24 January 2013

Zimbabwe: Think Through Issue of Term Limits for Parliamentarians


One of the dafter suggestions for the new constitution was putting in term limits for board members and chief executives of State enterprises and even the compromise, that an Act of Parliament can put in such limits, is not much brighter.

Board members, of course, must be subjected to limited terms.

In the private sector a director is normally appointed for two or three years but can stand again for election and there is no limit as to how many times he can be appointed.

A lot depends on how the shareholders think the director has done their job; good ones tend to serve longer than bad ones and very bad ones get pushed out by special resolutions at general meetings if necessary.

Chief executives of anything are also normally on some form of performance contract; if they do well they can stay and keep doing well. If they do badly they get fired.

Job security at the very top is not as good as job security lower down the ladder and very few CEOs in the private sector can claim lifetime job security.

That is right. They get high rewards and in return have to perform. But a good CEO is kept on by any sensible board so long as he delivers.

The same rules clearly need to be applied in the State sector.

We concede that some fairly useless people have been appointed to boards or CEO slots simply as a result of political patronage.

But term limits are hardly the right way to remove them.

For a start, a term limit might give a totally useless person a degree of job security since they will be thought to be in place for the full number of terms, when really they should be out sometime next week.

The appointment of suitable people to boards and CEO jobs in the State sector is difficult, even if those doing the appointments are ignoring their patronage powers and are looking for the best possible people regardless of ties of friendship, political affiliation or any other extraneous criteria.

For a start, everyone assumes that patronage is going to be at least a seriously potential problem.

So the wise way is to create a cumbersome selection process that goes a lot on CV qualifications and far too little on what the candidates can do and actually have done.

Objective criteria too often produce people with excellent qualifications but no instinct to run a business and no commercial intuition.

It is difficult to quantify these criteria, or even recognise them if those making the appointments do not possess these qualities themselves.

In the private sector mistakes are fewer possibly because many appointments are effectively made by business people with good track records who now sit on the board.

We do not claim to know the answer.

But clearly we need some debate on how we can find and appoint to the top slots in State enterprises the same sort of people who could hold similar posts in major private-sector companies.

This is not impossible. We have managed to do it at times.

And when we find such people then we need to keep them while they still perform, and we need to be more aggressive about firing those who do not.

Term limits are simply a red herring.

The teams writing the Constitution were dominated by members of the present Parliament.

We note, with amusement, that they were very keen to apply term limits to just about everyone in the State sector, from the President down, but did not even address, let alone campaign for term limits for Parliamentarians.

They would almost certainly regard with horror any such suggestion. But it does deserve far more attention.

The debate has been raging in America for years. Congress, after Franklin Roosevelt's four terms, agreed that the old convention of just two terms should be mandatory.

Three quarters of the State legislatures agreed and the amendment was passed.

But pressure for term limits for legislators dies in committee whenever it even manages to make the agenda.

Yet the arguments that legislators should not be professional politicians, but rather sensible people who have made their mark in other areas of endeavour and are now asked to serve the public for a few years in a Parliament, has attractions.

Why should politics be a career? And why should it be a career for the ordinary politician if the top politician, the President, is to be barred from very long service?

Unfortunately unless constitutions can be amended without the consent of a legislature, and very few can, we are never going to find out the answer to these questions since no set of legislators is ever going to limit their own careers, or even discuss whether they should.

But we would hope, that after the next election and when the possibility of term limits for State enterprise CEOs is addressed, the legislators will think through the problem properly, set the objective of finding really good business executives for these posts and then figure out the best way of doing this.

Most of the legislaters will be experienced, since the majority of seats are likely to be retained by sitting legislators with only a handful of marginals deciding who has a majority; so we hope they will do their job properly so they do not get fired next time.

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