Friday, June 21, 2024

Sun may be setting on openly televised PAC hearings

Courtesy of a set of proposed standing orders, public hearings of the one parliamentary committee deemed to be most interesting may soon disappear altogether from Facebook livestreaming platforms.

Parliament has numerous committees but the one that enjoys pride of place in terms of media coverage is the Public Accounts Committee (PAC). Indeed, depending on the subjects at hand and the antics of Committee members, its hearings can be fun to watch. As far as public interest goes, pride of place is enjoyed by a certain notorious department within the Office of the President (OP).

Globally, the PAC is a committee within a legislature whose role is to study public audits and consider oral and written evidence on a particular topic. The committee scrutinises the value for money—the economy, efficiency and effectiveness—of public spending and generally holds the government and its civil servants to account for the delivery of public services. To that end, it invites “accounting officers” to the committee hearings for questioning. In Botswana’s case, accounting officers are permanent secretaries and heads of departments, who are typically accompanied by finance officers.

For the most obvious reason, there is a lot of interest in the activities of the Directorate of Intelligence and Security Services – which dramatically introduced itself to public life on the very day (April 1, 2008) that former president and Botswana Defence Force Commander, Lieutenant General Ian Khama replaced Festus Mogae as president. DISS’ founding Director General was Colonel Isaac Kgosi, who had been Khama’s aide-de-camp in the BDF and in 1998, would follow his boss to OP to become his first and only private secretary.

The PAC of the Botswana parliament, which – for obvious reasons, is modelled after that of the House of Commons, is as old as parliament itself. What is new is that where its proceedings were once conducted quietly and out of the public eye, media technology has changed all that. Courtesy of parliament’s own Facebook livestreaming service, the Committee’s public hearings now reach every part of the world with Internet service. It is now possible for a Motswana living in the United Kingdom to watch live PAC proceedings – as those of parliament proper through similar service.

The downside is that cameras and (some) human beings can be a terrible mix. That is more so if those human beings are politicians whose thespian antics are triggered the minute a camera is pointed at them. The result has been that above and beyond discharging their official duties, some MPs who are PAC members tend to behave performatively – especially if the entity being reviewed is egregiously underperforming in certain respects. Those on the receiving end of these performances certainly don’t enjoy what essentially amounts to public humiliation.

Cameras at PAC hearings may not exactly have cost Kgosi his job as DISS DG but they relayed to the nation and beyond, images and a blatant message that the new president would certainly not have liked.

Appearing before the Committee, Kgosi said that he didn’t take orders from anyone. The Intelligence and Services Act says that the DISS DG shall report to the president and there is no way in the world that President Mokgweetsi Masisi would have liked what some interpreted as deliberate effort to undermine the new president. Had there been no cameras at the hearings, Kgosi’s words would not have reached members of the public.

Days of the openly televised PAC may be coming to an end.

From March 16, 1967 to date, parliament’s standing orders (being a set of rules that govern the activities of MPs both in and outside the house) have been amended a total of 19 times. The year 1978 was an unusually busy one because the orders were amended thrice – in February, March and July. Beginning last year, the 20th attempt to amend the standing orders has been delayed as a result of the ruling Botswana Democratic Party putting its thumb on the scale. Via a motion that was tabled by Gaborone Central MP, Tumiso Mangwegape-Healy, the party sought dissolution and reconstitution of standing committees whose practical effect has been to give the BDP more power and control over the committees. The Leader of the Opposition, Dithapelo Keorapetse, told a press conference that much earlier this month.

At the time of Mangwegape-Healy’s motion, a set of amendments to the standing orders had been packaged and was to be presented to MPs for consideration and official approval. In terms of policy, such presentation should be made by the chairperson of the Standing Orders Committee. However, with all committees having been dissolved, there was no such chairperson and the result is that proposals have been gathering dust for more than a year now. Now that the committees have been reconstituted, the Standing Orders Committee now has a chairperson who can present the proposed standing orders to MPs for consideration and official approval.

One of the proposed amendments relates directly to the use of cameras in both parliament and at public hearings of parliamentary committees. To the extent that they will be indulged by chairpersons of parliamentary committees, the new standing orders extend a measure of protection to witnesses who will appear before them. Where these committees hold public hearings that are broadcast live, “a witness or any person who appears in those proceedings shall be given reasonable opportunity, before appearing at those proceedings, to object to the broadcasting of such proceedings.” In turn, the Committee shall consider such objection having regard to the “proper protection” of the witness or such people, as well as to “public interest considerations.”

One of the (genuine) reasons that accounting officers can give for objecting to the televising of their testimony is that sometimes they are treated unfairly – if not dastardly.

Last year, Sunday Standard reported how dastardly Boatametse Modukanele, then Acting Permanent Secretary in Ministry of Environment and Tourism as well as the Director of Finance, Tebo Mmabe, were treated when they appeared before the Committee. Acting PAC Chairperson made grossly inappropriate side remarks during his questioning of the pair.

The Jwaneng-Mabutsane MP made a quite legitimate point that overspending is unlawful because it involves using funds that parliament hasn’t approved. Where that statement should have sufficed, he quipped rhetorically to Mmabe: “O na le authority ya gore o overspend-e hela ka gore o ngwana wa system?’ [Do you think you have authority to overspend because you are part of the system?] The latter is a magnanimous translation because “ngwana wa system” should rightly literally translates as “a child of the system.” The overly polite response negating the latter characterisation was: “Nnyaa Rraga se gore go ntse jalo Sir.”

Part of what explains why accounting officers have to be overly obedient is that the Committee can actually have someone imprisoned for contempt – whose scope of subjectivity is quite broad.

Reatile’s last word to Modukanele sounded almost like a let’s-meet-after-school threat from his teenage years. He expressed wish that he wouldn’t be transferred and would in fact be promoted in order that he can appear before the Committee next year: “O ka re ga ba na go go isa transfer. O ka re o ka nna substantiveya tla ya re ngwaga o o tlang ke bo ke lebagane le wena.”

The subjectivity weaved into the wording of the proposal (“reasonable opportunity”, ““proper protection” and “public interest considerations”) make it near impossible to say with certainty what form future hearings will take. However, the political sleight of hand that the BDP exercised by passing Mangwegape-Healy’s motion may come to the rescue of accounting officers. Administrative failure on the part of ministries and accounting officers reflects badly on the BDP – especially at election time. For that reason, the party can use the proposed standing order to limit what the nation sees. 

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