Tuesday, April 23, 2024

Independence of Parliament should not be compromised

We want to recognize efforts by the current Speaker of the National Assembly to restore the independence of parliament.

While by law, parliament is not under the clutch of the executive, we know very well that in practice that is very much the case.

The situation has in the past led some commentators to label our parliament the rubber stamp of the executive.

Again, we know so well that in law, parliament is supposed to make laws.
But how many of Botswana’s laws were actually started and sponsored by parliament?
The answer unfortunately is very few.

Almost all of our laws are at the instance of the executive with the assistance of the drafting department of the Attorney General’s Chambers.

In fact, so strange is the situation, that even as they are supposed to make laws, under the regulations a private bill in Botswana is a tedious process, not only because of a lack of resources that members have to contend with, but also that they have to make requests, not only to the speaker but also to their colleagues in parliament before they could table a law for consideration.

It is an irony of sorts that cabinet Ministers are not exposed to the same tedious processes.
We hope that parliamentarians will take it upon themselves to ease the process of them coming up and originating the laws that govern Botswana.

Having said that we want to highlight the fact that even as the current speaker is doing everything in her power to restore parliamentary supremacy, she cannot achieve her goal without explicit and concerted assistance of political parties represented in parliament.

In fact, as things stand, the odds are very much stacked against the Speaker.

First, she has to contend with the fact that there simply are too many cabinet ministers all of whom sit and also vote in parliament, enjoying the full privileges of a Member of Parliament.
Thus, as a single block, cabinet is too powerful vis-à-vis the backbench.

Added to that is the evil of party caucuses, where MPs are not allowed to debate or vote following their consciences, but are compelled to follow collective trajectories as agreed at party caucuses.
In the ultimate analysis, put against their cabinet colleagues, ruling party back benchers are too few to be of any material consequence ÔÇô caucus or no caucus.

They can only be of any impact if they were to team up with their opposition colleagues. But as has happened in the past we all know the kind of punishment that kind of behavior invites.

We call on all political parties represented in parliament to put in place structures that would make it easy for MPs to operate as freely as is envisaged by the country’s constitution.

Past speakers of the national assembly over the years have commissioned studies and consultancies that were supposed to advise on way to make parliament more independent and responsive to the public needs.

Our reading of a number of such consultancies is that very good recommendations have been made. But it is the implementation of such recommendations that has scuppered the realisation of the end result.

Specifically, it would appear to us that the current administrative relationship that parliament has with the Office of President does not augur well for the independence of parliament.

A way has to be found to totally detach parliament from the office of the president, even if it means raising the Clerk of Parliament to a position in par with that of the Permanent Secretary to the President.

We also would suggest to our Members of Parliament that they should consider raising the position of Speaker from its ranking where it is equivalent to that of cabinet ministers and possibly think of elevating it to the rank of a Vice President.

If that happens then there will be a real chance of MPs getting out of the shadow of cabinet ministers.

In Botswana it would appear like every Member of Parliament wants to become a minister. A ministerial position seems like a natural ladder-up promotion for a back bencher.

This has the inadvertent tendency of taking away independence from the back benchers because they want to portray themselves as good boys who are worthy of promotion.

That, in our opinion, cannot be right. MPs’ conditions of service should make them content to them remaining in the backbenches, without aspiring to become ministers.

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