THERE has been very limited activity on the legislative front, almost 14 months since the March 2008 harmonised elections.
While it is well-known that protracted Global Political Agreement (GPA) negotiations delayed the swearing in of MPs, and that important structures such as the portfolio committees were only set up in March this year, parliament should now be seen to be demonstrating its relevance. Â
The legislature is a key pillar of governance and plays a leading role in driving the legislative agenda. This is because the constitutional mandate of parliament is “to make laws for the peace order and good government of Zimbabwe”.
Making laws is not the same as fast-tracking bills brought by the executive such as what happened with the Constitutional Amendment No 19, the National Security Council Bill and the 2009 National Budget. Parliament must scrutinise these bills, conduct hearings for public input, and allow extensive debate in both houses before passing the bills with amendments, if any.
In addition to law-making, the other two core functions of parliament are representation and executive oversight. Representation means parliament must be constituted in such a way as to be representative of all sectors of society.
Diverse views of MPs, the public and civic society must be fully heard if parliament is to be effective in carrying out its representative role.
Executive oversight means parliament must closely monitor implementation of government programmes and projects in order to strengthen delivery of public services to the people.
The effectiveness of parliament largely depends on whether the country’s governing institutions have a presidential, parliamentary or hybrid political system.
Individual MPs cannot introduce bills that raise or reduce expenditure. Although the Zimbabwe parliament does not have the necessary powers as in a presidential system (executive sets the legislative agenda), individual MPs and portfolio committees can still initiate legislation either through private member bills or through a review of existing statutes and making recommendations for amendments to both the House of Assembly and Senate.Â
There is therefore no reason MPs and the different portfolio committees should not start undertaking serious work in this area. MPs can initiate and influence the legislative agenda and be seen to play a major role in the implementation of the GPA.
The three political formations agreed under Article 17 of the GPA that “the legislative agenda will be prioritised in order to reflect the letter and spirit of this agreement” and that “the government will discuss and agree on further legislative measures which may become necessary to implement the government’s agreed policies and in particular, with a view to entrenching democratic values and practices”.
This will require that bad laws such as Access to Information and Protection of Privacy Act and Public Order and Security Act be repealed immediately if we are to entrench democratic values in this country.
Sometimes we forget that the inclusive government is a transitional arrangement whose main priority is to create the right environment for the conduct of free and fair elections, leading to the emergence of a democratic and legitimate government.
Constitution-making, repeal of repressive legislation, overhaul of electoral institutions and restoration of basic social services to the people are urgent instruments required to create a conducive environment for free and fair elections.
Parliament has already been mandated through the select committee to drive constitution-making. The committee will next week start on a public outreach programme, a development that is highly commendable if the process of constitution-making is going to be participatory and the product legitimate. Legislative reform should however happen concurrently with the process of constitution-making.
Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirai, as the leader of government business in parliament, should get his ministers to immediately bring bills to parliament in line with Article 17 of the GPA.
A good legislative agenda in addition to the already welcome moves on constitution-making and transparent setting up of independent commissions (Human Rights Commission, Zimbabwe Electoral Commission, Anti Corruption Commission and Media Commission) will send the right signals to the electorate and the international community that the three parties are serious in implementing provisions of the GPA.
This will assist in unlocking the much-needed financial aid for Zimbabwe’s economic recovery efforts.
Other areas in need of immediate attention by members of parliament and the portfolio committees include the implementation of the Short-Term Emergency Recovery Programme (Sterp) and the execution of the 2009 budget.
It is the duty of parliament to see to it that implementation of public policies and programmes is realising tangible outcomes on the ground.
The portfolio committees must begin by clearly understanding the situation in the various sectors that they will provide oversight before they start demanding answers from senior government officials.
You cannot engage in meaningful interchange with senior government officials when you do not have sound background knowledge of what exactly is happening in the sector that you shadow.
Civic society and interest groups working in various sectors can assist MPs in that regard. The cornerstone of the reform programme of parliament is increased public participation in the legislative process.
Opening up portfolio committees to civic society and the public should therefore be at the centre of parliamentary work.
Strong parliamentary institutions help to ensure democracy, the rule of law and protection of human rights. There is a danger that this parliament will lose credibility in the eyes of the public if it does not immediately deal with the legislative agenda and effectively carry out its representative and oversight functions.
lMakamure is Southern African Parliamentary Support Trust executive director. Â
BY JOHN MAKAMURE