-06-02 14:02

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House plagued by ‘deteriorating discipline’

A spat that nearly saw fists flying has put the spotlight on MPs behaving badly in Parliament – and the message it is sending the people they’re meant to serve.

Bemused ANC MPs looked on when the clash erupted between opposition MPs from the DA and the Freedom Front Plus this week.

But the governing party’s chief whip, Mathole Motshekga, was not amused.

He has stamped the conduct as “unacceptable” and damaging to “the dignity” of Parliament.

It is part of a broader lack of discipline and decorum on the part of MPs that has seen crucial debates become rowdy showdowns instead of focusing on the billions of taxpayers’ rands going to government departments and the policies driving them.

“The incident in which two members of the opposition nearly engaged in a physical brawl denigrates the dignity of this institution and undermines the respect and confidence the public has in Parliament.

“The deteriorating levels of discipline in general during these sittings, particularly the high levels of noise, disorderly points of orders, lack of common respect and decency, and unparliamentarily language, does not augur well for the decorum of this institution,” Motshekga fumed.

The row has focused attention on how MPs’ general conduct is falling short of the mark.

Absenteeism is a problem, with benches empty for debates, and some committee chairs complaining their work stalls for lack of a quorum.

Committees often start late. It is sometimes painfully obvious that MPs haven’t read the documents before them.

House chairperson Cedric Frolick has reported this to National Assembly Speaker Max Sisulu and the issue will be discussed when whips of all parties meet this week.

“We come to Parliament with a mandate from voters to represent them. There’s nothing wrong with robust debate. Parliament should be about a battle of ideas. But there’s no value in noise,” Frolick told City Press.

“The (budget vote debates) are a time to scrutinise budgets, and whether policies are failing or succeeding. We’re achieving nothing by making a lot of noise.”

Frolick put the acrimonious heckling and petty political point-scoring that has marked the debates down to next year’s national and provincial elections.

“It happens across all parties, there’s no holy cows here,” he said. Motshekga wants all parties’ whips to rein in their MPs.

Debates are broadcast live and he is worried about the message sent to voters by unruly MPs who make presiding officers shout themselves hoarse calling members to order.

Some parties have blamed inadequate timekeeping during debates and also the quality of translation services for some of the disruptions – issues that will also be taken up by the Chief Whips Forum.

Other efforts to get MPs to shape up have yet to bear fruit. Work started last year on new rules providing for MPs who are absent without leave to be punished, but they’re not yet finalised.

“We expect members to be in Parliament when it is in session,” Sisulu, who ordered the attendance policy months ago, said this week.

Some senior MPs feel Sisulu should be more hands-on in driving the process.

They also criticise the whippery for wasting time on issues such as cellphone policy instead of focusing on how Parliament can do its job better.

It is understood a draft attendance policy may be tabled within two to three weeks.

MPs earn a basic annual salary of just under R900?000. Perks include a number of free flights a year, pension, medical aid and subsidised accommodation in Cape Town when Parliament is in session.

There are many committed and hard-working MPs who are unhappy about being tarred with the same brush as their tardy, lazy colleagues.

But for South African voters, the questions is whether they’re getting value for money.

Meanwhile, the pressure is on to finalise many outstanding pieces of legislation in the remaining months of the fourth democratic Parliament before election fever takes hold.

A number of ministers – including public service and administration’s Lindiwe Sisulu and mineral resources’ Susan Shabangu – have important bills that they want passed, but which aren’t even before Parliament yet.

Frolick this week issued instructions that all committees prioritise the bills they are working on.

He has also said he won’t be approving oversight visits or easily granting any trips.

“All legislation before committees is important and must be dealt with,” he said this week, stressing that “quality legislation needs to be produced”.

The spark that started the fire

The spark was a cheeky point of order as Agriculture Deputy Minister and Freedom Front Plus (FF+) leader Dr Pieter Mulder made his way to the podium to deliver a speech on Wednesday.

DA MP John Steenhuisen wanted to know if it was parliamentary for Mulder to be sitting on the opposition side of the House instead of with the government he served.

Was he embarrassed by his Minister, Tina Joemat-Pettersson?

In the spat that followed, insults flew, with Steenhuisen and fellow DA chirper Geordin Hill-Lewis both being referred to as a “dom Engelsman” who should “shut up”, in exchanges involving Mulder and senior FF+ MP Pieter Groenewald.

Presiding chair Cedric Frolick repeatedly had to call “honourable members on both sides of the House” to order.

Groenewald refused to withdraw his unparliamentary language (“shut up”, “dom Engelsman”) and was ordered to leave the House.

He invited the DA MPs to join him outside.

As he passed the DA MPs he made what their deputy chief whip Sandy Kalyan complained was a threatening gesture with his fists.

Groenewald says it was “not a threat, it was an invitation, which still stands”.

Hill-Lewis’ comment after the fracas was: “I thought he was going to knock my lights out.”

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