Monday, June 23, 2014
HENRY CHIMUNTHU BANDA DISCUSSES THE ROLE OF THE LEGISLATURE AS AN INSTRUMENT OF STABILITY IN DEMOCRATIC GOVERNANCE
CONFERENCE OF STATE LEGISLATURES IN NIGERIA UYO, AKWA IBOM STATE
21st June, 2014
TOPIC: THE ROLE OF THE LEGISLATURE AS AN INSTRUMENT OF STABILITY IN DEMOCRATIC GOVERNANCE
PRESENTER: The Rt. Hon Henry Chimunthu Banda, Former Speaker of the Malawi National Assembly
Permit me at the outset to express my profound gratitude to the leadership and citizens of Akwa Ibom State for hosting this important conference. I particularly salute our host, Speaker Elder Samuel Ikon for the wonderful facilitation and hospitality provided to me since my arrival in this beautiful and historic city. To the rest of the delegates here present, I see your attendance as not only a testament of your dedication to duty, but also as a reflection of your commitment to the furtherance of ideals of parliamentary democracy in Nigeria and beyond. I therefore consider time spent attending this conference as time well spent and I have no doubt in my mind that the views emanating from here will have far-reaching effects.
Dear colleagues, as you very well know, the Legislative branch is the least developed and least resourced of the three arms of government in most of our countries and continue to face fierce resistance from the Executive branch. In the face of this and other challenges, it is imperative that Parliaments—whether at State or National levels—build synergies and linkages to nurture the continued growth and development of parliamentary democracy.
2.0 DEFINITION OF IMPORTANT TERMS
I have been requested to share some thoughts on the topic: “The Role of the Legislature as an Instrument of Stability in Democratic Governance”. The subject matter is apt and timely. It comes at a time when the African Continent is faced with numerous incidences of instability which, invariably, affect democratic governance as it relates to all the three organs of State.
To begin with, we cannot exhaustively discuss this topic without reflecting on the key words contained herein. The freedictionary.com provides the following synonyms for the word stability: firmness, strength, soundness, permanence, solidity, steadfastness and steadiness, among others.
These words have connotations and ideological preconceptions of something being unchangeable even when sufficiently disturbed. There are both strategic as well as conceptual advantages in having constancy. This fact is better appreciated when we consider the antonyms of stability which are: fragility, unreliability, unsteadiness and fickleness.
On its part, the phrase democratic governance denotes a form of government which promotes the separation of powers and independence of the three organs of State; the respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms; the exercise of power in accordance with the rule of law; and, citizen participation in decision-making processes. Thus, democratic governance seeks to promote effective public-institutions and processes that operate in a manner consistent with values of accountability, transparency, responsiveness and political pluralism.
3.0 IS STABILITY NECESSARY IN DEMOCRATIC GOVERNANCE?
Distinguished Ladies and Gentlemen, I have thought long and hard about the subject of my address and I have asked myself the question: “Is stability necessary in democratic governance, anyway?” I would answer this question in affirmative and I hope all of you here assembled join me in doing so.
We are all too well aware of how the curse known as instability has deprived the African Continent from aggressively developing in economic growth and development. Instability has produced weak public institutions, rampant human rights abuses, deepening poverty and corrupt systems. Conversely, in an environment of stability, democratic governance centers on power to the people, by the people and for the people as put forth by Abraham Lincoln. Thus, the elected representatives exercise power delegated by the electorate.
4.0 THE LEGISLATURE AS AN INSTRUMENT OF STABILITY IN DEMOCRATIC GOVERNANCE
This paper argues that one of the best tools a nation has at its disposal for ensuring stability of the democratic processes is the Legislature. It is a prime institution which is used to address the divergent interests of all citizens due to its ability to build relationships within and outside its precincts.
The institution has the capability to distribute the nation’s wealth equitably, to guard against human rights abuses, to expose corruption and to exercise oversight over the Executive. Not only is the Legislature an integral part of the governance structure, but is also an embodiment of the wishes and aspirations of the people it represents.
This is the nexus between the Legislature and stable democratic governance. For the elected representatives to exercise powers conferred by the electorate in a meaningful manner and for the governed to be properly represented to the government, it cannot be disputed that stability of the governance processes is a key ingredient.
Distinguished Ladies and Gentlemen today, more than ever before, the Legislature has become synonymous with democracy largely for its role in the promotion of good governance and better delivery of services to the citizens. But it is widely acknowledged that for democracy to be deeply entrenched in any society there must be a stable environment and the role of the Legislature in that regard is indispensable.
There is no doubt that the separation of powers constrains what the Legislature is able to do in the realm of democratic governance for the reason that it is not permitted to exercise executive authority, implement policies nor to introduce pieces of legislation except by way of private Members Bills.
Be that as it may, the Legislature is uniquely positioned to play leadership role in the society and bring about consensus around critical national issues. In order to examine the role of the Legislature as an instrument of stability in democratic governance, the following thematic areas will be discussed:
4.1 Participation and Representation
The present day parliamentary engagement with the public which is witnessed in many parts of Africa can largely be attributed to the wave of political pluralism and the shift to participatory democracy that swept across the world in the 1990s and the cessation of the Cold War hostilities.
With the shift of focus now to an enlightened public, the citizen is today at the center of the Legislature not just as a target for vote-hunting but as an active participant in shaping the destiny of the country.
A democratic system requires meaningful participation and representation that integrates all societal groups- religious, ethnic, tribal, political and cultural- into decision-making processes. Improving the representative capacity of the Legislature strengthens its ability to reach out to all sectors of the society and lays the foundation for a stable governance regime.
4.1.2 Electoral systems
Representative democracy is a form of government where the powers of the sovereign rights of the people are delegated to a body of men and women who are elected from time to time. From this backdrop, elections are recognized are the means by which people choose their leaders to direct national affairs.
But elections are not just about choosing leaders, crucially, the credibility of the process has far-reaching consequences on the nation’s stability and progress. Thus, the Legislature is enjoined to ensure that the electoral systems provide a representative outcome which facilitates broad-based participation in the democratic process. (Caution: There is no good or bad electoral system….).
4.1.3 Dialogue with the Civil Society and the Media
Civil society groups may take the form of trade unions, religious groups, women lobby groups, human rights groups, professional associations and community-based organizations which may represent either specific issues or specific groups of people.
Although they do not have the mandate to speak on behalf of the people they represent (a source of conflict in some jurisdictions), civil society organizations usually have networks which reach out to far-flung corners of the country. In an environment where the Legislature and the civil society organization have cultivated a healthy working relationship, the latter can facilitate flow of information to various communities.
4.2 Parliamentary Functions and Oversight
One of the most important functions of the Legislature is to exercise oversight over the Executive and to hold it accountable. In exercising oversight, the Legislature is motivated by the desire to:
to protect the rights of citizens by monitoring and exposing unconstitutional
to ensure transparency and effectiveness of government operations;
to prevent poor administration, waste, abuse, corruption, and arbitrary behavior;
to ensure that government policies are in the best interest of the citizens, and;
to hold government answerable on the implementation of the approved budget.
In a functioning democracy, replete with systems of checks and balances, the Legislature holds the Executive politically accountable whilst the Judiciary holds the Executive legally accountable.
As an embodiment of the sovereign will of the people, parliaments and parliamentarians are able to contribute to the stability of the democratic governance through robust debate on the floor of the House and negotiations in parliamentary committees.
4.2.1 Parliamentary Committees
The committee system enables Members to bring the specific concerns of their constituents to the decision-making process, whilst the absence of the media during private negotiations make it easier for Members to adopt a bipartisan approach rendering the process easier to reach consensus and compromise.
When carrying out their functions, committees employ several tools which include summoning government officials, conducting site visits and inspections, and conducting public hearings which are avenues for entering dialogue with the civil society, the private sector, individual citizens as well as other interest groups. In a sense, committees help to take parliament to the people and may operate as peace-building models through citizen engagement.
4.2.2 Parliamentary Debates
Since political parties are most partisan on the floor of the House, Standing Orders need to be transparent, well-defined and closely adhered to if Parliament is to be a forum for ensuring stable democratic governance. Rules must be applied fairly and impartially.
The Speaker has to balance between the minority and the majority groups in the House; the cardinal point being that while the majority may have their will, the minority must have their say. In the same breath, discussion of Bills should not be blocked by majority parties and legislation should not be passed without adequate debate.
(IMAGINE IF THIS BILL WAS RUSHED THROUGH PARLIAMENT AND PASSED: “All women of whatever age, rank or profession, whether maid or widow, who shall after this Act impose upon and seduce into matrimony any of His Majesty’s subjects by means of scents, paints, cosmetics, artificial teeth, false hair, bolstered hips, high-heeled shoes, or iron stays, shall incur the penalties against witchcraft, and the marriage be declared null and void1.” Parliament rejected the Bill!)
4.2.3 Legislative Development
Law making is considered to be the most important function of the Legislature particularly because a law offers guidance and regulates the society in its various aspects.
Although legislation is usually introduced by the Executive, the Legislature need to pass only those laws that promote stable democratic governance such as laws that entrench human rights protection and guarantees fundamental freedoms.
Conversely, laws that censures or punishes political opponents and the media or suppresses fundamental freedoms such as freedom of association, speech, opinion, movement, assembly need to be rejected or repealed.
4.3 Openness and Transparency
As eloquently and profoundly argued by O’Hara, the basis of the philosophy of openness and transparency is that: “the government has collected data or information for whatever reasons, using the resources and the legitimacy it derives from its citizens, and therefore, unless harm could result from the public release of that data, there would seem to be little reason against releasing it to its citizens to make productive use of.
Having been collected with public money, it should, where possible, be open for reuse in order to create further economic value2.” The hallmark of the theory and practice of democratic governance is a transparent and open system of decision-making.
Over the years there has been a growing acceptance that the general public has the right to participate in the free flow of information and to be informed about what is going on in their community, particularly the workings of government and the Legislature. Parliamentary openness enables citizens to be informed about the work of the Legislature, empowers citizens to engage in the legislative process, allows citizens to hold public officers to account and ensures that citizen’s interests are properly represented.
Openness and transparency requires that Legislatures must have all their actions, as well as the information about these actions, provided in an accessible and understandable manner which can promote the participation and awareness of the citizens.
There must be free flow of information about decisions and actions from Ministers and Members of Parliament to constituents and other stakeholders. Information should not only be accessible but also relevant, accurate and timely and presented in plain and readily comprehensible language and formats.
Parliamentary openness and transparency can be achieved in a variety of ways including the following:
Disclosure of Assets and Business Interests of all public officers including the President, Members of Parliament. The purpose being to establish probity, integrity and accountability in public life;
Access to Information legislation: Public institutions are opened to the scrutiny of members of the public;
“Connecting Parliament to the People”: Televising proceedings, publication of the Hansard, broadcasting debates on the radio, parliamentary websites and parliamentary outreach programs provide the public with greater awareness about “their” institution. Experience has shown that taking Parliament to the people helps to demystify the long held public perceptions about the institution;
Presentation of Public Petitions: Petitions are a pathway through which Members gain leverage in connecting the Legislature to the electorate. Through Petitions, citizens are provided space not only to seek redress on an alleged public grievance but also to influence the direction of service delivery agenda.
Distinguished Ladies and Gentlemen, it is important that Parliament plays a leadership role in instilling confidence in the democratic political system. Openness and transparency are some of the means by which the electorate can be assured that the democratic systems are in the interest of all sections of the society and not just those who control the Executive power. “Transparency, at the moment, is not a luxury. It is one of the most important tools for restoring political and economic stability.”3
4.4 The role of the opposition
The major role of the opposition is to question the government of the day and hold them accountable to the public. On serious issues, the opposition puts the government on the spotlight to have the concerns quickly resolved.
In situations where the relationship between the Executive and some sections of the society has become acrimonious and the conflict has the potential to result into instability, the opposition could become a stabilizing force by acting as third-party intermediaries between the two sides.
It is worth mentioning though that for this to happen, the opposition and the Executive need to forgo acrimonial politics and work together for the sake of national building.
Speaking in support of the pivotal role played by the opposition in parliamentary democracies, Quintin Hogg, an outstanding member of the British House of Commons once said: “Countries cannot be fully free until they have an organized opposition. It is not a long step from the absence of an organized opposition to a complete dictatorship”.
In democratic governance, the role of the opposition is not as parochial as was espoused by George Tierney (1761-1830), a 19th century British Whig Leader of Opposition, when he contended that: “the duty of an opposition is to propose nothing, oppose everything, and to turn out the government.”
In a functioning democracy, the opposition ought to do more than Tierney imagined. Beyond opposing, the opposition must propose alternatives and show that they are ready to govern. It should not block government programs pointlessly, but rather to offer support where it is in the best interest of the nation while portraying themselves as an enlightened alternative to the electorate.
4.4.1 The Opposition as the voice of the voiceless
The opposition expresses the views and interests of a section of the society that may not be represented by the party in government. Without the opposition, such views could either go unheard or be trampled upon.
Additionally, the opposition serves as a conduit for ventilating people’s grievances for action and/or redress. This role builds confidence and reassures the people that their concerns and interests have been properly presented to appropriate authorities.
4.4.2 The Opposition as a viable alternative (government-in-waiting)
Since a properly functioning constitutional democracy is about offering choices to the electorate, the opposition is a constant reminder to the electorate of the availability of a viable alternative to the party in government. Thus, the opposition is enjoined to offer policy alternatives in its criticisms to convince the electorate that it could have done things better.
As I conclude, I wish to observe that today, more than ever before, many countries are working towards building democratic governance, but the greatest challenge is to develop processes and institutions that are more responsive to the needs of the ordinary citizens, especially the poor. We are living through times when growing sections of the people in many democracies are getting increasingly disillusioned.
At the center of this disillusionment is the public perception of the widening gap between the expectations of the people and the efficacy of the delivery of socio-economic programs. Citizens expect more, better and faster delivery of services than is otherwise the case. There is urgent need to reinforce public confidence and the task is therefore cut out for you as Speakers and Presiding Officers!
1 D.J Gifford and John Salter, How to understand an Act of Parliament (London: Cavendish Publishing Ltd.) 1996,p.5.
2 Kieron O’Hara, Transparent Government, Not Transparent Citizens: A Report on Privacy and Transparency for the New Zealand Cabinet Office, p.17.
3 Alasdair Roberts, Transparency in Troubled Times, Legal Studies Research Paper Series, Research Paper 12-35, October 2012, Suffolk University Law School, Boston.