Just who is undermining Parliament?

"[T]he NEC noted the extent to which Parliamentary processes have descended into chaos and the unruly offensive on the ANC in Parliament, Parliament itself and on democracy in our country. Hooliganism and insult are at unprecedented levels and are unfortunately being defined as a tool of engagement. The decorum and dignity of Parliament as an institution is being dragged through the mud under the cover of the right to be robust." - Statement of the ANC National Executive Committee following meeting held 21-29 September 2014

On this matter, we would offer the following observations:

1. Sartorial diversity (or uniformity) does not in itself undermine Parliament

At times, members of a party have appeared in uniform in a legislature while the party itself is engaged in street violence and other infringements of rights.  It is this connection that undermines Parliament, especially if the state is unable to deal with the situation outside the legislature.   In itself, dress code in Parliament is not an issue for concern and Parliament should impose no restrictions on it.

2. The extent of interjection varies across legislatures

In Germany, members of the Bundestag listen to the Chancellor in silence.  That’s Germany.  But in the British House of Commons – the granddad of democratic legislatures – hardly a minute goes by without barnyard sounds (the y-e-e-e or m-m-m-m of approval and support, the o-o-o-o of skepticism or disapprobation), even when the Prime Minister is speaking.  Nobody there thinks this is undemocratic; indeed it aids expression.   South Africa’s democracy has been described appropriately as ‘young, raucous and full of life.’  Well then.

3. Question time should be regular and adequate and questions should be taken with the utmost seriousness

Section 92 of the Constitution establishes the accountability of the Cabinet (and that includes the President) collectively and individually to Parliament.  Section 93 establishes individual accountability of Deputy Ministers to Parliament.  Answering questions fully and truthfully is a key component of that accountability.  The rule in the British civil service is that work on a parliamentary question takes precedence over all other business.  It is an expression of respect for Parliament and it is a rule which should be in force here.  Even under apartheid, Helen Suzman was skilled in using parliamentary questions to expose abuses.  The exposure of abuse should be a stronger function of Parliament post apartheid.

Parliamentary questions to elicit facts do not humiliate.  Their answers may.

4. The obligation of members of the Cabinet and Deputy Ministers to act ethically should be taken with the utmost seriousness

Section 96 of the Constitution requires that members of the Cabinet and Deputy Ministers should act in accordance with a code of ethics prescribed by national legislation.  The relevant act is the Executive Members’ Ethics Act, 82 of 1998.  This establishes the right of a member of the National Assembly to enter a complaint against a Cabinet member or a Deputy Minister.  That complaint must be investigated by the Public Protector and a report submitted to Parliament, along with comments by the President and a report on the action taken, or to be taken.  The clear intention is that breaches of ethics should be promptly and fully dealt with.

5. The rights of members of Parliament must be fully respected

When Helen Suzman was the sole member of the Progressive Party between 1961 and 1974, she took a great deal of criticism from National Party MPs.  Helen was tough and smart and generally gave better than she got.  But she also said that successive speakers of the House (although National Party members) assured her that they would protect her rights.  And, she added, they kept their word.  How many members of the opposition parties would be willing to say the same, now?

6. No confidence motions do not undermine Parliament. They are an essential part of its functioning

A no confidence motion is a way of requiring accountability to the supporters of the motion.  In other parliamentary systems, a successful motion of no confidence has on occasion brought a government down.  As it should have.

The right of walk out also does not undermine Parliament, especially if it registers protest about the way in which business is being conducted.

7. The President has many options for communicating with people outside Parliament, but none of them individually, nor all of them collectively, detract in the least from constitutional requirements of accountability to Parliament and the obligation to act ethically

The ANC press statement observed that:

"[I]n order to account to our people, the ANC should continue to rely more on direct contact with them in Izimbizo."

It is the word “more” in this sentence that causes disquiet, since it implies less emphasis on accountability to Parliament, which is not justified.  Otherwise, there can be no objection to it.  The President can and may communicate with the public in many ways.  But bypassing Parliament leads to a plebiscitary system, such as existed in France under Napoleon III.  Only the Franco-Prussian war dislodged him.

In the same paragraph the statement says:

"Parliament cannot be a battleground."

In the sense that there should not be physical assault, agreed.  But Parliament must be a battleground in terms of ideas.  Otherwise it becomes a rubber stamp and, in the end, that is not good even for the ruling party itself.

8. If something is rotten in the state of Denmark, members of Parliament should be able to bring it to the surface and Parliament should then deal with it

Parliament is there to expose cover-ups.  One advantage of a parliamentary system is that it can deal more rapidly than a system where the President is not directly answerable to the legislature, except in the case of impeachment which is a long and difficult process.  Had the United States had a parliamentary system, Richard Nixon would have departed much sooner than he did.  Even so, the critical lesson from that experience is:  cover ups in serious cases don’t work.  Until they are resolved, however, they result in undemocratic practices and paralyze administrations.  

Charles Simkins
Senior Researcher