HomeOpinion & AnalysisColumnistsSome improvement in Parliament powers in the new constitution

Some improvement in Parliament powers in the new constitution


The new draft constitution released by Copac recently has given Parliament improved powers to carry out its law-making functions and effectively oversee the operations of government ministries and departments.

An independent and empowered Parliament is absolutely necessary for providing checks and balances on Executive power in order to strengthen the manner in which people are governed. I therefore do not understand why some people would criticise such a sound principle of good governance and democracy.

The new constitution has made it clear that the legislative authority is derived from the people and exercised by the Legislature, which shall consist of Parliament and the President.

This is a significant improvement from the current Constitution which gives legislative authority only to Parliament, thereby weakening the accountability of the legislative branch to the people. In other words, there is no clarity on the importance of people having a say in deciding which laws must be made and the content of these laws. Related to this is the dilution in the powers of the President to dissolve Parliament anytime.

In the new constitution, the President must by proclamation dissolve Parliament if the Senate and the National Assembly, sitting separately, by the affirmative votes of at least two-thirds of the total membership of each House, have passed resolutions to dissolve.

The new constitution has also conferred powers to Parliament to ensure that the provisions of the supreme law are upheld and that all institutions and agencies of the State and the government act constitutionally and in the national interest.

For purposes of ensuring that the provisions of the Constitution are upheld, all institutions and agencies of the government at every level are required to be accountable to Parliament. Given that we have a major problem in this country of certain sections of society disregarding the Constitution, this provision should assist in that regard, provided of course there is political will to abide by the Constitution.

There are some significant improvements on the process by which a Bill becomes law. In the current Constitution, the President has power to withhold his assent/signature on a Bill that has been passed by both houses. This means without his signature the Bill cannot become law.

If Parliament insists through a two-thirds majority that the President has to sign the Bill into law, the President has an option to dissolve Parliament. This severely weakens the constitutional mandate of Parliament to make laws. In the new draft, the Constitutional Court has the final say.

If the President returns a Bill to Parliament with written reservations, Parliament can accommodate these reservations or send it back to the President without changes.

If a Bill is sent back without accommodating the President’s reservations, he can refer it to the Constitutional Court whose ruling is final. These provisions must be applauded in that they prevent conferring too much power to one person to decide on the laws that should govern us.

The new constitution compels every Vice-President, Minister and Deputy Minister to attend Parliament and parliamentary committees in order to answer questions concerning matters for which he or she is collectively or individually responsible.

Making this a constitutional requirement will go a long way in addressing the perennial problem of ministers dodging question time and not taking the business of parliamentary committees seriously.

In terms of public participation in the legislative process, the new draft constitution has made it explicitly clear that Parliament must facilitate public involvement in its legislative and other processes and in the processes of its committees; ensure that interested parties are consulted about Bills being considered by Parliament and conduct its business in a transparent manner, including holding its sittings and those of its committees in public.

This provision will no doubt make Parliament truly representative and responsive, both key benchmarks of a democratic Parliament.

There are also improvements on how the president of the Senate and the Speaker of the House of Assembly are elected. An independent person, the chairperson of the Zimbabwe Electoral Commission, will preside over their election.

This is a departure from the current Constitution that gives the Clerk of Parliament the authority to preside over the election.

The new constitution also clearly clarifies that the Speaker is the Head of Parliament. The Composition of the Standing Rules and Orders Committee — the supreme policy making organ of Parliament — has been revised in order for this organ to be dominated by back benchers. This allows for a clear separation of powers.

Now to the areas of concern. The first one is the increase in the size of the House of Assembly, which will now have a total membership of 270, including the 60 female MPs that will be elected through a system of proportional representation based on the votes cast for political parties contesting in constituency elections.

I am not saying that it is wrong to promote increased women representation in Parliament, but that this affirmative action can still be implemented without increasing numbers in the House of Assembly.

Although the size of the Senate has been reduced to 88, two houses or a bicameral Parliament is unnecessary and sheer waste of public funds.

The Senate has proved a major stumbling block to the legislative process and should not have been retained. What is clear is that the political parties have once again connived to create jobs for the boys without due regard to the ability of the economy to sustain this bloated Parliament.

The second main one is that the President still has power to dissolve Parliament and call for a General Election within 90 days when it has passed a vote of no confidence in the government.

A vote of no confidence in the government can only be passed at a joint sitting of the two houses. The motion to remove the government should be supported by at least two-thirds majority of the total membership. A good provision should have given Parliament the final say given that the resolution to dissolve the government would have been arrived at unanimously.

Allowing the President to contest the decision through dissolution of Parliament makes the Executive less accountable to the Legislature.
While there are many positives, the challenges always lie in implementation. Let us see what happens in the forthcoming referendum and elections and whether or not the government that assumes power will uphold the Constitution.

.John Makamure is the executive director of the Southern African Parliamentary Support Trust writing in his personal capacity. Feedback: john.makamure@gmail.com

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