Published on October 5th, 2009 | by admin0
The slow death of democracy
No Hansard, no assets register, and very little debate. Namibia’s parliament is becoming an irrelevance, writes Frederico Links
By all indications a legislative torpor has settled ever more heavily over the National Assembly over the last few years. This sense of inactivity is reflected most conspicuously in the number of bills tabled and laws passed by parliament over the last five years, the period of the fourth parliament, which shows an almost spectacular decrease in the quantity of laws enacted since 2004.
For all intents and purposes, the Namibian parliament, comprising the National Assembly and the National Council, as the House of Review, has steadily slipped into decline and has almost reached a level of political and representative irrelevance.
The issue of a functioning parliament, ideally as a representative body that acts as a check and oversight on the executive arm of government on behalf of citizens, becomes especially pertinent with the looming National Assembly and Presidential elections scheduled for late November.
Not saying much
The issue of parliamentary engagement came under the spotlight recently, with the launch of research findings, titled ‘Not Speaking Out: Measuring National Assembly Performance’, by the Institute for Public Policy Research (IPPR).
The findings indicate that the majority of parliamentarians, especially a great many amongst the ruling Swapo Party MPs, were not very active in the National Assembly during the period under investigation, which was from September 2005 to September 2007. The contributions of some parliamentarians were so minimal over the two-year period that they could be considered to have been mostly silent.
And amongst the disturbing issues unearthed by the IPPR in their data collection on MP performance was the fact that the Hansard, the official record of the proceedings of the National Assembly, is not available from October 2007 onwards.
The National Assembly Secretariat was not able to give an adequate answer as to why Hansard has not been kept up to date, pointing to staffing issues and a failed outsourcing contract as the main reasons for the demise of this important record. All the Secretariat could promise was that an updated Hansard would be available sometime in the foreseeable future.
The issue of decline becomes especially startling when looking at the number of bills tabled and laws passed during the period investigated by the IPPR. The 45 bills passed in the period 2005 to 2008, while not a full five-year parliamentary cycle, suggests that the fourth parliament will not get anywhere near the 136 laws enacted by the third parliament, from 2000 to 2005. The highest number of laws was enacted by the first parliament, from 1990 to 1995, when 166 laws were put on the statute books.
In what can reasonably be considered the final drop in this steep legislative decline, the 2009 parliamentary year, when judged against previous years, has up to end September yielded only four laws passed. At the same time, only seven bills have been tabled in the House, the most notable amongst these the controversial Communications Bill.
Paralleling and reflecting the low work ethic in the National Assembly is the fact that the seven standing committees of the Lower House have for all intents and purposes fallen by the wayside, producing very little by way of reports on committees’ activities.
For the year to end September, the parliament library has only received five reports from various standing committees, of which only two reflect a parliamentary activity from this year. The other three standing committee reports received only very recently by the parliament library from the relevant committees relate to activities as far back as 2007. And library staff can probably only expect to receive the bulk of this year’s standing committee reports sometime from early to mid 2011.
Ironically, one of the reports on an activity from this year, titled ‘Enhancing public participation in the legislative processes’, a National Assembly outreach programme, is about the trip by a delegation led by Deputy Speaker Doreen Sioka to constituencies in the Omaheke Region to encourage rural people to take an active interest and play a role in the workings of parliament.
And in another twist of irony, the apparent demise of the standing committee system comes immediately after nine years of extensive investment by USAID in a ‘Democracy and Governance’ programme, from the mid 1990s to September 2004, aimed at strengthening legislative processes, This saw the creation of a parliamentary website and resource centre, as well as computer training for MPs. The supposed objective of the programme was to make the Namibian parliament more dynamic and inclusive, as well as more responsive to citizens. At the end of the nine-year period USAID had spent roughly US$11 million, or more than N$80 million at the current exchange rate.
This money also included setting up ‘The Constituency Channel’, to disseminate news about parliamentary activities. While initially active, this initiative too has become a husk of its former self.
From 2005 to end 2008, the Americans spent almost US$4 million on another ‘Democracy and Governance’ programme. In all, USAID has spent almost US$15 million on strengthening participatory democracy over the last decade and a half.
Compounding the laxity of MPs over the last few years is the fact that the National Assembly has failed to achieve a quorum on various occasions, which has led to parliamentary sittings being postponed. In the National Assembly 37 of the 72 voting MPs have to be present to constitute a quorum.
In the 2008 parliamentary year, the House had to be adjourned on four occasions due to the lack of a quorum and up until the end of September this year, there were six adjournments for the same reason. The latest lack of a quorum adjournment happened at the end of September, shortly after MPs had returned from a two-month winter recess, and on a day that a visiting foreign parliamentary delegation was in the House as observers.
The issue of a quorum has become so pressing that Veterans Affairs Minister, Ngarikutuke Tjiriange, proposed a motion towards the end of last month to have the constitution amended, for only the third time since 1990, so that 37 voting MPs only have to be present when a vote is being conducted or important decisions taken. This would allow for fewer MPs being present when debates are taking place. No doubt the executive, in the form of cabinet, feels that the National Assembly is taking up valuable time which they could be devoting to their ministerial jobs or even other more interesting and lucrative activities. As for the backbenchers, the loss of the quorum stipulation will mean that they have much more free time on their hands as they do not have constituents to which they are responsible. There has been no indication that their salaries will be dropped in tandem with their increasing absenteeism.
And adding to the accountability woes of the National Assembly is the fact that the register of MPs’ interests and assets has never been published, despite a requirement that it is supposed to appear every year. According to a source at the National Assembly a members’ assets register, containing details of two thirds of MPs, has been finalised and is only waiting for publication, but when this would happen could not be said.
A casual comparison of the National Assembly with the National Council, the House of Review, suggests that while the work ethic in the National Assembly has deteriorated considerably since 2005, that of the members and staff of the National Council has remained steady and even been visibly high over the same period.
National Council standing committees have met regularly and produced timely reports and staff have kept the Hansard up to date.
However, the credibility of the Upper House has always been questionable, an issue which was highlighted once again recently when the Communications Bill sailed through the Council unamended after amendments had been proposed following public hearings on the proposed law in early September. For some parliamentary observers the Communications Bill debacle has confirmed the impression that the National Council is little more than a rubber stamp for the Swapo Party dominated National Assembly, and by extension the executive.
With it being highly probable that the Swapo Party will continue its domination of the National Assembly after November’s elections, the lack of change reflected in the recently released Swapo candidates list would tend to indicate that the slump in accountability and productivity at parliament will last for a while yet.