Re-imagining Parliament with multi-partisan consensus

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The Botswana parliament has long been at a crossroads since the wheels of modern liberal democracy began shifting decades ago.

But it seems the institution itself is hell-bent on being stuck at this intersection when the way to go is as clear as crystal.

Parliament has seen its fair share of very liberal members over the years. But the dumbing down effect of party caucuses has caused irreparable damage. If members of parliament want to take part in the change they promised, they must indict their political parties to get rid of the rigid and restraining ‘expectation’ of party caucuses and allow members to lobby and caucus according to and along the lines of national interests and constituency interests. This sounds like such a radical proposition for backward thinking political parties deeply rooted in conservative ideas, and that take years to clip off the chains of ‘red tape’ and politics to evolve into modern political parties, but it isn’t.

The main role of parliament is first, the setting of a broad national policy agenda, and second, the oversight of government in its execution of governance priorities. Above all that, the institution of parliament is and must be a mirror reflection of the highest office in the land: the office of the Citizen! The Botswana legislature achieves the first, but largely fails in the second function due to a crippling flaw in the country’s constitution that places too much power and responsibility on the Presidency and the Executive. This is something that both sides of the aisle in the Opposition and the Ruling party ranks agree on: that Parliament has been reduced to a rubber-stamping institution with insignificant ability and influence to truly represent its constituents and bring government to task.

Botswana finds itself in tolerable shape in spite of our parliament, rather than because of it. Thus, the constant call for parliamentary reform and empowering parliament to be more than a thorn on the treasury’s purse. The Botswana Parliament is not representative today because MPs, (the only persons that can and should directly be influenced by citizens), have virtually no power. 

I am certainly not the first writer to put parliamentary reform on blast. The same tune has been on repeat since before I was born. Every parliament has had very strong willed, radically left leaning members of the BDP that have called for more constitutionally guaranteed powers for Parliament. The direction and tone for useful parliamentary reform can be gleaned from the following: it must be representative, effectively perform oversight, and play an adversarial role.

The Botswana Democratic Party has been in power for over five decades. The Party’s members cannot truly say the current constitutional set up affords them influence. If they have any influence, it is marginal; Opposition members on the other hand may wield some influence through the power to embarrass, ask the right tough questions that play out well in national discourse, but their combined effects are trivial. The policy views of a backbencher member are diluted at most by party caucus.

Parliamentary reform within the broader context of constitutional reform isn’t just a question of overdue timing; it is a matter of urgency that threatens the majority of BDP’s credibility to remain in power. The technical means of achieving this reform include, above all, a reduction in the carrots and sticks available to the President, which range from appointments (to Cabinet, diplomatic service and elsewhere) to such minor but symbolic things as foreign travel and other minute things that politicians often do to gain favour with their leaders. Finding the best balance is a matter for much thought. Of first importance in achieving representativeness is a severe narrowing of the doctrine of party caucus or ‘collective responsibility’ so that members are genuinely free to vote as they wish on many more bills than they now can. Parliament must immediately move to present a progressive multi-partisan bill on giving parliament more powers: some sort of “green new deal” similar to the EU but one that speaks to constitutional and parliamentary reform. The Presidency must stay away from this one. Both sides of the aisle must bring a younger member of Parliament to be the face of this ‘multi-partisan bill’ that moves Parliament in a ‘new direction’

Perhaps the BDP can have Thapelo Letsholo be the face of it since he hit the ground running in the first few weeks by calling on for more independence of parliament and other key institutions. There are many other issues that will require parliament to put aside their political differences and pass critically important bills on a multi-partisan ticket. Let this be the beginning of a new era with multi-partisan consensus and let MPs form different caucuses according to their constituency and national interests. This isn’t to say partisan caucuses should be completely disintegrated and dissolved. A good balance will have to be found and maintained. In addition, the iron grip of the government on the management of parliamentary business, and especially the work of committees, needs much loosening, with the power shifted to ordinary members. The work of oversight committees as the monitoring function of elected representatives’ vis-à-vis the work of government must not be compromised at all cost.

At some point we will have do away with the belief that oversight work is routine and has been effective. It has not. Parliamentary oversight committees lack staff resources and expertise to do their jobs. And, of course, fundamental to oversight is access to information. The pervasive practice of secrecy by any government becomes a persistent weapon in the control of public debate as we have seen many times over.

In the end, parliamentary reform is really one of the simplest thing in the world. All of the power to achieve it lies within the political establishment. But most importantly in this case, and perhaps ironically, the power to give the country the comprehensive constitutional review they promised is with the Presidency and his Executive. They need only decide.

*Bakang Ntshingane is a writer and political analyst with interests in politics, foreign and trade policy

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