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HATS off to the Speaker of the National Assembly, Max Sisulu for taking a tough line on disrespectful ministers and MPs.
Sisulu tackled lazy MPs head-on during the debate on Parliament’s R1.76 billion annual budget this week.
He complained that too much legislation was slipping through Parliament with mistakes which had later to be corrected – the Sexual Offences Act is an embarrassing and potentially dangerous case in point – and he urged MPs to become more professional. In response to MPs’ complaints about ministers, Sisulu said he had written to a number of cabinet ministers about their failure to answer written questions in Parliament but had received only a “marginal” response.
Failure to respond to a letter from the Speaker shows a lack of respect for his office, for Parliament, and by implication for the citizens who elect members of Parliament. Ministers who show such disrespect do not deserve their seats, in Parliament or in the cabinet.
But MPs would have a better chance of calling ministers to account if so many of them were not themselves prone to forget their duties to the people who put them there.
Sisulu has complained before about MP absenteeism and the fact that there is not not yet any policy on their attendance, or sanctions for failure to attend. As he has pointed out, Parliament’s business often cannot proceed because there is no quorum.
In our system of proportional representation there is no automatic sanction for MPs who do their work badly. MPs who are directly elected by their constituency must work hard for their constituents or be voted out. But when an MP’s political survival depends on pleasing party leaders rather than voters, where is the incentive to attend committees and debates, and, in the case of ruling party MPs, to hold ministers to account?
Fortunately, there many MPs from all parties who do take their role seriously. As for the others, they have had plenty of warning.
Until now, MPs’ attendance has been left to parties to manage. This has failed, and the sooner Parliament finalises and implements its own policy, the better.