The Herald (Harare)

12 May 2012

Zimbabwe: Housing Stands for MPs Impracticable

opinion

Zimbabwe's Parliamentarians have certainly embraced the spirit of unity. While they might squabble over things like economic policy, political ideologies and even who would make the best President, they quickly form a solid and united front when it comes to "important" things like how many free cars they should have, their pay, their allowances and now their united request for cheap stands in upper-income Harare suburbs.

While the first requests did make sense, although they would cost more than the taxpayer can afford, this latest wheeze does not make sense.

Only a handful of Senators and not that many more members of the House of Assembly actually live in Harare.

Parliamentarians are supposed to live in their constituencies, just travelling to the capital to attend sittings of Parliament and sittings of their respective committees.

In fact the Parliamentary schedule is so arranged that even when Parliament is sitting, Assembly and Senate members can spend almost half the week at home, in their constituencies.

Only those in Government as Ministers or Deputy Ministers, need live in Harare, and that group have quite different conditions of service. The other point that those calling for stands might consider is that being in Parliament is not a lifetime career, unless you are very lucky. Parliaments are elected, and are elected for a maximum of five years. A sitting member needs cross some practical hurdles to come back.

First, they must hope that their seat was not abolished in the latest delimitation. And as people do move around seats do get created and destroyed. Secondly, almost all need to retain their party nomination, or in the case of chiefs the confidence of their fellow chiefs. Only two people have ever won a seat as an independent.

Finally, of course, even if there is still a constituency and they still have the nomination, they actually need to win the most votes for their seat. A few people have managed to sit in Parliament after Parliament, but there are an awful lot of "former MPs" out there who had to go home and stay home.

If they are planning on building a decent house in a pleasant area they need it where they live, not where they work for four days a week for little over half the year for a maximum of five years.

So even if the City of Harare does dish out a set of stands, come the next election another large batch for the new Parliamentarians will be needed, and so on, at every election. In 50 years this will amount to thousands of stands, and is quite impractical.

That said, they have a point when they point out that putting them up in hotels when they are summoned to Parliament does cost money.

The solution, as many African countries have found, is not to give them highly subsidised stands to build holiday homes in Harare, but to build or buy blocks of flats that Parliamentarians can be allocated for the life of a Parliament and which they surrender when they lose or retire, and go home for good.

The Government has started doing this with the purchase of the Quality International Hotel. But more is needed. We know money is short. But if a block of garden flats was built every year within a decade every Parliamentarian could be allocated somewhere pleasant to live during the life of the Parliament they were elected for.

The same goes for vehicles. Surely Parliamentarians could be allocated a vehicle when they are elected; one scheme would allow them to keep it at the end of the Parliament, encouraging them to look after it for the five years they use it at taxpayers' expense.

We agree that Parliamentarians should be paid, housed and given transport while they serve. Otherwise only the wealthy could afford to sit in Parliament. This is why salaries were introduced for MPs in the last century around the world. Before then all were well-off men (votes for women came in at around the same time as pay for representatives).

And Parliamentarians, who have a lot of say on the new constitution, should be wary of having too many in the National Assembly and Senate. Budgets are limited, so the fewer they are the more each can be paid.

We would like to see Members of our House of Assembly and Senate negotiate a decent package for each member; but it must make sense, which Harare stands do not, and it must be affordable.

Parliament should attract able men and women who can both represent their constituents and contribute seriously to national debate on policies and laws.

They need to be adequately compensated, but does not mean hitching more wagons to a gravy train.

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