‘Parliament needs autonomy’

The National Assembly is seeking autonomy for effective delivery of its duties. Among other things, the House is demanding financial and administrative independence from the Executive. This is part of the report which the House adopted from Parliament’s Legal Affairs Committee during its last meeting. In this interview with our News Analyst SUZGO CHITETE, political scientist Professor Blessings Chinsinga shares his thoughts on the proposal. Excerpts:

Chinsinga: MPs need to start looking at politics differently

First and foremost, what is your general take on the proposal to operationalise the autonomy of Parliament?

It is a welcome proposal, which in my view, is long overdue. We need an independent National Assembly to execute its mandate effectively. As things stand now, Parliament is at the mercy of the Executive which is a problem that must be addressed.

The report from the Legal Affairs Committee has a number of recommendations. In your view, what would be a better starting point in making Parliament autonomous?

I think we need to begin with change of some legislation, particularly giving Parliament authority to determine its own calendar. At the moment, Parliament cannot convene without consulting the President and, certainly, if the President does not want Parliament to meet, it cannot meet. It would really become independent if Parliament, through the Speaker, is able to decide on its own meeting. For me, that would be the critical legislative reform that would lead to attainment of the independence that is being talked about.

We can make Parliament independent through all suggested means, but what compromises the independence sometimes is political heavy-handedness of the governing party, especially where it has more numbers, the House tends to dance to the tune of the Executive. How do we handle this? 

That will be difficult to avoid because it is part of the political game. But that aside, we need to begin to inculcate a culture of responsibility among our members of Parliament [MPs]. They need to start looking at politics differently. At the moment, the political culture is that MPs support their parties blindly without looking at what is at stake for the nation. While party loyalty is important, we need MPs who realise that public duty is more important than political party allegiance.

Do you see that working in our context, to have MPs go against a party which they think ushered them into power?

The challenge at the moment is that as a country we do not have a shared-view of what is public interest. It becomes difficult for MPs to have a clear understanding of what is public interest. In the absence of this shared interest then myopic party interest dominates.

You indicated that having the Speaker consult the President on the meeting of Parliament amounts to intrusion of the Executive into the business of the Legislature, what about MPs who double as Cabinet ministers, are they not intruding into Parliament, thereby compromising the autonomy of the institution?

Not necessarily. Any democratic government thrives on the principle of checks and balances. So, if you have a working system of checks and balances, it would not really matter if you have members doubling as MPs and ministers, so long as the systems are functioning. Of course, in an ideal situation we would want total independence, but you see these branches of government are not mutually exclusive, they are interdependent.

What we need is to have a system of checks of balances that is functioning and the people in the three branches of government respecting those systems because at the moment there is a culture of impunity. But I do not see that as a huge hindrance to the attainment of parliamentary autonomy.

On the proposal that the Speaker has to receive remuneration close to or at par with the Vice-President and that they be entitled to a retirement package equal to a retired Veep, does this contribute to the autonomy of Parliament?

I think so because the basic argument is that these are separate but equal branches of government. So, if they are separate but equal branches then you would expect conditions of service to be fairly equal. I think that will raise the stature of parliament as a branch of government.  But that in itself is not a sufficient rather it is necessary but not a sufficient condition that will make parliament independent. It will largely depend on the willing of the people in all the three branches to see each other as equal and also make sure that each of them performs its due functions without interference or undermining each other’s authority.

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