Keeping Parliament accountable to the people
7 December 2015
The Democratic Alliance (DA) has worked tirelessly this past year to ensure that Parliament fulfils all of its constitutional obligations and retains its rightful place as the most important check and balance on the Executive.
However, a review of this year’s work shows that Parliament’s functions are being hampered by poor programming, low attendance and politically biased Presiding Officers.
While the DA has had a number of significant successes in bringing accountability back to the national legislature, Parliament is still not working hard enough to fulfil its responsibilities and to ensure that the real challenges facing South Africans are properly addressed.
The National Assembly (NA) had 22 sitting weeks this year but only sat 76% of the time it could have, which led to a lot of missed opportunities to debate the numerous motions and reports before it. It also meant that important oversight mechanisms like the Budgetary Review and Recommendation Reports (BRRRs) and the Medium Term Budget were rushed through Parliament without enough time for thorough engagement.
Motions for debate by Members of Parliament (MP):
In total, the DA tabled 223 motions for debate on a number of important issues ranging from the economy and the high unemployment rate, to the lack of higher education funding, however only a handful were granted. We believe that this was due to the few slots allocated for debate on members’ motions this year and the fact that notices of motion relate to current affairs – most of which demonstrate the African National Congress (ANC) government’s failures. Where Parliament should be conducting oversight of issues that South African citizens care about the ANC in Parliament continues to use its majority to protect the Executive from scrutiny.
Debates of Public Importance:
The DA has been successful, in the face of great resistance from the ANC, in having several debates of public importance considered on the floor of Parliament. These debates, unlike motions for debate by MPs, are scheduled in terms of Rule 103 by the Speaker. The DA requested almost a dozen debates of public importance this year and successfully brought debates before the House on unemployment and the economy; Sudanese President – and wanted war criminal – Omar al-Bashir’s South African visit; and this year’s spike in xenophobic attacks.
Forty-five Bills were introduced in Parliament this year and of those Bills, eight were signed into law while another 12 Bills are awaiting assent by the President. The DA has continued throughout 2015 to ensure that the quality of legislation passed by the National Assembly is improved and even tabled four Private Member’s Bills.
This year portfolio committees had opportunities to consider a number of crucial issues currently facing South Africa, especially ones pertaining to our economy, education and the environment. Attendance in a lot of committees however has been particularly poor. A spot check of certain crucial committee attendance records revealed that the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) in particular was regularly absent in the Basic Education, Finance, Rules, Rural Development and Land Reform committees. It is interesting that after the first full year in Parliament the EFF appears to care more about grandstanding on the floor of Parliament than it does about the hard work of Parliament – engaging in committee to oversee the Executive.
Oral question sessions are one of Parliament’s most important oversight mechanisms. The President, Deputy President, and Ministers are meant to be present at the various pre-scheduled opportunities to engage in political exchanges on pressing issues raised by members in their questions.
The President answered oral questions in the NA five times, answering 20 questions in the process and the Deputy President answered oral questions in the NA seven times, answering 42 questions in the process.
Even though Ministers are only required to attend Parliament on a rotational basis now, in several instances, neither the Minister nor the Deputy Minister attended their session. Thus despite knowing the dates long in advance, the continued absence of several Ministers has meant that different Ministers have had to reply to the follow-up questions in the House, essentially rendering the opportunity for accountability null and void.
Written question submissions to Ministers is one of Parliament’s most important oversight mechanisms to obtain information on critical issues facing the country and to scrutinise Executive action.
This year parties had a total of 35 opportunities to submit written questions in the NA. The DA, despite having 89 members compared to the ANC’s 249 members, asked approximately 80 times the amount of questions the ANC did.
The DA asked 3 469 (82.5%) of the total 4 204 written questions in the NA at an average of 100 questions per opportunity this year. The 3 469 questions asked by the DA’s 89 members translates to an average of 40 questions per DA MP.
In comparison, the ANC submitted only 39 questions (0.9%) of the total 4 204 written questions at an average of 1 question per opportunity, while the EFF submitted only 146 questions (3.5%) written questions at an average of 4 questions per opportunity. Other opposition parties asked a total of 550 (13.1%) questions this year.
Further, every single DA member of Parliament submitted written questions to the Executive, while the of the ANC’s 249 strong caucus, only 16 actually submitted written questions.
The National Council of Provinces (NCOP):
Generally, the NCOP’s oversight programs did not reflect a focus on the impact of Section 76 legislation on provinces. Planning, Communication and Co-ordination of oversight visits between provinces and the NCOP were not efficient. Oversight programs were often received a day or two before the start of the program, giving MP’s very little opportunity for advance preparation.
The NCOP's own programme lacked proper planning and communication. Programmes were often released too late to allow time for preparation or were reprogrammed without the programming committee’s approval.
On 29 October 2015, the DA in the NCOP brought an urgent motion in terms of NCOP Rule 81 to re-examine how oral questions are ordered and selected considering the imbalance on the Questions Order Paper for the Economics Cluster within the NCOP. Our motion however, despite its correct submission according to the NCOP Rules was simply ignored.
A great legislative concern within the NCOP is that negotiating mandates from provincial legislatures on proposed amendments to bills that affect provinces differently are still supported with unanimity across the eight ANC run provinces. This is due to provinces towing the party line as opposed to stating the best decision for their own province.
While the ANC has actively sought to limit Parliament’s ability to provide effective oversight, the DA has worked hard to ensure that this institution is at the centre of robust and constructive debate.
Parliament must be independent from the Executive and must work efficiently and effectively – it should work for 100% of the time that it can, not the 76% that it did this year.
The ANC continues to undermine the institution of Parliament by abusing its majority to protect the President and the Executive. The EFF’s absence in the House and numerous committee’s has also raised eyebrows and the ire of some, and has compromised the opposition’s efforts to hold the Executive to account.
The DA will however continue to bring core issues affecting South Africans to the floor of the House, pushing for the prioritisation of issues that matter over ceremonial debates.
We will continue our efforts to improve the quality of legislation and to prevent it from simply being pushed through Parliament by using every mechanism at our disposal.
Finally, we will continue to fully utilise oral question sessions and portfolio committees to hold the Executive to account.
It is only through doing this that we can truly ensure that the real challenges facing South Africans are addressed, that corruption is rooted out of the Executive and that a government for the people, by the people is fully realised.
Issued by John Steenhuisen, DA Chief Whip, 7 December 2015