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Priorities for Parliament in 2011

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The general sentiment among Zimbabweans is that the performance of Parliament during the year 2010 fell below their expectations.

While there were some positive moves of Parliament trying to assert itself in the governance system, many people are a bit disappointed that Parliament did not fully execute its constitutional mandate in the key areas of amending or repealing bad laws and effectively making ministers, senior government officials and other government agencies account for their actions.

They also feel that MPs have not been fully in touch with their constituencies in order to effectively play their representative role.

So what should we expect from Parliament during the year 2011 especially against the background of increased talk about elections?

This article tries to identify some priority areas for Parliament in order for the institution to remain relevant and retain some semblance of credibility in the eyes of the public.

Whether there are elections or not, we expect that Parliament should fully exercise its law-making function during the year 2011.

Section 50 of the Constitution is explicit on this function.

It says Parliament may make laws for the peace, order and good government of Zimbabwe.

Zimbabweans are a good people and yearn for an environment that is peaceful, tolerant of diverse views and promotes human development.

The laws made by Parliament must promote this and nothing less.

In my view, the only major pieces of legislation passed in 2010 include the 2011 Finance and Appropriation Bills and amendments to the Public Order and Security Act (Posa) that were moved by Innocent Gonese, the MDC-T chief whip.

The passage of the Posa Amendment Bill has justifiably been hailed as a major accomplishment by the House of Assembly.

We all hope that the Bill will not be stalled in the Senate in order for the President to sign it into law.

When he opened the Third Session of the Seventh Parliament, the President outlined a number of bills that were expected to come before Parliament.

Not much has however happened on that front despite the Global Political Agreement requiring that the legislative agenda must be in line with the spirit of the agreement.

While we are fully aware that most of the legislation presented before Parliament comes from the executive, MPs must take a cue from Posa and introduce private member bills in 2011 to amend pernicious pieces of legislation such as Access to Information and Protection of Privacy Act, Broadcasting Services Act, Criminal Law (Codification and Reform) Act, among others.

MPs are justified in bringing private member bills because some of these were not included in the list of bills announced by the president when he officially opened the Third Session of the Seventh Parliament.

What we need are good laws in 2011 and we expect Parliament to exercise its role as per Section 32 of the Constitution which says “the legislative authority of Zimbabwe shall vest in the legislature which shall consist of the president and Parliament”.

The argument that MPs cannot do anything if the executive does not bring bills to Parliament has no merit. Section 32 of the Constitution is clear, Parliament has legislative authority which means it must make law.

The other priority for Parliament is to complete the constitution-making process. Many Zimbabweans are disappointed that the process seems to have been stalled.

I am baffled as to why the Finance minister did not allocate adequate funds in the 2011 National Budget to complete the drafting of a new constitution for Zimbabwe.

A new constitution is necessary (although not sufficient) in resolving Zimbabwe’s political crisis.

MPs must urgently engage the Finance minister on the matter so that the next election is held under a new Constitution.

And because it is most likely to be a negotiated document, each political party will have to make concessions, meaning we are going to have an improved Constitution than we have at the moment.

In addition, those mandated with providing leadership in the constitution-making process should begin to demonstrate these qualities. The process will not move forward without effective leadership.

Any amendments to the Electoral Act should be based on the new Constitution. So the priority for Parliament should be finalising the Constitution first and then amending electoral laws.

The other important laws closely related to elections are the Referendum Act and the Zimbabwe Human Rights Commission Act. These should be urgently enacted as they are important to the finalisation of the constitution-making process.

On oversight, Parliament should prioritise monitoring how the 2011 budget is being implemented. This was touched at length in my previous article.

What I can only add is that there is need for training programmes to enhance the capacity of MPs to monitor budget execution.

Oversight is also to do with MPs and parliamentary committees making inquiries and carrying field visits to government operations.

The Mines and Energy Portfolio Committee and the Budget and Finance Committee, among a few others, have so far done very well in that respect. They should redouble their efforts in 2011. The other committees should learn from those that have done well.

The other priority for Parliament in 2011 is to review its internal rules and procedures in order to institutionalise the good practices evolving as a result of parliamentary reforms.

This issue cannot be allowed to remain on the cards for too long. For example, the rules have to be amended in order to introduce the prime minister question time in Parliament.

As leader of government business in Parliament, the prime minister question time is important for the executive to fully account to the public on how government policy and programmes have been implemented.

Question time for the prime minister and ministers should be broadcast live on radio and television in order for Zimbabweans to follow closely public policy debates and judge for themselves how public officials are performing.

So Parliament has a major role to play in 2011 even if its life is going to be cut short for the elections. MPs must assist to create a conducive environment for free, fair and credible elections.

This means finalising the constitution-making process, reforming the electoral process, amending all the bad laws that have stifled democratic space, making sure that public funds are efficiently and effectively utilised and championing peace and tolerance in their constituencies rather than becoming agents of violence and anarchy.

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