Where to from here after the eighth NCP?

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Makhabane Maluke

THE 11-13 November 2015 National Community Parliament (NCP) sitting had its good features, including an anticipation to be addressed by The Honourable Prime Minister, to close its opening session. The purpose of the NCP is to strive for popular participation in matters of governance. That is commendable. How that is done is another matter.

The eighth NCP has gone, and what can now be expected? The starting point is to assess how Lesotho is currently performing in the engagement of the public and civil society organisations (CSOs). Focus could be on parliament, government and CSOs themselves.

The Parliament of Lesotho committed itself to facilitate public participation in its legislative and other processes. The National Assembly Standing Order 76 so provides. The recent NCP was the eighth, while the current national parliament is the ninth (it could still be the eighth if government had not collapsed). How far has Lesotho gone? How far and how fast can it advance?

One form of measure is to compare Lesotho with other countries or jurisdictions. Let us randomly pick the following democracies: Benin, Uganda and Maldives. All these are members of the Inter-Parliamentary Union (IPU) together with Lesotho, which could be the latest among them to join.

The National Assembly of Benin is proactively trying to engage with members of civil society. It takes into account the recommendations of “some” CSOs in considering the national budget. It has a specialised oversight Budget Committee. At the beginning of each session (new parliament for Lesotho), that Budget Committee approves a list of CSOs which it wishes to partner with during the budgeting process. Parliament formally provides a copy of the draft budget to every listed CSO, inviting them to evaluate the draft budget. Thereafter, those listed CSOs are received, one by one, to present their analyses of the draft budget. These CSOs are at liberty to jointly consider the draft, to ensure coordinated input during parliamentary hearings.  Here, CSOs are viewed as important actors.

The parliament of Uganda is reported to have ceased to be a mere “rubber stamp” in budget related matters. Institutionally, parliament has a Budget Committee which, in turn, is beefed up with a parliamentary Budget Office. The two have their basis in an Act of Parliament, and not Standing Orders. That Budget Office has a staff establishment of not less than 20 experts/professional employees of parliament to analyse all that goes with budget formulation. Scrutiny of individual ministerial budget proposals remains the responsibility of sessional committees (portfolio committees in Lesotho) which in turn recommend to the Budget Committee.  Here, budget preparation is given the maximum professional attention possible. It is not the domain of MPs only in parliament.

In 2006, the National Assembly of Maldives introduced a stage where civil society is invited to submit comments on various draft bills when these stand referred to relevant committees. These committees may even propose amendments to bills to accommodate civil society concerns. A lesson here is that CSOs have some formal input into the passage of legislation, as another mode of public participation.

In the spirit of NCP outlook, the forgoing can enable anyone to assess how Lesotho compares in matters relating to CSOs. Specifically, how does Lesotho interact with CSOs? What organisational arrangement exists to professionally assist parliament in matters of the budget? Can Lesotho CSOs coordinate their inputs into the workings of parliament? Do these CSOs ever petition parliament under Standing Order 79, if it really covers them?  Does parliament have the organisational capacity to handle non-procedural chores?

Chances are that Lesotho still has a long road ahead. How then, can Lesotho proceed to make up for any lost time?  Despite its 2004 pronouncement to effect parliamentary reforms (based on listed terms of reference without any time frame for the exercise), this will remain a very slow process, depending on the complexity of each reform area and personal attitude of key actors. The latter could actually be a serious challenge. The apparent belief that success rests with MPs themselves in their various committees could be a hurdle. Clerkly initiative could actually speed-up the process. After all, staff remain and continue to manage parliament while MPs continuously replace each other in government, opposition and in committees, after every election.

A deliberate effort to engage with CSOs has to be developed to improve/increase levels of public participation. Deciding on which CSOs to deal with could be better than when there is no formal interaction at all. Selection could be a challenge to CSOs, to introspect and establish why they may not be selected to interact formally in parliamentary work. Truth is that selection should not to be arbitrary. Some kind of a guide has to exist. This could enable CSOs to always ensure that they are relevant and dependable or openly become hostile to a sitting government. Presently, no one can deny the existence of an outcry that some of our CSOs are only sympathisers with some political parties. The onus to disprove that is on these CSOs.

Success of parliamentary work rests more with staff. Putting all hope on MPs, regardless of their background, will continue to cover limited mileage.  Staff have to be key players if the wish is to score goals. Captains only have to encourage and mobilise for their teams to win. This could be why some parliaments duplicate some supervisory positions: two deputy clerks for the procedural and administrative functions. Botswana has a minimum of five or six and even seven clerks to service each of its committees. There is a lot of planning and quality control required in parliamentary work.

Parliaments are supposed to grow. That will never be achieved if there is no timely innovation. Reform wishes will only end on the papers they are written on. Standing Order 76 is a typical example, and will remain so until necessary modalities on how, and by whom, etc, are put in place. The 2007 standing Orders established a new document named ATC.  When the eighth Parliament prematurely ended, that apparently important document had not seen the sun. Every human action has to be guided through/by agreed procedures.

In the context of what happens elsewhere, the Sixth and Seventh Parliaments of Lesotho could earn some credit for the innovations they put in place, particularly in the wish to involve the nation in the work of parliament and professional support to MPs. To that end, the two Houses committed themselves to regularly deliver copies of daily Hansard to District Administrators Offices, District and Community Councils, Chiefs Offices etc; to enable constituents to follow up on what transpires daily in each House of parliament. The outlook then, was that the daily Hansard would be uploaded on the parliament web site.

An English language parliamentary quarterly magazine was launched under the title of Ka Paramenteng.  It was designed to be a mouth piece and mirror of the two Houses internationally.  Research Units were established to arm MPs with knowledge relating to newly immerging parliamentary trends. The Public Relations Unit was equally created because the nation deserves to know about the workings of parliament. The concept of Law Clerk was similarly introduced to service both the two Houses and individual MPs. Thinking then was that those new functions would expand over time as a response to increasing demands.

That era had one major advantage. Governments of the time were actually smart.  Each Ministry and House of Parliament had to demonstrate its achievements at the end of every financial year. Each Minister had to sign a performance compact with the Prime Minister, while Principal Secretaries and the 2 Clerks had theirs with Government Secretary. Surely many still remember that. Can`t that be re-enacted – at least until parliament has an autonomous service.

The eighth NCP has been a good reminder about the role expected of communities in the work of parliament and government. This could be an opportunity to assess the situation of all those innovations of the past – they could be outdated or remain relevant but not put to use any more,  as parliaments replace each other.

Another key potential actor in all these could be the media. In better working democracies, befriending the media is a top priority for a parliament; so that the media does not create news or find parliamentary news for themselves. Media briefings are a must for parliament. It is not to be a monopoly of the executive. One wonders if the media will develop some interest in the above mentions. This will indeed be another test on the kind of media Lesotho has.

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