MPs deserve better service conditions

There have been a lot of comments regarding members of Parliament’s conditions of service.

Some of these comments have labelled MPs as mercenaries for demanding better salaries and allowances.

I would like to weigh-in on that debate and clearly state that MPs are more than justified for demanding better conditions of service for the important work that they do to make law and provide oversight on the Executive.

Of course, the improvement in their pay package should be commensurate with productivity.

The MPs should demonstrate without doubt that they are independent of the Executive, are making good law and enforcing increased accountability on the part of ministries and government departments.

A Member of Parliament is elected by the people to represent them in Parliament. He/she occupies an important role in society.

MPs are there to mediate between different constituent interests for the public good.

Given that MPs derive their mandate from the people, they deserve to be treated with dignity and respect.

The current paltry salaries and allowances are demeaning, to say the least.

It is, therefore, not surprising that some of them fail to concentrate on their work as they try to earn a living elsewhere to fend for their families.

Remember, these MPs have children that should be fed and sent to school.

A comparison with conditions of service prevailing in other parliaments will clearly demonstrate why there is justification to pay our MPs better.

A Zimbabwean MP earns a gross salary of $400 per month, translating into an annual salary of about $5 000 per year. With income tax, medical aid contributions and other deductions, take-home pay can be anything between $250 and $300 per month.

Compare with Kenya where MPs recently voted to increase their salary by 40 % to more than $175 000 per year.

The MPs enjoy many other perks that include sitting allowances, car maintenance allowances, constituency allowances and housing allowances.

Constituency, housing and car allowances are not taxed. Of course, the Kenyan example is on the extreme side.

This is why these outrageous perks have met with strong protests from the majority of Kenyans, who are heavily taxed on both their salaries and allowances.

A better comparison closer home is the South African National Assembly where ordinary MPs earn a total salary package of about $100 000 per year. In Zambia, the average salary of an MP is about $13 000 per year. In addition, allowances amount to more than $10 000 per year.

Rank-and-file United States lawmakers earn on average $174 000 per year.

Granted, the Zimbabwe economy is currently not performing to justify a substantial improvement in conditions of service, but surely we must be able to do better than the current unreasonably low salary and perks.

Another argument advanced by critics is that even ministers are working under almost similar conditions.

The truth, however, is that ministers and senior government officials travel a lot on official business.

They therefore benefit from travel and subsistence allowances that come with foreign travel.

When Finance minister Tendai Biti says foreign travel gobbled $28,6 million during the 10 months to October 2009, you can fully understand when I say there are so many benefits derived from being a minister or senior government official in ministries.

To what extent all this traveling is productive remains highly questionable given that there are no visible benefits that we see accruing to the ordinary person.

The majority of Zimbabweans are still wallowing in poverty. Prospects of an upturn in the economy remain bleak despite all this foreign travel to conferences, meetings and workshops.

The current constitution-making process gives an opportunity to MPs to push for an improvement in their conditions of service.

Best practices from elsewhere is the establishment of an independent Parliamentary Service Commission to oversee conditions of service for MPs and staff.

This statutory and independent corporate body allows Parliament to have control of and authority to set out and secure their budgetary requirements unconstrained by the Executive.

The corporate body will ensure that the remuneration package for MPs is determined by an independent process.

In South Africa, an independent commission, established under Article 219 (1) of the Constitution, recommends regarding salaries, allowances and perks of members of the National Assembly and the permanent members of the National Council of Provinces.

Parliament makes law in this regard only after considering the recommendations of the commission.

While the independent Parliamentary Service Commission is the way to go, the performance of MPs has to significantly improve so that taxpayers will see value-for-money in the increased salary perks.
A situation whereby ministers face no action for being in contempt of Parliament and continue to disregard parliamentary procedures with impunity should not be allowed to happen if the public is going to take their elected representatives seriously.

The public will support better conditions of service for their elected representatives if they are confident that Parliament is not a junior partner in the governance system.

John Makamure is the Executive Director of the Southern African Parliamentary Support Trust. Feedback: johnma@sapst.org

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