JOHN STEENHUISEN: Parliament lets people down in this time of greatest need
Now is the time for bold and courageous action to get us through the Covid-19 crisis and beyond
There is little doubt that the global community, and SA, will emerge from the dark tunnel of the Covid-19 pandemic into a very different world. Apart from implementing the health measures required to defeat the virus, preparing our country to navigate these new waters and chart our recovery is the best thing legislators and decisionmakers could be engaged with at this time.
Our economy had already fallen into technical recession before the onset of Covid-19, and the sands have fundamentally shifted during this 21-day lockdown period. Apart from the obvious health effects, SA has had a ratings downgrade and any prospect of economic growth in the short and medium term has been wiped out. If we are to follow the trend of other economies around the world further down the track than we are, business foreclosures, economic depression and the resultant jobs bloodbath are staring us in the face. The economic fallout from Covid-19 for our citizens could well be deeper, more ingrained and more devastating than even the virus itself.
It is for this reason that it remains completely absurd that in our country’s time of greatest crisis the parliament of our country remains mute, impotent and silent. The constitution of the republic sets out in section 42 that the National Assembly is elected to represent the people and ensure government by the people under the constitution; further, to provide a national forum for public consideration of issues by passing legislation and overseeing executive action. For the past month of crisis, it has done none of this. The legislative arm of the state is in effect idling motionless in a rapidly changing environment.
There is no need for this unfathomable inertia. Corporations, businesses, NGOs and citizens have adapted to the changing environment by convening and continuing with their work through online platforms. Even the executive, admirably led by President Cyril Ramaphosa, has been convening during the crisis in this manner. They have carried on discharging their constitutionally ascribed duties and responsibilities. There is no reason that portfolio committees, select committees and other forums could not be convening during this time using this technology, just like other legislatures around the world.
Parliament spends a small fortune each month ensuring that every MP has access to laptops, data and communication tools of trade. Now, when the time comes to justify this expenditure and deploy it usefully in the service of the people and for MPs to fulfil their constitutional obligations, there is an obstinate reluctance to do so.
There is much work to be done: the finance committee should be working on the budget implications of the Covid-19 impact, home affairs on how to issue documents in an environment where large gatherings in confined places no longer make sense. The co-operative governance and traditional affairs committee should be engaging on how to assist municipalities to meet the new challenges facing them, and the labour portfolio should be obsessed with measures to stop the jobs bloodbath and stimulate employment. Small business should be focusing on how to rescue the many businesses in the country that are going to face massive pressure. These are just a few examples of the important work and decisions facing legislators.
For almost two weeks now, as leader of the opposition I have been trying to prod this slumbering beast of parliament into action. I have written to the speaker, imploring her to do something, even if it’s just an ad-hoc committee to tide us over this time, but for heaven’s sake just to do something. This request has been met by sluggish stonewalling and a complete reluctance to act. The eventual response from the speaker was to refuse an ad-hoc committee on the basis that the existing committees can do the work. This despite the fact that not a single committee chair has even attempted to convene a portfolio committee.
According to the Inter-Parliamentary Union, parliaments the world over are rapidly adapting to the changed environment, some by changing their procedures through quorum adjustments. New Zealand has formed a special multiparty committee that sits. Spain and Brazil have adjusted their procedures to enable their chambers and committees to sit virtually, with the first remote plenary having taken place in Brazil on March 20. This was also live-cast to the public. These parliaments understand the importance of the continuation of their work, particularly in a time of crisis. There is no reason SA could not be convening, at the very least, a special multiparty ad-hoc committee and its portfolio committees during this time.
The past decade has been littered with examples of parliament letting the people of our country down by failing to exercise its authority and fulfil its obligations. Now, in the time of our nation’s greatest need, it seems intent on repeating this awful pattern of dereliction of duty.
Now is not a time for reticence and timidity, it is a time for bold and courageous action to not only get us through the Covid-19 crisis but also to prepare us to tackle the challenges of a post-Covid world. Our people should expect nothing less from the “people’s parliament” and the legislators it has elected to serve them. Parliament should be at the forefront of this bold action and decisive leadership, not crouching in submission.
• Steenhuisen is leader of the opposition.