via Emasculated MPs pass oppressive, controversial Bills – NewsDay Zimbabwe February 11, 2015
Recent developments in the manner Bills have sailed through Parliament or passed into law without considering the people’s and legislators’ views have raised questions as to whether MPs have powers to reject Bills.
One of the main functions of Parliament is to make laws for the good governance of the country. But although most Bills that have been passed by the Parliament of Zimbabwe, these have emanated from the Executive.
MPs have the right to bring in Private Members’ Bills, which is a mechanism for individual MPs (also known as Private Members) to initiate their own legislation — and in most cases these are not successful.
In Zimbabwe opposition MPs have made attempts to bring in Private Members’ Bills and all these efforts hit a snag and they were trampled by members of the Executive.
The Constitution does indeed give powers to Parliament to reject Bills.
Section 130 of the Constitution reads: “(1) Except as provided in the Fifth Schedule, in the exercise of their legislative authority both the Senate and the National Assembly have the power to initiate, prepare, consider and reject any legislation.”
However, Zimbabwe is yet to witness a day when MPs will stand their ground and reject a law which they deem unfit to be passed.
In the past some controversial laws have been passed such as the Electoral Amendment Act which sailed through in May last year.
Although members of the public contributed their input into the Bill — and after the Parliamentary Portfolio Committee on Justice, Legal and Parliamentary Affairs chaired by Harare West MP Jessie Majome made some recommendations — the Bill was passed and made an Act of Parliament without adding the recommended changes.
This has resulted in many Zimbabweans asking whether Parliament has got real powers to reject controversial Bills coming from the Executive arm of government.
Martha Mutseto, a resident of Mabelreign in Harare who has been following events at Parliament, said she had no faith that MPs in both Houses (National Assembly and Senate) had muscle to reject Bills deemed controversial or oppressive. She has observed that most of the time they were whipped into line by their political parties to pass the Bills.
“Opposition parties have shown some resistance to passage of some Bills. For instance, for several years we have observed that the MDCs have advocated for amendments to the Public Order and Security Act (Posa), but their efforts have been thwarted because they are not in government and they are a minority in Parliament,” Mutseto said.
“Parliament has conducted public hearings to gather input from members of the public and we have seen nothing that has been suggested by people being incorporated into the amendments to laws, for example, electoral amendments that were done in 2014.”
MDC Renewal spokesperson Jacob Mafume also noted that MPs have been unable to reject Bills deemed controversial by themselves or the people.
“They (MPs) have not been able to reject any Bill at all and the party caucus system (whipping system) in Parliament has meant that legislators cannot use their own independent thinking. They are always whipped into line to adopt Bills even if they disagree with some clauses. Currently, opposition MPs are in limited numbers and they cannot prevent any Bill from passing even if they had valid objections,” Mafume said.
He said when it came to passage of Bills MPs and members of the public were toothless bulldogs – and even if they tried to bark by presenting views and protesting over something, their input was recorded, but ignored.
“Members of the public have been at times consulted for their views on Bills, but immediately after gathering them those views are ignored. They are rarely consulted to contribute their views on legislation,” Mafume said.
“However, it also appears that laws that are deemed urgent by government are passed without seeking people’s input whatsoever. For example, people were consulted over the Reserve Bank of Zimbabwe Debt Assumption Bill and they said they did not want to adopt the debt, but as debate is going on now in Parliament, it is evident the law will pass despite resistance by some MPs.”
In September last year Zimbabweans contributed through public hearings or handed their views on the Reserve Bank Debt Assumption Bill, which if passed will see government inheriting an estimated $1,35 billion debt to be paid by the public.
The Bill is before Parliament and although the Finance and Economic Development Parliamentary Portfolio Committee raised anomalies of overstatement of amounts owed to creditors as presented in the Bill and demanded an audit; funnily, the committee has made a U-turn and called for speedy passage of the Bill.
At first, the committee seemed to threaten the Executive not to pass the Bill until these anomalies were rectified, but during the Second Reading Stage of the Bill Chinamasa raised a sense of urgency and pushed for its passage without delays.
“This debt has continued to hinder and compromise the Reserve Bank from effectively and efficiently discharging its mandate, especially the Lender of Last Resort (LOLR), bank supervisor, and deepening of the money and capital markets.
“There is therefore, an urgent need to resolve the RBZ’s indebtedness in order to address the lack of confidence in the financial sector, including the Reserve Bank,” Chinamasa said to the National Assembly and committee.
Chinamasa promised that no claim from the debt will be settled without validation by his ministry, adding if there was an act of fraud it should be fished out through the validation exercise and exposed.
Although assumption of the RBZ debt by the State has its own advantages and is said to be noble, the qualms that most people have with the Bill are to do with issues of also inheriting debts incurred through the 2007/8 dishing out of farming equipment to senior government and other officials to assist the land reform exercise by the RBZ.
Those who benefitted got expensive equipment such as tractors, harrows, generators and others and were never asked to pay back. The Finance and Economic Development Parliamentary Portfolio Committee has also recommended that they should not pay back, contrary to what members of the public said during public hearings on the Bill.
While debating on the RBZ Debt Assumption Bill in the National Assembly, Kuwadzana East MP Nelson Chamisa bemoaned the manner in which the powers of Parliament to pass laws or stop their passage was being trampled by the Executive in the guise that it was an urgent Bill.
“I have questions in the sense that there is a deliberate attempt to undermine and minimise the sovereign role of Parliament to deal with legislation and certain matters to do with the affairs of the State,” Chamisa said.
Other Bills that have shown that MPs might on paper be said to have powers to initiate laws, stop controversial Bills or initiate amendments to laws when practically that is not exactly the case was an attempt by MDC-T chief whip Innocent Gonese in 2009 to amend Posa
when he brought in a Private Members’ Bill to that effect before Parliament.
Gonese was granted leave of the House to move the Public Order and Security Amendment Bill, and it sailed through the National Assembly.
However, in August 2011 it was shot down in Senate when Chinamasa (then Justice, Legal and Parliamentary Affairs minister) halted debate when it was in Second Reading Stage and said there was no need for Parliament to continue working on it as it was one of the outstanding issues in the Global Political Agreement (GPA).
The minister said Gonese had tried to smuggle the amendments through the back door, and today a year and some months after the dissolution of the GPA Parliament has not made any amendments to Posa which is believed to be an undesirable, oppressive law by human rights defenders.
Government feels it is a very good law which ensures public order and security in the country, especially when there are large public gatherings.
If Gonese’s amendments had been allowed to pass, it would have become possible for political parties to conduct their activities without police interference and to remove section 121 of the Criminal Procedure and Evidence Act — a section that allowed the courts to continue detaining accused persons for up to seven days even after being granted bail by the courts.
According to Veritas, publishers of Bill Watch, “Private members (MPs) have the right to introduce Bills, but must obtain the leave of the House before doing so.”
Gonese had done all that, but his efforts were thwarted along political party differences.
In 2011 another MDC-T MP Tangwara Matimba (then representing Buhera Central) made attempts to introduce a Private Members Bill to amend the Urban Councils Act.
If his attempts had succeeded, the amendments would have had the effect of reducing the powers of central government over municipal and town councils, thereby encouraging democracy at local levels.
Matimba’s arguments were also that the Act gave too much power to the Local Government minister, particularly that the minister was empowered to suspend and dismiss councillors or even the entire councils.
His efforts were thwarted when Chombo applied to the Supreme Court to stop the amendments on the basis that under the coalition government only ministers were allowed to move Bills in Parliament.
Chombo’s arguments were taken and upheld by the Supreme Court and Parliament saw another attempt to bring in a Private Members Bill hitting a snag.
It is evident that the Executive is too powerful and although at times they have taken views of MPs when Bills are being crafted in the House, there still are some controversial laws that have passed which people feel should be changed.