September 17, 2019

Did the new parliament pass its first term report?

Recess has come to an end and parliamentarians return for the second term this week, which is a good time to release a report on the performance for the first term of the sixth democratic parliament. Overall comment: could try harder, easily distracted and not focused on the work that needs to be done.

It’s been a fairly eventful term, but for most of those 11 weeks many parliamentarians’ activities and energies have been diverted elsewhere, as battles were waged in court and intra-party disputes took precedence over the inter-party wrestling expected of parliament.

That may explain, at least in part, why members’ were in attendance for only a total of 55 working days during this term. If you had envisaged that these would be spent with members hard at work in the chambers passing new legislation, you will be disappointed to learn that actual plenary sessions accounted for just 17 days in all.

The sixth parliament inherited the treadmill that had the previous parliament stumbling and struggling to find its feet.

Only one law was passed during the first term of the sixth parliament, and that was the Appropriation Act. This is not to suggest that our elected representatives were slacking off as they settled down to the work of the sixth democratic parliament; new and returning members were required to undergo a thorough induction process before they could take their seats.

For an intense approximately five weeks of the first term, all attention was on this single essential bill. Until the Appropriation Bill has been gazetted as an Act, spending of the Budget is theoretically on hold, suggesting governance could come to a standstill.

Of course it cannot really do that, and business ticked on as usual in most government departments, but passing the Appropriation Act is urgent, and it requires that departments submit annual reports, and based on these, the House then debates all individual departmental budget bills or appropriations. It’s a lot of work, and it’s packed into a very short time, leaving little space for serious engagement with the Budget, in parliament or with the public.

Our representatives nevertheless demonstrated that they were serious about the business of law-making with the introduction of the all-important National Health Insurance Bill, on 8 August. This, however, had the effect of further dividing parties, if not the country as a whole, and introducing another matter of such controversy that it threatens to tie up the parliamentary progress into ever-tighter knots.

This vies with the Section 25 of the Constitution review process for first place in monopolising parliamentary time and attention. If you recall, the committee delegated to review Section 25 of the Constitution, which deals with land reform, began its work during the fifth parliament, but did not have time to complete it. It is supposed to be analysing the Constitution’s statement in which it is clearly stated that Section 25 permits expropriation of property in the public interest, which is defined as including “the nation's commitment to land reform, and to reforms to bring about equitable access to all South Africa's natural resources”. The Constitution also helpfully sets out the criteria for compensation to be paid.

Much of the first term has also been busy with the public consultation process on the regulations of the Party Political Funding Act, which was passed into law earlier this year. Judging from the inputs thus far, if nothing else, it makes it clear that the sixth parliament inherited the treadmill that had the previous parliament stumbling and struggling to find its feet.

As always, we must then look to the committees, our “engines of parliament”, to check if the wheels are still turning. In total, 173 committee meeting were held in the first term, of which the National Assembly conducted 118, the National Council of Provinces 48, and seven were joint committee meetings.

According to the Parliamentary Monitoring Group, who publish a disclaimer with their attendance register apologising for any errors, 49 ministers and deputy ministers put in at least one appearance at their committee meetings, with only 13 failing to appear at committees at all. First prize for attendance goes to Deputy Minister Boitumelo Elizabeth Moloi for attending four committee meetings.

Regarding members’ attendance, it appears that an impressive 216 individual MPs clocked up 100% attendance at their committee meetings, but this editor should add her own disclaimer acknowledging the possibility of inaccurate counting.

Inevitably much time was taken up with the process of electing committee chairpersons, which was particularly tricky as former members who had been all but indicted by the Zondo Commission of Inquiry into State Capture and sent packing from parliament had slunk back in, this time using the back door, as committee chairpersons.

Despite an impressive last minute spurt to the finishing line, 39 bills had lapsed from the fifth parliament. If they are to make their way into law, they will have to be reintroduced, which means a return to start for the legislative process.

By the time the house rose for its mid-year recess, an impressive 440 written questions had been submitted to the National Assembly, and another 47 from the National Committee of Provinces. Written questions to ministers are one of parliament’s key oversight tools – which makes the rather pitiful response rate of about 22% rather disappointing. But then many questions from parties simply defy logic or purpose and ministers could be forgiven for responding that the information required is unavailable or does not fall within the ambit of their responsibilities.

The first term of parliament has been marked by an unusually high turnover, with a significant number of resignations, particularly by former ministers who realised that their ministerial pensions were at risk. This translated into 13 resignations before the end of the term, plus another 11 members who had made it onto their political party lists but who declined to take up the honour of being entrusted with the duty of representing the citizens of South Africa in their elected parliament, for reasons unknown. This could be seen as a discouraging start to our sixth democratic parliament.

Moira Levy

Thanks to the Parliamentary Monitoring Group for making some of this information available.

Last modified on Sunday, 18 August 2019 14:23

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Notes from the House is an independent online publication that tracks and monitors Parliament’s role in fulfilling its constitutional responsibilities to improve the lives of South African citizens. Published by Moira Levy with the support of the Claude Leon Foundation.

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