Clerk of Parliament, Austin Zvoma has said the Prime Minister’s Question Time would be introduced in the Fourth Session of the Seventh Parliament, which would be opened on August 23.
He said debate in the current Third Session of the Seventh Parliament had been robust. Although there was no criteria for one to say whether debate was good or bad, he had noted that motions to do with condolences on the death of an honourable member had of late become divisive and not sympathetic.
NewsDay Senior Parliamentary Reporter Veneranda Langa (ND) caught up with Zvoma (AZ) to discuss different issues pertaining to Parliament.
ND: The Third Session of the Seventh Parliament has taken long to wind up as compared to other sessions. Are there any reasons why and when is the official opening of a new session of Parliament this year?
AZ: It could be unusual, but not necessarily abnormal. What the Constitution says is that it is the President of Zimbabwe who convenes a new session of Parliament.
The life of Parliament is such that we have one session per year, but the gap between these sessions should not go beyond six months. Since independence some sessions have opened between May and June, but we have had some sessions opened in August, for example in 2008 and 2009. This year the new session will be opened on August 23.
ND: What are the challenges you go through as Clerk of Parliament in a multi-party democracy?
AZ: We have always been in a multi-party democracy even if one party was dominant and there are no new challenges.
The role of Parliament is clearly articulated in the Standing Rules and Orders and Public Finance Management Act and the Clerk of Parliament is the accounting officer responsible for the administration and management of resources allocated to Parliament.
When dealing with MPs, whether from Zanu PF or MDCs, the Speaker of the House of Assembly or the President of the Senate, I am informed by those rules.
Since 1999, I have never appeared before the Public Accounts Committee to say there were irregularities in the manner I allocated funds. In terms of procedural issues, I am guided by the Standing Rules and Orders. Yes, there might be challenges due to perceptions, but I am guided by those.
ND: A new session of Parliament can be opened without the conclusion of motions and Bills in the previous session. How does Parliament deal with such a situation?
AZ: The President, in his speech, envisages that certain Bills will be brought before Parliament, but since independence it hasn’t happened that the full lists of Bills are actually brought up and there is nothing unusual about it. However, there are procedures to enable those Bills or motions to be included in the new session.
They can be resuscitated by a motion in the new session so that MPs start debating them at the stage they were superseded by prorogation of Parliament.
ND: How do you rate the quality of debates brought before both Houses of Parliament during this session?
AZ: There is no criteria for saying this is a good or bad motion. We have condolence motions and per se they cannot be considered to be good or bad because you are remembering one of the former or current MPs and you expect MPs to be united in their expression of sympathy.
They should not be divisive, but invariably what we have now seen is that these have been used for political mileage. That is up to the people of Zimbabwe to judge. We also have motions that are Portfolio Committee reports and on those, debate has been at its best because they are adopted by committees on a non-partisan basis.
Bills are also motions and the debate is informed by consultation through conducting public hearings and analysing the Bill in terms of the good it is going to do for the country. On that there has been low level of political debate.
Ratification of protocols are treated like Bills and we have not had major problems with those.
However, motions brought by backbenchers tend to be from a political party standpoint and other people call them “hate motions”, but there is nothing wrong with those. They tend to be very robust and vicious in terms of how MPs debate, but that is within the rules of Parliament.
ND: It has been said that the Prime Minister’s Question Time would be introduced. When does Parliament intend to do that and how?
AZ: The Standing Rules and Orders Committee (SROC) adopted a policy resolution that there should be the PM’s Question Time, but the current Standing Rules and Orders do not provide for that. The SROC adopted it and MPs in both Houses had to be asked if they agreed or objected to it.
We have not received objections from the Senate, which adopted the amendments and so they will now become operational.
However, in the House of Assembly, the Minister of Constitutional and Parliamentary Affairs, Eric Matinenga, said there was inconsistency in one of the standing orders and technically he objected.
We are in the process of consulting him so that those provisions become operational. Our projection is that it will be possible to now introduce the PM’s Question Time in the Fourth Session of the Seventh Parliament. There is nothing sinister. It will happen once a month in both Houses, but not in the same week. Questions to be asked should be those not in the domain of line ministries. They should be questions without notice to reflect the role of the PM in coordinating and implementing Cabinet decisions by ministers.
ND: The absence of ministers during Wednesday’s question and answer sessions has been a topical issue. What can be done by Parliament to ensure they attend and take questions from MPs and who should take that action?
AZ: Parliament plays an important role as a public institution and one would think ministers should feel obliged to come and answer questions for the benefit of the nation. From an Executive perspective, one would assume that every minister would want to avail themselves to answer and respond to issues raised to do with his ministry. So, it is regrettable when ministers do not come and appear before the House because backbenchers raise issues on behalf of the electorate and various interest groups and stakeholders. If ministers do not appear it seems to undermine the whole process of having a Parliament.
Appeals have been made by the Prime Minister, the Speaker and other Speakers before this current Parliament to say ministers should appear to answer questions.
This is something that comes as a culture, but sometimes we have a full bench of ministers in attendance. This is something that will evolve with time, but the regrettable thing is that even those MPs who used to decry the absence of ministers when they were backbenchers are now doing the same as ministers.
ND: Parliament is currently earmarking to get International Organisation for Standardisation (ISO) certification. What would be the benefits to the institution and Zimbabwe in general?
AZ: ISO 9001 is driven by the culture that an organisation has developed. We said for parliamentary reforms to be effectively implemented, there was need for performance evaluation and we are using a balanced scorecard management system to improve quality management.
We have said organisations that attain excellence in delivery of goods and services seek certification and we did that to motivate our staff.
We are not competing with anyone as there is one Parliament in the country and our competitors are in the region and continent.
We have resource constraints and our ration of staffing is that we have 314 staff members and more MPs than staff, whereas in other countries there are three officers for every MP. However, we are saying we want to provide the best services even with resource constraints.
We will assess and evaluate how satisfactory our services are to MPs and the public. The country boasts of high literacy rates and excellent skills and we want to strategically position ourselves to a level commensurate with the expectations of our principals, the Executive, the MPs and the public.