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Implications of disruption of business in Senate

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There was drama in the Senate on Tuesday and Wednesday last week.

Proceedings in the House were disrupted by MDC-T senators who objected to the presence of provincial governors whose controversial appointment, among other issues, threaten the Global Political Agreement with collapse.

They described the governors as “strangers” in the House. The disruption, punctuated by a lot of singing, resulted in the Senate being adjourned to February 8, 2011.

This article will not discuss the merits or demerits of the senators’ behaviour. I will rather focus on the implications of the adjournment of Parliament business.

I will refer to Parliament’s Standing Orders or its internal rules and procedures.

I will also look at the relevant sections of the Constitution and the Privileges, Immunities and Powers of Parliament Act as it deals with contempt of Parliament.

Standing orders 76 to 79 deal with disorderly conduct in the Senate. Standing Order 76 empowers the President of the Senate to order a Senator whose conduct is grossly disorderly to withdraw immediately from the precincts of Parliament for the remainder of that day’s sitting.

The Sergeant-at-Arms (whom we can equate to a police officer or security guard of Parliament) acts on the orders from the President of the Senate or whoever is in the Chair to eject the member.

This was tried in this case but failed to work. Standing Order 78 gives the option of suspending members that disregard the authority of the Chair. This is done through a motion moved by any of the senators. No debate is allowed on this motion.

Not allowing debate makes this Standing Order undemocratic in my view. By their very nature, motions must be debated and adopted by the House.

The suspension of a Senator shall be for four sitting days the first time such an offence is committed and eight sitting days the second time.

On the third or subsequent occasions, the suspension is for 16 sitting days.

Referring to this case, it means the MDC-T senators can be suspended for four days, a development that can allow the Senate to dispense with some urgent business during this period.

To be suspended, the members have to be named first by the President of the Senate and then a motion moved by one of the senators to suspend them.

Unless recalled sooner, the motion cannot be moved between now and February 8 because the Senate will not be sitting.

The most frightening is Standing Order 80 which deals with contempt of Parliament.

The Standing Order says “any Senator who wilfully disobeys any lawful order of the Senate and any Senator who wilfully or vexatiously interrupts the orderly conduct of business in the Senate, shall be guilty of contempt”.

When this happens, the practice is that a member will move a motion in the House to establish a privileges committee to investigate the conduct of someone charged with contempt of Parliament.

This privileges committee will sit as a court to hear the case and pass judgment and sentence.

The sentence is not subject to any appeal. Some argue that this is good practice in line with separation of powers. I have a contrary view and strongly believe that a person must have the right to appeal a sentence passed by a committee of Parliament.

This committee cannot be equated to the Supreme Court, which is the highest court in the land.

Let me look at the implications on the legislative process.

As we are aware, Zimbabwe has a bicameral Parliament consisting of the House of Assembly headed by the Speaker and the Senate headed by the President of the Senate. Section 32 of the Constitution says that the legislative authority of Zimbabwe vests in the Legislature, which consists of the President and Parliament.

Section 51 is clear that the power of Parliament to make laws is exercised by Bills passed by the House of Assembly and the Senate and signed into law by the President.

This therefore means any Bills passed by the House of Assembly during the time that the Senate is in adjournment cannot be transmitted to the President for assent and subsequently become law.

Looking at the legislative agenda currently before Parliament, prominent Bills that come to mind include the 2011 National Budget (appropriation and finance Bills) expected to be tabled in Parliament next Thursday and the Public Order and Security Amendment Bill, currently at Second Reading stage in the House of Assembly. With the new financial year beginning on January 1, 2011, failure to pass the Appropriation Bill can adversely affect government operations.

Having said that, it is important to look at Section 103 (6) of the Constitution which empowers the President to authorise withdrawals from the Consolidated Revenue Fund during the period commencing with the beginning of the financial year and expiring four months thereafter or on the coming into force of the Appropriation Act.

The President can however only authorise withdrawals that cannot exceed one-third of the total sums approved by Parliament in the preceding year.

Schedule 4 to the Constitution also empowers a Vice-President or a Minister to issue a certificate of urgency on a Bill passed by the House of Assembly so that it can be transmitted to the President for signing into law.

The argument is that it will not be in the national interest to delay passage of that legislation. In my view, the 2011 National Budget qualifies to be issued a certificate of urgency if the Senate is not there to debate and pass it.

There have been press reports to the effect that elections can even take place earlier than June 2011 if Parliament operations are paralysed by the absence of the Senate.

This comes from constitutional provisions that empower the President to dissolve or prorogue Parliament at any time.

For me, this will be an extreme action to take given the nature of the issue at hand. I have already pointed out that the President can invoke presidential powers in the event that the legislative process has been affected by the absence of the Senate.

So there will be no justification for dissolving Parliament.

Any level-headed Zimbabwean therefore expects an amicable resolution of this issue in order for Parliament to deal with the unfinished business of amending or repealing bad laws and ensure that there is peace, order and good governance in Zimbabwe.

I still do not understand the reasons behind adjourning Senate business for that long.

It could have been a shorter adjournment given that we all yearn to revive and move this country forward. Zimbabweans are tired of this bickering.

What they want to see are sound policies and programmes that will put food on the table, allow their children to receive good education, access quality health services and live in peace.

John Makamure is the Executive Director of the Southern African Parliamentary Support Trust. Feedback: john.makamure@gmail.com.

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