Tuesday, November 28, 2006

Chihuahua or Rottweiler?

Most observers would agree that Parliament has not covered itself in glory over the past twelve years. It is supposed to be a watchdog over the executive but has been more Chihuahua than Rottweiler.


Recently this has started to change with some of the Portfolio Committees of the National Assembly taking decisive steps to probe the executive and to expose maladministration and incompetence.

Members of the executive (the real Rottweilers?) have been biting back, with Deputy Minister and resident bully, Johnny De Lange, complaining recently about the bad legal counsel in Parliament.

No wonder then that Speaker Baleka Mbete is reported in today’s Business Day as complaining about attacks by the executive on members of Parliament for fulfilling their oversight role.

According to Business Day:

Mbete said she had had a meeting earlier this year where she was told that ministers were not happy with some of the questions MPs were asking them. She had told the executive to draw up a document on the matter. However, she said she had not yet received it. This is of course all Jacob Zuma’s fault. With the battles raging inside the majority party and resident Thabo Mbeki’s power slipping away, some MP’s have stopped fearing for their political futures and have started thinking for themselves.

But once a successor is safely ensconced in the Presidency all this independence may come to an end. This is not – as the DA would say – because ANC MP’s are spineless and unprincipled but because the system does not really give them a choice.

The problem is that in a pure proportional representation system with strong party discipline and party deployment where party leaders have a strong say in who appears where on party election lists, it will be political suicide for an MP in the National Assembly to rough up a cabinet minister.

Tomorrow that same cabinet minister will decide whether you should be deployed to Khazakstan as South Africa’s new cultural attaché.

Two things should happen before MP’s acquire permanent back bone. First, there should be a change in the electoral system to allow a majority of MP’s to be directly elected in constituencies. Second, legislation should be adopted similar to that in Germany that regulates and ensures internal party democracy in the election of representatives.

Both such moves would fundamentally weaken the hold of the party leaders over the party. It is therefore probably not going to happen. The leaders of both the DA and the ANC enjoy the control they have and will not easily give it up.

The best bet for us mere mortals is for an election result down the line that produces a hung Parliament like the hung council in Cape Town. If, say, the ANC obtains 40% of the vote, the SACP, 10% and the DA 20%, it will make for a much more interesting and effective Parliament.

Blade, can you and your party make the jump into electoral politics?

2 comments:

mal said...

For balancing powers between the legislature and the executive in the Westminster system, a coalition government is always a good thing, yes.

Another way to improve MPs' power as watchdogs is to revise the electoral system so that they are elected to represent constituencies rather than the party directly. This would free them from direct party control. But a coalition government in this case is a bonus that gives MPs even more freedoms.

The ANC has no permanent policy of opposing electoral reform, but they chose the status quo from the alternatives presented to them by the Electoral Task Team. The DA has an electoral reform policy proposing multi-seat constituencies with a top-up list. So it seems reasonable, from the position of the two main parties, to be somewhat optimistic that the powers of MPs may eventually be improved.

Pierre de Vos said...

I know there are many within the ANC and the DA who support electoral reform but I suspect that when it comes to the crunch the party leaderships will balk at accepting proposals that weaken their grip on the parties. It is already a rather difficult task to lead the ANC (ask President Mbeki!) - imagine how complicated it will get when/if MP's have independent powerbases.