WHEN President Robert Mugabe opened the seventh parliament in the midst of stalled negotiations over the global political agreement (GPA) last August, heated debates were expected to be the hallmark of the first session of the House given the Morgan Tsvangirai-led MDC’s wafer-thin majority.
Characterised by heckling and jeering of Mugabe’s speech by MDC legislators, the opening ceremony saw new faces from the country’s main political parties coming into the chamber.
Six months down the line a unity government was formed by Mugabe, Prime Minister Tsvangirai and his deputy Arthur Mutambara in line with the GPA. Executive powers were shared between Mugabe, Tsvangirai and cabinet.
Resultantly there was heightened expectation for legislative reforms given years of animosity between the principals of the new administration.
But on the contrary, no legislative agenda was brought to parliament by the executive since August 26 – the day parliament was officially opened.
Both the House of Assembly and the Senate adjourned a fortnight ago to September signalling the end of the first session.
Parliamentary business experts said Mugabe would in due course publish a proclamation in the Government Gazette terminating the first session and summoning the second one.
Only seven inevitable Bills were fast tracked and passed during the first session, Constitution Amendment (No. 19); National Security Council; Finance; Appropriation (2008) (Additional); Appropriation (2009); Finance (No. 2); and Appropriation (Supplementary) Bills.
There are three Bills under Appropriation (2008) (Additional) Bill (passed in late March); Finance (No. 2) Bill and Appropriation (Supplementary) Bill (July 23) that were passed by parliament, but still await presidential assent.
Clause 16 of the Finance (No. 2) Bill provides for the formalisation of the multi-currency national payment system introduced in February.
It also took close to a year for lawmakers to debate Mugabe’s speech before passing a motion affirming it.
Constitutional law expert Lovemore Madhuku said the absence of a legislative agenda in parliament reflects the lack of political will for change on the part of the executive arm of government.Â Â Â
“There was no legislation agenda during this session,” Madhuku said. “No proposals were sent from the executive. There must be political will from the executive to make new laws.”
Zanu PF and the two MDC 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”.
Clerk of Parliament Austin Zvoma recently told the Zimbabwe Independent that legislative reforms were expected soon.
“We have been assured that legislative programmes have been discussed by the executive and a number of Bills are at various stages of processing – the pre-legislative stage which is at executive level,” Zvoma said.
Journalists and media organisations are pushing for the repeal of pieces of legislation such as the Access to Information and Protection of Privacy Act, the Public Order and Security Act, and the Broadcasting Services Act, which they say inhibit freedom of the media and were antithetical to democracy.
John Makamure, the executive director of the Southern African Parliamentary Support Trust based in Harare, was of the opinion that the first session generated “robust debate” but was undermined by the absence of authorities during the question and answer sessions and the thematic and parliamentary portfolio committee meetings.
“Although the volume of business transacted was low compared to the previous sessions, the first session of the 7th Parliament went on generally okay. There was robust debate on some of the motions. Question time was also lively during some of the sittings,” Makamure said. “However, some of the ministers are still not attending question time, thereby watering down debate and leaving MPs frustrated. This problem has been going on for a very long time, and now requires decisive action on the part of the leadership of parliament and cabinet.”
Among some ministers whose questions were deferred on several occasions after failing to attend parliament were Defence minister Emmerson Mnangagwa and Agriculture minister Joseph Made. They however managed to answer the questions before the House adjourned.
At the adjournment of parliament, there were still a number of motions and questions on the Order Papers for both Houses that had not been dealt with.Â These items will lapse when the session is formally terminated by Mugabe, but can be raised again in the new session.Â
Portfolio committees and thematics committee will continue meeting although the Houses will not be sitting.
Lack of funds from the treasury, Makamure said, could have also downplayed the efficiency of the third arm of government.
Minister of Finance Tendai Biti during his mid-term fiscal review statement slashed the vote allocation of parliament to US$5 million from US$7million.
Makamure said the second session was, however, expected to bring in both state and privately sponsored bills.
Among the Bills to be tabled in the second session are the Freedom of Information Act and the Media Practitioners Act, which will replace the draconian Aippa.
Constitutional and Parliamentary Affairs minister Eric Matinenga could not be reached for comment at the time of going to print.
According to Veritas, a group of lawyers who monitor political developments in the country, the House of Assembly sat 41 times while the Senate met 28 times during the period under review.
“On many occasions the sittings were very brief, sometimes lasting only a few minutes.Â Very seldom did either House sit after 5 pm — let alone until 7 pm, the time envisaged by Standing Orders for the end of the day’s work,” said Veritas.
The “fast-tracking” of Bills, despite being in line with the law, Makamure argued, was “bad practice” which could result in under-scrutinised pieces of legislation.
“It must be standard practice that every Bill is subjected to a public hearing and thorough scrutiny by portfolio committees before being passed into law. While some of the committees managed to invite stakeholders to give oral evidence, the majority of them have not yet been able to table a report in the House,” he said.
During the same session, MDC legislators pushed for media reforms and an investigation into the Attorney-General’s conduct in what they called politically-motivated prosecutions. This followed the arrest and arraigning of several MDC lawmakers in court facing criminal allegations.
BY BERNARD MPOFU