Parliamentary reforms in Zambia

Government complex Lusaka

BEFORE October 1964, Zambia (or rather Northern Rhodesia) had a legislative format in which those not in government were always a minority and under the colonial regime no encouragement was given to dissenting views, especially outside the legislature.
In fact, the movements for colonial freedom from India to Ghana or from British Guiana to Kenya arose from the desire for independent and unfettered decision-making processes within these countries.
What we inherited was a practice in which a government could only be formed if it had a majority of votes countrywide and, more critically, in parliament.
This requires that when the number of members of parliament does not exceed half the total compliment of the National Assembly, there is talk of a ‘hung parliament’ because there would be chances of losing votes in the house.
There are not many countries where the government is composed only of members of one party.
Thus coalitions are formed regularly, like in India, Germany, Nordic countries, the Netherlands and Italy, among others.
These countries do not experience failures to make laws or progress in every way. Indeed, the coalitions are vehicles for spreading knowledge and experience in governance and management of government institutions, including genuine laws meeting the people’s wishes.
In Zambia, when President Mwanawasa proceeded to appoint ministers (and deputy ministers) from the opposition ranks, there was a hullabaloo which almost brought the country to a standstill.
It is true that, at that time, President Mwanawasa had not taken the trouble to consult with leaders of the parties which supported these members during the election campaign.
Nevertheless, it would have been quite feasible that some agreed programme could have been hammered out to ensure stability.
Even today, the arguments and accusations of bad faith and weakening the opposition are regularly trotted out as the individuals get turned out of Parliament and have to face a by-election.
The opposition thus misses the opportunity for learning how the Government works.
The formation of coalitions should be an important part of the new Constitution and all political parties should attempt to come to terms with the phenomenon.
Other changes in the Constitution should be the integrity of the National Assembly and its role to supervise or provide checks and balances to the government or executive.
Unhappily all we keep hearing about is the need to provide the so-called ‘formidable opposition’: According to the dictionary (Chambers’) formidable means – “causing fear, daunting, inspiring awe…” etc. But as a country to what purpose would causing fear on the part of the government get us anywhere? Have we seen the need for inspiring awe in the government?
The whole issue is what role can parliament play to stabilise the three-legged state framework? There are criticisms about the weakness of the judiciary and the dominance of the executive.
The formation of “watch-dog” Committees of Parliament has not produced an acceptable change in the overwhelming influence of the executive.
Now that the new Constitution is almost ready to be presented to the people, a few more initiatives ought to be entered into the new dispensations.
There is already agreement that the ministers shall not be part of the elected members of parliament; i.e. to say, they will be appointed from outside.
Not yet clarified is the tenure of office of these new ministers if they are to utilise their knowledge, expertise and skills to assist parliament in providing the checks and balances, should their stance be at odds with the president? Would they be reshuffled out? What would parliament say?
Even with this arrangement it will still be necessary for the party in government to have the majority of members in the house.
Otherwise the proposals from the executive would be thrown out regularly because of the perception that the opposition has to oppose the government.
Even if a whole programme of development was brought forward for approval by the National Assembly there would be pockets of opposition MPs determined to defeat a motion because it came from the ruling party.
In short, we do not have a history of focusing on the objective and working to ensure that steps being proposed are intended to advance the national interest.
It is with this background that this columnist looked at the “Approved Recommendations on Reforms in the Zambian Parliament”.
The document is dated November 2000 (a long time ago) but a few of whose accepted reforms might be worth looking at before the final draft constitution is presented. We shall look only at three:
(a) Each member of Parliament should be allowed to submit bills during each session of the National Assembly at no cost to them as individuals.
Comments made on this recommendation included the cost element. But a more serious view was the capacity of the MP’s to think of what subjects should be brought up as special bills.
The British House of Commons organises a ballot during which winning members are allowed to bring up a bill for presentation in the house with all the costs of drafting and printing taken by parliament.
The member’s bills do not have to be only on new subjects. It should be possible to move amendments to existing laws if the government does not seem to have time or inclination to undertake the changes.
(b) Utilisation of budget hearings through departmentally related committee system is to be encouraged. These hearings would include ministers defending the proposed budget, testimony from budgetary experts, NGO’s and concerned citizens.
There is some system whereby representations are put to the government, after the budget is announced, but this is far too late.
What should happen is first an expenditure programme is presented which should be widely debated on the basis of continuing building capacity, facilities and accountability.
In other words the dependence only upon the Auditor-General’s and Annual Reports should not be the way to deal with budget hearings.
Every year the Public Accounts Committee looks through the presentation by senior civil servants on the findings of the Auditor-General.
Although some eye-catching comments are published and the civil servants are told to go away and come back with proper information; this stage is far too late – after the events.
It is not just the civil servants who should be required to explain why. In any event, the issues probably took place before the officers concerned were in office.
What needs to be done is that the PAC should hold continuous hearings on current expenditure levels, progress of developing the facilities and enquiring if the financial resources are in consonant with the expenditure requirements.
The National Assembly should not continue to express its concerns, every year, about the poor management of the government; that should not be its main function. It should follow up with obtaining action to remedy the situation, in the shortest possible time.
Even where reshuffled ministers or senior civil servants are in place, it should be a requirement that those who were in control are brought
in to answer questions and be allowed to have access to the documents.
A major worry is the inability of most MP’s to see the minister/civil servants in their offices and to ask questions, rather than wait for a question on the order paper when parliament reassembles.
This mindset needs to change: answering questions from an MP should not be looked upon as “leaking information” to unauthorized persons.
The MP’s must be encouraged to write to the minister to obtain answers promptly rather than be told to put the question on the order paper.
The glaring headlines about the Auditor-General’s findings have begun to reduce the impact on the general public where the thinking is that both the ministers and the MP’s are in parliament for what they can get out for themselves, and that the questions are to achieve self publicity!
This is unfortunate and needs to be reversed. The sure way of doing this is to be current with the developments, where works or services are being provided and regular checks on progress would highlight the problems of contractor capacity, financial inadequacy and supervisory
How does the Auditor-General discover uncompleted works, shoddy works and even uncommenced works for which payments have been effected?
Even under the present system, the ministers should now be called to deal with queries arising out of the Auditor-General’s reports. More reliance should be put on current or up to date reports.
It is also understood that the new Constitution will allow for more freedom to MP’s to question the goings on in a ministry, department or agency without the parliamentarian being looked upon as a fifth columnist or a stalk borer!
Parliamentary Reform is necessary to bring about the expectation that the government has to be answerable to the National Assembly in a more formal way than has existed hitherto.
The Approved Recommendations for the Zambian Parliamentary Reforms must be taken in at the time the new Constitution is put to the people and before the referendum. It surely is not too late to include the question of parliamentary performance.