The nuts and bolts of deepening democracy

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Makhabane Maluke 

MUCH has been said about the need to perfect or deepen our democracy in Lesotho. A lot has been done, and much more still needs to be done. The adoption of the Mixed Member Proportional electoral model was one of the many moves made. The issues raised in the New Zealand study tour report only serve to add more coal to the Lesotho train engine fire. It would be very sad if our train chokes in the process of reform. The lessons from New Zealand may not be the best for Lesotho because the former’s systems are comparatively too complex and developed. The report expects a rhino to run at a cheetah’s pace.

An effective parliament and well-oiled government machinery with good systems, which dovetail well with those of parliament, are essential pillars for any state to deepen its democracy. This aspect is as important, or even more so, as any other function assigned to any minister of the crown.

Many parliamentary democracies adopted the traditional Westminster model but ended up modifying it by making their own improvements to suit their respective environments. The onus in the direction and pace each democracy takes is in the hands of both parliament and government.

For every in-coming government after elections, the immediate task is to create a government with named portfolios. The naming of ministries only expresses areas in which a new government wishes to be judged by the electorate in the next election. We could trace Lesotho from 1993 when democratic rule returned after two decades of undemocratic Basotho National Party rule.

Among the portfolios which Congress governments valued was that of Parliamentary Affairs. Initially, it was within the Ministry of Law and Constitutional Affairs, and relocated to the Prime Minister’s Office. It was later decentralised to the office of deputy prime minister. It has to be realised here that these are very powerful ministries, and that is essential for democracy to take root.

Under the first 2012 coalition government, the portfolio was gazetted/appended under the deputy minister of Local Government. Did this not signify the beginning of a decline of its significance? Why was it not explicitly assigned to the deputy prime minister, who also happened to be Leader of the House? Interestingly, the current coalition does not have this portfolio in the line-up of its ministries. Could this be deliberate? There surely has to be some explanation as issues of parliament may not be classified under any other duties to be assigned from time to time.

This portfolio is cited just to demonstrate that priorities may change over time. Such changes can be for better or worse. Spoilers may read the latest development as a deliberate strategy to ensure that government remains strong in relation to parliament; where government deliberately disables itself to evade full accountability to parliament. That, however, would be misplaced if leveled against a congress-led government.

Whether that portfolio actually served any good purpose or had any impact when it had a minister named to look after it remains debatable. The answer to that is an emphatic no, because there had been no organisational arrangements for it to bear fruit and demonstrate its worthiness. It lacked dedicated staff and budgetary allocation. Democracy has to be nurtured and not just talked about. Every government has to be in a good shape; with the skills, capability and capacity to return good balls whenever parliament serves. Someone has to be entrusted with the responsibility to ensure that all the ministries are on the alert.

Every government has an important role in making parliamentary work succeed. It is no surprise that the National Assembly Standing Order (SO) 26(7) expects the Leader of the House to account why ministers had failed to respond to parliamentary questions. That SO assumes some special organisational relationships exist between government and parliament. All along, relationships have been disjointed.

The executive has to be well organised to have a good link with parliament. The performance of the first coalition in relation to questions could rank it as the worst in the history of Lesotho’s Parliament. The portfolio of Parliamentary Affairs has some special roles to play; to monitor and mentor ministerial staff in matters of parliament. There ought to exist a mechanism within government to follow assurances made by ministers in the House; investigate reasons for delays or lapses before parliamentary committees take the initiative to demand feedback; to follow resolutions/motions passed by parliament for implementation; request the House to drop either questions or assurances. This list shows how the executive has to be seen to be eager to perform well in matters of parliament. The full accountability of government to parliament is very important in a working parliamentary democracy. The government has to whip itself to fully account and the care taker of that whip has to be named.

If our executive branch had all along been serious enough, by now, there ought to exist a handbook on how ministries ought to handle parliamentary work. A typical example in existence is the handbook compelled by the Ministry of Laws and Constitutional Affairs for all ministries, guiding how laws have to be developed until the stage of the final bill. Parliamentary work deserves such a guide. This could have helped civil servants of the first coalition to be more helpful to their masters. The current government has to ensure that their key staff is well drilled in what their predecessors were weak in. The attitude and handling of parliamentary work by a government can cost it dearly at elections if the opposition is up to standard.

Lesotho has a very long way to go in its effort to perfect its democracy. To cite another clumsy example; the first Speaker of the 1993 parliament even had to convince government on the need to have clerks of parliament to sit in the committee of principal secretaries, chaired by a government secretary. That is an executive forum where government policies are designed. That arrangement is, actually, out-of-order. Why does the president of the senate and speaker of the house not similarly attend cabinet meetings?  The forgoing clumsy arrangement reveals that there really exists a huge vacuum.

There ought to exist a full-fledged Ministry of Parliamentary Affairs, whose principal secretary would release clerks of parliament to remain as functionaries of parliament. There has to exist parliamentary units at ministries, just like the accountant general has the accounts units at ministries. The attorney general has legal officers in every ministry.

It is high time parliamentary work is given the serious attention it deserves. The nation is waiting to see the next much-spoken-about reforms. The Lesotho Institute of Public Administration could be considered to include the parliamentary dimension in its training of civil servants. That would add more value to that national Institution.

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