via Why do ministers bunk Parly Q&A? | The Herald February 14, 2014 by Lloyd Gumbo
Every Wednesday when the National Assembly sits, the first session is dedicated to questions without notice and written ones. In the Senate, that session is slated for Thursday when the Upper House sits. This presents an opportunity for backbenchers (MPs who are notministers) to ask ministers questions on a number of issues that may be affecting their constituencies or the country at large.
However, Cabinet ministers and their deputies have over the years developed a tendency to bunk these critical sessions.
Legislators are livid over this tendency which does not only defeat procedure and the checks and balance system in a democracy like Zimbabwe but also smacks of something between cowardice and outright contempt.
Successive authorities at Parliament have on several occasions read the riot act against errant ministers but to no avail. This obviously raises questions of whether the Executive considers Parliament as an autonomous pillar of the State or just a junior partner in governance whose relevance is only when the Executive wants them to rubber stamp Bills or protocols?
A fortnight ago, only two ministers – Mines Minister Walter Chidhakwa and his Defence counterpart Sydney Sekeramayi — out of 63, including deputies, turned up in the Senate for the question time while last Thursday Environment Minister Saviour Kasukuwere was the only one in the Upper House.
Senate president Edna Madzongwe was infuriated by this trend.
“Can I appeal to the Chief Whip to please whip your ministers so that they come? It is part of their duty actually to be here and respond to questions from honorable senators who are representatives of the people,” said Madzongwe.
She added: “They need to understand that if they have work on our Order Paper and they do not show up, they are retarding the work of the Senate.”
Zanu-PF chief whip in the Senate, Tambudzani Mohadi, responded: “I will remind them but as of yesterday, we talked at length, telling them that they were retarding the work of the Senate and everyone at large. However, we will not stop whipping them.”
It is not the first time that legislators have made the right noises about the need for ministers to avail themselves for question time. The Constitution on Chapter 5, Section 107 on Accountability of Vice-Presidents, Ministers and Deputy Ministers (2) says;
“Every Vice-President, Minister and Deputy Minister must attend Parliament and parliamentary committees in order to answer questions concerning matters for which he or she is collectively or individually responsible.”
Armed with that provision in the Supreme law of the land, why are legislators not taking the bull by the horn?
In the Lower House there is usually an average of 10 ministers including deputies during question time sessions.
There are some questions that have not been responded to since October last year.
In the Senate, Agriculture, Mechanisation and Irrigation Development Minister Joseph Made and his Health and Child Care counterpart David Parirenyatwa are the major culprits as their ministries are yet to respond to questions put forward in October and December last year.
In the National Assembly, Presidential Affairs Minister Didymus Mutasa, Primary and Secondary Education Minister Lazarus Dokora are some of the ministers who have not responded to questions raised in December last year.
It is true that certain questions require the assistance of career experts behind the scenes, but ministers should show, in their own right, a certain level of mastery of happenings in their ministries, competencies in issues related to their portfolios and above all, show genuine concern or interest in the briefs they hold.
If ministers are too busy, as they always claim, to attend question time, why are their deputies not showing up to present a written responses?
Deputy Minister of Justice and Parliamentary Affairs Fortune Chasi last week made a fool of himself while responding to a question by Jessie Majome on what the ministry was going to do in relation to appointments to the Judicial Services Commission which she said breached Section 17 of the Constitution that provided for gender balance in all commissions. Six males and two females were appointed to the JSC a fortnight ago while five more posts are yet to be filled to bring the number to 13.
Instead of just saying the constitutional provision would be complied with in filling the remaining five posts, the deputy minister, who is a former prosecutor and lawyer by profession, was at pains to explain.
After realising the deputy minister’s shortcomings, Majome was back with a follow-up question on whether the appointments were null and void since Section 2 (1) provided that any Act, practice or conduct that was inconsistent with the specific provisions were invalid?
Murisi Zwizwai then sold Deputy Minister Chasi a dummy to just respond by saying the ministry was seized with the matter to which he duly complied leaving the whole House in stitches.
Is this the kind of embarrassment that ministers avoid by not attending question time? Some ministers have mastered the art of hiding their ignorance by saying; “May the honorable member put the question in writing”.
At times this exhibits lack of comprehension on the part of the minister of the portfolio he/she holds.
The world over astute politics calls for one to think on their feet.
It also calls for one to be fully briefed on what is happening in their ministry because it does not take a week for the Minister of Transport and Infrastructural Development, for example, to get a brief on what is happening in parastatals under his or her care, be it Air Zimbabwe, Zinara, CAAZ, etc. It surely does not take a lifetime for the Minister of Energy and Power Development to get submissions on ZERA, ZETDC, etc.
It is therefore critical for our ministers to wake up from their slumber and take the business of the House more seriously.
Why do some ministers suddenly appear soon after question time session has lapsed?
Is it because they are cowards who are afraid that when they are asked questions they will exhibit their ineptitude and incompetence for the job?
Or is it because they think Parliament is just a saloon where people gather to be paid allowances for rubber stamping everything that comes from the Executive? Rather than duck attending Parliament, our ministers, if they are not up to it, should just give up the posts.
For one to be a Cabinet Minister, they should have energy, be astute, and have a mind that is cultured to multi-tasking.
It is disheartening to find a whole bench empty or get lame excuses to committees by our ministers, week in and week out.
There are also institutional discrepancies that take away Parliament’s autonomy in carrying out its mandate.
Parliament should play an oversight role over the Executive but the latter is undermining the legislature’s independence.
The other institutional problem is that Parliament’s budget comes from the Executive who could deliberately underfund the third pillar of the State in order to stifle its operations.
One of the ardent followers of this column said instead of ministers attending to parliamentary business, “they were busy phoning members of the judiciary to tell them how to adjudicate matters on which the ministers have an interest.
“Because of their authority, they go on to scuttle parliamentarians and councillors. They are untouchable. Query after query, criticism after criticism, they persist to do whatever they want with impunity”.