Baleka Mbete downplays 12 months of chaos, says Parliament was ‘vibrant’

2015-06-03 08:01
Baleka Mbete. Picture: Leanne Stander/Foto24

Baleka Mbete. Picture: Leanne Stander/Foto24

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National Assembly Speaker Baleka Mbete has described Parliament over the past year as “vibrant, robust and most importantly a learning experience for all of us, to harness, direct and benefit from”.

The past 12 months have been the most tumultuous for the legislature since 1994 and it was during this period that for the first time since 1966, police entered the floor of the National Assembly. The constitutionality of this act is being questioned.

The rowdy Parliament coincides with the arrival of the Economic Freedom Fighters, a party whose MPs have clashed with Mbete on several occasions. The lowlight of their time in Parliament was their removal by undercover security personnel on February 12 during President Jacob Zuma’s state of the nation address.

But Mbete did not dwell on all those events when she opened Parliament’s budget debate yesterday afternoon.

She announced that the legislature, which will oversee a national budget of R1.2 trillion in the 2015-2016 financial year, was allocated about R2 billion for the same period.

Mbete instead emphasised the importance of decorum of the house.

“I wish to reiterate that the rules are in place to maintain order and foster decorum.”

She said presiding officers had an important duty of not only maintaining order during sittings, but also ensuring that the house was at all times able to conduct itself in a manner that allowed it to fulfil its constitutional mandate.

“As presiding officers we are, however, also reliant on the cooperation of leaders and whips of parties, to assist us by providing leadership and guidance with regard to the conduct of their members in the house,” she said.

Mbete also announced that the comprehensive review of parliamentary rules – which has seen an overhaul of the entire National Assembly rule book – would be in place by the third quarter of this year.

The new rules will among other things prescribe a new dress code for MPs. The dress code will end the wearing of overalls, hard hats and strappy dresses in Parliament.

In his speech, ANC chief whip Stone Sizani criticised opposition parties for their reliance on the courts to contest critical issues in the legislature, saying this was due to a lack of – or absence of – the ideological need to engage with content and substance.

“Their idea of being in opposition is exhibiting anti-government behaviour, which is not a problem. How it chooses to do this though, is a problem,” he said.

Parliament is constitutionally entitled to determine its own rules and conventions regarding the management of its internal affairs, he said.

“But if one has to question why would opposition parties seek refuge at the courts instead of engaging and providing convincing arguments, one could say it is because they suffer from a poverty of ideas, if you will,” he added.

DA chief whip John Steenhuisen hit back, saying that the events of the past year could not go without comment.

Steenhuisen said one of the basic tenets of a functioning and effective Parliament was ensuring freedom of speech, adding that it was the duty of every MP to protect and defend the freedom of speech in Parliament.

“Signalgate was a blatant violation of Section 16 of our Bill of Rights, which guarantees freedom of expression as well as Section 59(b) of the Constitution,” he said.

He was referring to the signal jamming during the state of the nation address in February.

Steenhuisen also decried the events of the evening of the last state of the National Assembly and described them as “shocking and unprecedented”.

“Not once since the advent of our democracy in 1994 have the security services, who report to the executive, been allowed on to the floor of this house.

“This is separation of powers, this is Democracy 101,” he added.

He said nothing could justify the brute force and violence displayed against members of Parliament, including women, who were beaten, kicked and stood on.

Read more on:    baleka mbete  |  parliament

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