On the Spot – Give and Take Part of Our Political Culture [interview]

Considering the importance of the National Assembly when it comes to creating and implementing laws that are in line with the ever-changing conditions in the country, New Era’s chief political reporter, Mathias Haufiku, interviewed the Secretary of the National Assembly Jakes Jacobs to gain some insight on the inner workings of this august chamber.

How has National Assembly evolved over the years in terms of passing legislation in Namibia?

Over the past four years members of the National Assembly attended numerous capacity-building events to enhance their ability to scrutinise and evaluate new Bills tabled in the National Assembly. These actions paid of well, because during 2013 the following Bills were passed: National Planning Commission Bill, Appropriation Bill, Income Tax Amendment Bill, Stamp Duties Amendment Bill, Transfer Duty Amendment Bill, Public Accountants’ and Auditor’s Amendment Bill, Water Resources Management Bill, Electoral Amendment Bill, Agricultural (Commercial) Land Reform Amendment Bill, Communal Land Reform Amendment Bill, Magistrates Amendment Bill and the High Court Amendment Bill. At the start of the new National Assembly in 2015, after elections towards the end of 2014, the National Assembly staff will be ready to ensure that that new members are trained in analysing Bills right at the start of their tenure so as to get maximum benefit from it.

In what way have Namibian lawmakers contributed towards the welfare of the Namibian people over the last 24 years?

The theme of the Seventh Session of the Fifth Parliament was ‘Connecting Parliament with the Public: Ensuring Accountability and Public Disclosure’. The President, His Excellency, Hifikepunye Pohamba, during his address at the official opening of Parliament urged parliamentarians as representatives of the people to remain pro-active in dealing with present and emerging challenges facing the nation. He encouraged Parliament not only to deepen democracy, but also to monitor and hold to account the Executive in implementing the mandates entrusted to them by the electorate. By doing effective oversight parliament ensures that the government’s poverty reduction strategies and policies are implemented according to the approved budget, thereby contributing towards the welfare of the people.

Representation, lawmaking and oversight are the three main functions of any parliament. Do you feel our parliament has been serving its purpose in that regard?

The representative function of a parliament is characterised by its role as a venue for disparate perspectives, for the expression and debate of issues of local and national importance, and the translation of those debates into policies. In Namibia we use the proportional representation electoral system. That means each party gains seats in parliament according to its strength or performance in elections. The onus therefore rests with each political party to work hard in ensuring mass representation in parliament. We should also not forget the participation and interaction of parliament with regional, continental and international parliamentary institutions. Namibian parliamentarians continuously engage with their counterparts in these bodies in order to share issues of common interest relating to youth, good governance, trade and health to mention a few. According to the constitution, the legislative mandate rests with parliament. In addition to introducing legislation on their own, they have the power to amend, approve or reject government draft laws. This function is gly linked to the representation function in that it is through the will of the people that the parliament receives its authority in democratic countries. The National Assembly has performed very well in this area.

The oversight function is one of the cornerstones of democracy. Oversight is a means for holding the executive accountable for its actions and for ensuring that it implements policies in accordance with the laws and budget passed by the parliament. To improve its oversight capacities, the National Assembly through its Standing Rules and Orders establishes different standing committees whereby each committee is assigned to oversee various offices, ministries and agencies. Committees are scrutiny mechanisms that can call any individual or institution before it to give evidence or produce reports on its projects. The oversight function of the National Assembly is improved continuously and is currently at a high level.

How common is the ‘rubber stamp legislature’ practice in our National Assembly?

In a democracy, the majority rules. It is thus within the democratic right of a majority party to vote through its legislative proposals. Furthermore it is often stated that in a democracy the majority party must be allowed to govern, while the opposition must be allowed to be heard. The Standing Rules and Orders provide for both these principles. Ultimately it is the voters that will decide who will govern and who will be heard. In Namibia we value a multi-party democracy where the principle of give and take has become part of our political culture.

One area where the National Assembly can still improve is to allow more time between the tabling of a Bill and the discussion of the Bill. This is an issue that has been recognised and that calls for action on the part of the house. No Member of Parliament can be expected to be an expert in everything from aquaculture to atomic energy. In order for the Members of Parliament to make informed contributions to Bills they must be allowed enough time to consult and to inform themselves about the merits of the proposed Bill. In other words they must be allowed enough time to prepare themselves to be heard.

As a long serving Secretary, do you feel our MP’s know what is expected of them when they sit in the parliament?

It is not a function of the Secretariat to decide whether a member knows what is expected of him while serving as a member. Every member in the house represents a political party and it is up to the political party to decide what they expect from their members. The Secretariat assists members by ensuring that they understand the Standing Rules and Orders and procedures of the Assembly and regularly conduct programmes to capacitate MP’s in parliamentary procedures, the budget cycle, analyses of Bills and their oversight function to name but a few.

What do you make of the relationship between MP’s of the ruling party and those from the opposition, especially during parliamentary debates?

I can say that the relationship between all members of the National Assembly is cordial and that every member is treated with respect. However, as can be expected, heated debates do take place in the house but are controlled by the Hon Speaker according to the Standing Rules and Orders thereby ensuring that they never get out of hand. Over the years it has become the norm that in Standing Committee meetings the members function on a non-partisan basis looking at the issue on the table and making decisions based on the facts only. Members therefore take decisions on a consensus basis and voting in committees has become an absolute rarity.

Is there any need to increase the number of MP’s in the National Assembly?

Apart from their work in the house, the Standing Committees and their political parties, members must also attend to other responsibilities like attending meetings of the Inter-Parliamentary Union, Pan African Parliament, SADCPF, ACP-EU and CPA, as well as election observer missions to mention just a few. These activities together with other local responsibilities like workshops and conferences put a lot of strain on the time of MP’s and sometimes influence the quorum in the house and in the committees. Over the years a number of proposals were flouted, ranging from combining the two houses of parliament, relieving members of the executive from their duties in the house and simply increasing the numbers of MP’s in the Assembly. This however remains a political decision and is outside the realm of the Secretariat.

Source : New Era