22 February 2013

Namibia: Pré-Vue [discourse-Analysis] Tri-Vium - Parliament and Accountability


IN his opening speech of the 7th Session of the 5th Parliament, President Pohamba called on Parliament to monitor developments and hold to account the executive in implementing its mandate in order, not only to deepen democracy and strengthen our democratic institutions, but also to entrench transparency and good governance in our country. For this reason, the President urged that the work of the Standing Committee on Public Accounts be strengthened and enhanced.

As I promised to come back to the topic, I will elaborate on the subject matter focusing on a discussion paper I already brought to your attention sometime ago regarding parliamentary oversight committees and the role they play as scrutiny mechanisms. The paper entitled: The Role of Parliamentary Oversight Committees, was prepared by Gareth Griffith for the Conference on Parliament and Accountability in the 21st Century which took place in Sydney on the 6-8 October 2005.

The paper is predicated on three central propositions. One is that, with the expansion of the modern state and the exponential growth in bureaucratic activity, the need for parliament to exercise its accountability or scrutiny functions efficiently and effectively is more pressing than ever. The second proposition is that, with the expansion in state activities, parliament itself cannot hope to perform the vast array of accountability functions required in the modern era. Parliament should systematically and rigorously draw on the investigations of outside regulators and commissions, thereby on the one hand providing a framework for their activities, so they feel less ad hoc, and on the other hand also drawing on their expertise and resources to enable parliament more effectively to perform its functions of holding ministers to constitutional account.

As a matter of fact, the modern state is so vast and complex which means that it is no longer possible for parliament alone to ensure accountability across the wide range of activities of the executive, let alone the myriad of other public sector bodies. Implicit in this argument is the third proposition upon which this paper is based, namely, that parliament must consciously share the work of accountability with other agencies, such as the offices of the Auditor General and the Anti-Corruption Commission. The key is to establish a proper working relationship between parliament and the extra-parliamentary institutions of accountability. In an age when many of the references in the debate on public administration talk about 'holistic' approaches, parliament should be placed at 'the apex of the system of scrutiny'.

Parliamentary oversight committees are one response to this challenge, one that places parliament in a supervisory or monitoring role, maintaining oversight of the intricate web of accountability relationships that have developed in modern times. The approach adopted in the 2001 Sharman Report, Holding to Account: The Review of Audit and Accountability for Central Government, divides the notion of accountability into four aspects: giving an explanation - through interim and an annual reports, outlining performance and capacity; providing further information when required - where those accountable may be asked to account further, perhaps by providing information; reviewing, and if necessary revising - where those accountable respond by examining performance, systems or practices, and if necessary, making changes to meet the expectations of stakeholders; and granting redress or imposing sanctions .

In terms of the Sharman Report's four-dimensional approach to accountability, parliamentary committees are well placed in relation to the first three aspects, that is, to receive explanations and further information, as well as for the reviewing and revision of performance and practice. As for the fourth aspect, while parliamentary committees may obtain agreement to correct or refine practices, the actual imposition of sanctions or the granting of redress belongs more appropriately to ministers or the courts. That is not to say that parliament itself should not seek to influence outcomes, including by means of parliamentary committees making recommendations for action or reform. The Sharman Report argues that not every accountability mechanism is equally suited to achieving all four aspects of accountability.

It maintains that different accountability practices 'are best suited to different purposes'. Thus, published annual reports work well as structured explanations by departments of achievement and progress, but do not have an interactive quality that allows the reader to ask further questions or seek explanations. Parliamentary questions, on the other hand, are ways of seeking specific additional information or eliciting it in different formats, while committee hearings are well suited to seeking justifications and explanations for actions, as well as obtaining agreement to correct or refine practices. This points to the fact that parliamentary committees are potentially effective and powerful accountability mechanisms. Accountability requires parliament not only to secure explanations from ministers but also to influence government decisions. Effective scrutiny is achieved when the activities of ministers are conditioned by the knowledge of a vigilant parliament, willing and able to use the powers at its disposal.

Although new forms of scrutiny and accountability have emerged, parliament has a unique role in making their work relevant.

Parliament's role is in disentangling the key political issues from technical scrutiny, interpreting their significance and using this as the basis on which to challenge government. Through them accountability is enhanced and the principles of representative democracy asserted. Most importantly, let there be a real separation of powers among the three organs of the state. Otherwise, how do we expect the same parliamentary members who double as members of the executive to hold themselves to account? The theory of separation of powers according to Montesquieu, posits that every man entrusted with some power is bound to misuse it.

When the executive and the legislative powers are given to the same person there can be no liberty, because it is apprehended that the same person may enact oppressive laws to execute them whimsically which could spell the doom of the whole system of governance.

Indeed, a system of checks and balances forms the cornerstone of the constitutional framework to ensure a form of government that provides the means by which each of the branches could resist the blandishments and incursions of the others. I agree with Hengari that we need committed citizens who make use of the republican space and a citizenry that is active around legislation and the general will. Indeed, it was Rousseau who posited that each of us places his person and authority under the supreme direction of the general will. Thus, to raise our voices against legislation that does not represent our general will is not just a right but an obligation.

• The opinions expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of my employer and this newspaper but solely reflect my personal views as a citizen.

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