Debate on Parliament's Budget Vote - Mike Ellis
Mike Ellis, Deputy Chief Whip of the Democratic Alliance
2 July 2009
Oversight is an extremely important part of the work of Parliament. But it has been grossly underplayed over the past few years. This probably was a deliberate ploy on the part of the ANC under Mr Mbeki as Luthuli House and the Presidency relegated Parliament to a secondary and often irrelevant role in terms of what is expected of it.
There can be no better example of this than Parliamentary questions. Firstly the whole system was manipulated by the ANC in 2000 to undermine the opposition parties' role in this all important instrument of oversight. The new structure created a system which allowed for ANC members to the majority of questions, all of which are no more than sweetheart questions thus giving Ministers more opportunity to talk about their own areas of interest and to pat themselves on the back. This cannot be construed as genuine oversight.
This means, in turn, that the opportunity for Members to ask good probing questions on issues of real importance and of proper oversight is all but lost.
But that is only one part of the problem. The real problem lies now in the fact that remarkably few question sessions take place in Parliament. In 2008, Cabinet Ministers appeared only once during the whole year in the NA and the NCOP. Even the President’s and Deputy President’s question time has been downplayed with the President appearing only twice last year and the Deputy President once.
And, as well, all know there has not been a single Question time to any of the Executive this year to date.
But a further trend has also crept in whereby some Ministers do not seem to believe it is necessary to even turn up to answer questions when it is their turn. A prime example was in October 2007 when eleven Ministers were required to attend a session and only four were present. So few question sessions have taken place since that day that it is difficult to assess whether this trend continues.
There are of course written questions. But here the story is equally bleak. The rules stipulate that Ministers should reply within 10 working days of the question being asked. However, in October 2008 there were 280 DA questions alone outstanding – in other words Ministers had certainly not met the 10 day deadline – and some questions had been submitted as far back as February of that year.
By the close of Parliament in December 2008 – despite pressure being applied to the Executive, some 55 questions were still unanswered and clearly now will never be answered. Even this year 26 of the 135 questions submitted by the DA before the 18th March cut off before the elections have not been replied to. In fact, I have to tell the House that since 2006, a staggering 498 questions have never been answered by the Executive.
It is a most unfortunate picture.
A further problem of the lack of oversight being performed by Parliament is the greatly reduced number of sitting days in Parliament. In 2007 Parliament plenaries took place on approximately 70 days. In 2008 this reduced to approximately 40. This in turn cuts down the opportunity for MPs to engage the Executive in any important way. Apart from debates on legislation and Budget votes, hardly any meaningful debates are held on topics other than the celebration of national days and IPU topics. All but gone are debates proposed by parties or members – they just are not scheduled any more. Yet opposition Parties want more debates on issues that they feel are important. In 2008 the DA proposed 44 topics for discussion. Only one was debated. The ANC’s 297 members in last year failed to introduce a single notion – a clear indication that they do not take this area of work very seriously.
Even Members statements, a good innovation by the ANC, are drifting into oblivion in terms of being an important oversight tool. They have taken place so seldom – the first one since the election takes place today – but a trend has developed when far too many Ministers do not bother to turn up even when there are occasionally statements.
Now the point of all this, Mr Speaker, is that we have to do something about it. Oversight is a critical part of the Parliament as we all know. But the very structure of the business of this House is in urgent need of a revamp. Very little really stimulating debates take place in this House and debates themselves have become little more than speech reading sessions rather than debates.
But let us begin with question time, a part of Parliament that used to be regular and vibrant with great interest in it from all concerned including the public. Let us restructure question time, hold it more frequently, re-introduce interpellations and give MPs the proper opportunity to interrogate Ministers. Question time, as it is structured now, is probably the most boring part of the Parliamentary programme. It should never be. Please set up committee, Mr Speaker, to restructure this very important item. Let us also introduce rules that make it absolutely compulsory for Ministers to answer questions, both written and oral, timeously and fully so that proper oversight takes place.
Secondly, Mr Speaker, let us make Parliament more relevant by introducing a proper system of debates and discussions in this House over a wide range of subjects and create proper slots for members’ topics and motions to be debated. When such debates do take place, they should be responded to by the relevant Minister and this should become the norm.
Thirdly, let us give Members’ statements the importance they deserve with proper interaction from the Executive. It is a good innovation and deserves support from all.
I would urge, Mr Speaker, that you arrange with the Chief Whips Forum to set up a task team to look at whether oversight in Parliament using the appropriate mechanisms available to MPs is in fact working to its optimum, but please address too the important job of re-assessing the way in which things are done in Parliament with a view to making it more interesting and appropriate in terms of what we are expected to achieve.