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Constitutional proposals to strengthen Parliament

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It is very pleasing to hear that Members of Parliament from both Houses have been invited to make submissions to the Constitutional Parliamentary Select Committee (Copac).

As we are all aware, the majority of MPs participated in the outreach meetings to gather people’s views on the new Constitution.

The meetings did not allow them to express their own views on the content of the new supreme law.

This is therefore an excellent opportunity not to be missed by the representatives of the people.

In this article, I will proffer my own personal views on constitutional provisions that I think would go a long way in strengthening and transforming Parliament as a key pillar in the advancement of democracy.

MPs must derive full mandate from the people

It is important to begin with how the Members of Parliament themselves come into office.

A strong Parliament must have its representatives deriving their mandate from the people.

This means all seats in the House of Assembly and Senate must be contested for.

There is a strong argument for a hybrid electoral system, that is a mixture of first-past-the-post and proportional representation.

I subscribe to this view in order to ensure that the interests of marginalised groups and small political parties are represented in Parliament.

At the moment, Parliament consists of the Senate and House of Assembly.

The Constitution requires that the Senate comprises 93 members of which 66 are elected.

The remainder comprise 10 provincial governors, president and deputy president of the Council of Chiefs, 16 chiefs and five appointed by the President.

The House of Assembly comprises 210 members all of them elected.

There is need to review the composition of the Senate in order for all members to be elected.

Parliament must be supreme lawmaking body

Parliament is defined as a national representative body having supreme legislative powers.

While the Constitution of Zimbabwe recognises the legislative authority of Parliament, it does not give it supreme legislative authority.

Section 32(1) says “the legislative authority of Zimbabwe shall vest in the Legislature which shall consist of the President and Parliament”.

This provision does not give Parliament the supreme authority to make law and must be amended in the new Constitution.

As the most basic function of any Parliament, the approval of Parliament is required for the passage of all legislation.

Presidential decrees should not be used to bypass Parliament’s legislative function.

Parliament must be empowered by the Constitution to override an Executive veto.

The Constitution says when a Bill is presented to the President for assent, he shall after 21 days either approve it or withhold his approval. If he withholds his assent, the Bill has to be returned to Parliament.

After six months the House can resolve through a motion supported by the votes of not less than two-thirds of all members of the House of Assembly to present the Bill back to the President for assent.

In this case he has two options: approve the Bill or dissolve Parliament.

The option of dissolving Parliament puts the institution in a weaker position vis-à-vis the Executive.

Vote-of-no-confidence in Government

The current Constitution makes it very difficult for Parliament to pass a vote-of-no-confidence in Government. Section 31 (F) says Parliament may by a resolution supported by the votes of not less than two-thirds of all the members of each House, pass a vote-of-no-confidence in the Government. When this is done, the President shall within 14 days do one of the following:

Dissolve Parliament.

Remove every Vice-President, Minister and Deputy Minister from his office unless he has earlier resigned in consequence of the resolution.

Himself resign from office.

We know that in Zimbabwe the first option would be implemented, thereby rendering Parliament a lame duck.

Constitutional provisions are therefore needed to give Parliament teeth to remove the Executive and not vice versa.

Even the sitting calendar of Parliament is at the mercy of the Executive.

Section 63(1) says the President may at any time prorogue Parliament.

Surely, Parliament cannot be transformed if it does not have full authority to decide on its sittings.

The functions of the Committee on Standing Rules and Orders must be amended to give it full power to decide its sitting calendar, of course, in consultation with the Executive.

Committee on Standing Rules and Orders

The composition of the Committee on Standing Rules and Orders must be changed in the new constitution if Parliament is to be effective.

At the moment, it is packed by members from the Executive such as the Prime Minister, the Deputy Prime Minister, the two Vice-Presidents, the Minister of Finance, the Minister of Constitutional and Parliamentary Affairs, the Minister of Justice etc.

It has been argued that the presence of too many members from the Executive stifle the work of this important committee.

There is need for a constitutional provision which says the majority of members of the Committee on Standing Rules and Orders must be backbenchers.

In fact, the presence of ministers must be very minimal. I would recommend only the Minister of Constitutional and Parliamentary Affairs to sit on this committee and represent the Executive.

Parliamentary Service Commission

The poor conditions of service for MPs must be addressed through constitutional amendments.

Good 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 about 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.

Government system

It is very important for the MPs to be clear on exactly the kind of government system Zimbabwe should have.

There are some legislatures that operate under a parliamentary system of government in which the Executive is constitutionally answerable to Parliament.

The United Kingdom is a good example of a parliamentary system.

This can be contrasted with a presidential system, on the model of the United States Congressional system, which operates under a stricter separation of powers whereby the Executive does not form part of, nor is appointed by the parliamentary or legislative body.

I would recommend a mixture of parliamentary and presidential systems, but with reduced presidential powers.

Executive power must be shared between the Prime Minister and the President, with the former elected by Parliament. Parliament must have power to remove both the Prime Minister and the President.

Public participation in the legislative process

Public involvement in the legislative process must be enshrined in the new Constitution.

There must be a provision to compel both Houses to conduct their business openly and hold public hearings on key legislative and policy issues before Parliament.

John Makamure is the Executive Director of the Southern African Parliamentary Support Trust.

Feedback: john.makamure@gmail.com

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