Janet Heard

Parliament missed opportunity to up its game

2016-05-30 14:00

Janet Heard

If Parliament wants to avoid being upstaged by 6% of the members in the House who are spoiling for a fight, it needs to up its game. For one thing, it could ensure that the format is relevant and current, especially when it comes to holding the slippery executive to account on urgent matters of the day.

When Parliament rose this week for an extended constituency period (that will last until after the local elections on August 3), it missed an opportunity to put mechanisms in place to do just that.

While a committee that revised the rule book for the National Assembly tightened up measures to deal with unruliness, it failed to deal decisively with the unforgiving reality that 48 hours – not a week – is an aeon in South African politics.

In terms of the rules, for instance, MPs need to submit questions for President Jacob Zuma at least 16 days before he takes to the podium for oral replies, and at least nine days before Deputy President Cyril Ramaphosa replies.

The yawning time lag means that the executive not only has an inordinate amount of time to sculpt answers and prepare for possible supplementary questions, it also means that by the time of the actual response, the question has all too often lost relevance, or the answer has been recycled so many times that viewers have switched off the parliamentary channel – in the absence of live-action tussles courtesy of the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) and parliamentary bouncers.

The failure to introduce oral questions without notice was one of the reasons the DA kicked up a fuss in the rules committee – belatedly it seems – on the day the report was approved this week.

The new rules, which have been undergoing revision by the committee for more than two years, were subsequently passed by majority vote in the National Assembly on Thursday.

So, for now, the country is stuck with a fragile Parliament and a stale format.

This was evident when Ramaphosa presented his oral replies on Wednesday. He delivered his memoirs of a trip to South Sudan – 10 days earlier – and reported back on a gathering of the World Economic Forum in Kigali that took place before that. A question about the abuse of food parcels for votes came 20 days after the Public Protector’s report had been released.

The EFF escaped this plenary and other goings-on this week after being forcibly removed and suspended during President Zuma’s oral replies the previous week.

By so doing, the young rebel party had the last laugh, even in its absence.

While MPs of other parties – except the Congress of the People, which has waged an extended boycott of Parliament over its handling of the Nkandla saga – were sweating it out in the House and fulfilling their duties, the EFF sneakily got a head start on the election campaign.

Heard is Media24 parliamentary editor

*This column originally appeared in City Press.

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