Tag Archive | ncop

Parliament goes virtual for lockdown


….20 May 2020…

SA first with virtual e-debate

….At the same time as the venerable British Parliament was tackling what seemed to them a totally invasive idea of a virtual e-Parliament, South Africa was simultaneously tackling the same subject as COVID 19 arrived at the shores of Africa.  Immediately, the issue of the consideration of lockdown conditions arose in SA and the question of how Parliament could work with everybody boarded.

Whilst British parliamentarians dithered on the subject and due to the fact that the UK kept social distancing going for a much longer time before their lockdown came into force, South Africa’s virtual website portal went up in an incredibly short time and was first in the world by a few days.

Maak ‘n plan

In comparison, the British virtual system. which is also now also working, only allows for debate in the House of Commons whilst South Africa, in terms of its Constitution, follows proceedings in both the National Assembly and the NCOP and also at committee level as well, with the current joint meetings providing provincial coverage.

The design of the entrance website is pretty similar to the UK portal, the principle being the same but with a British budget, the UK presentation is a good deal slicker.  All the same, the Daily Telegraph complained after the UK launch that all that the voice links in the meetings sounded like Darth Vadar and it was confusing to know who was speaking.

Many players

The beginner’s look of the SA virtual meetings is understandable in the situation.   One can see in SA technicians are having a daily struggle with people using Skype and Zoom connections for the first time, some of whom have little knowledge of the difference between an app and a hard drive.

Most are trying, knowing it all has to happen and it would be best to learn quickly but a certain number of senior politicians still demand studio facilities and a camera.   We shall no doubt look back in years to come and laugh at these early attempts to live a virtual reality life.

48 hours allowed

In South Africa, where the decision to suspend the SA Parliament was a “precautionary measure” in the light of a forthcoming Cabinet decision on how to deal with the pandemic, Parliament’s presiding officers in the form of chief whips and political parties all agreed beforehand on the 17 March that the remaining two days of parliamentary business would be devoted to urgent legislation only.

As a result of this decision, Budget Papers in the form of the Division of Revenue Bill were hustled to the National Assembly for adoption in order that money could flow to the provinces and local government.   A Cabinet meeting followed and the Speaker of the House, who acts for the President in Parliament, was summonsed for a meeting soon after.

Hard facts

The role of Parliament is indispensable for the country to run.   The Constitution demands that Parliament scrutinise and oversee all Executive actions, processes Bills in the  form of legislation, to provide a forum for public consideration of issues and to facilitate public involvement in its legislative and other processes. Such is inviolate, whatever the conditions facing the country.

Realizing that the only way was virtual meetings to consider matters,  Speaker Thandi Modise issued a statement that Parliament would have to “intensify its technological capabilities for a transition to an “e-Parliament”.   She concluded that as a result, a decision had been taken that “Parliament will be able to resume taking advantage of virtual media technology”.

 Into action

The leave period, or recess, for MPs was duly cancelled and parliamentary staff were assigned permits to stay at work.  They used this time for urgent meetings -to assess how Parliament could best resume its proper function under lockdown regulations and deal with the lacuna (i.e. a situation where there is no applicable law to deal with the matter).

It was agreed by the Speaker that priority had to be given in Parliament to virtual meetings that required oversight on COVID-19 matters, bearing in mind the limited number of meetings that could be held at any one time.  It was also agreed that any virtual meetings would be primarily joint meetings based on the government cluster system, i.e. meetings comprising the various representatives from a number of differing committees affected by one subject.

 Order, order

Chief whips were then tasked to adapt parliamentary rules to meet the new conditions. All this had to be based on the procedures, precedents, practices and conventions, which have been developed over the years, known as parliamentary rules.  This was in respect of not only how NA and NCOP virtual plenary meetings were to be run but how debate was to be conducted committee.

Speaker Thandi Modise then confirmed to all political parties that in the planned virtual meetings, members of parliament would have the same powers, privileges and immunity as they have ordinarily in parliamentary proceedings.  Quorum requirements were to be exactly the same she said, and MPs would be entitled to cast their votes either electronically or by voice.

Public participation and access to virtual proceedings had to be made possible, said Modise, “in a manner that is consistent with a participatory and representative democracy, virtual meetings to be live-streamed wherever possible”.

Global comparisons

Despite time limitations Parliament was indeed able to try and benchmark against some other legislatures who were operating as legislatures whilst their countries were fighting against COVID-19. To the surprise of all, little was found.

The prime constitutional constraint in South Africa’s case was that any virtual meetings had to involve both the sittings of the National Assembly and the National Council of Provinces and these had to be seen to be happening if the public wished to observe proceedings, a factor necessary according to the Bill of Rights.   This was overcome by making most meetings “joint” committee meetings of parallel committees from both Houses.

One and only

In the UK, which has no constitution, a parliamentary virtual meeting concept had been designed and planning was six months into happening.  From a standing start, SA Parliament achieved their deadline in about a fortnight.  Australia and New Zealand are still only thinking of going about it and the USA is still fighting about lockdown itself.

Without fanfare, the parliamentary process under the extraordinary conditions began internally in the Cape Town precinct after a very short training period on 20th April, with access being made to the existing  public parliamentary website on the link www.parliament.gov.za/parliament-tv.

 Time will tell

The whole thing seems to work quite well but obviously glitches occur regularly whilst MPs struggle from time to time to find the mute button and some appear if they have just got out of bed.  Already, however, after an initial learning curve, things are changing and before long it will be the way things happen.

At each meeting, provision is made for the parliamentary secretary to log in those MPs present at a virtual meeting, name them, see them, accept apologies and at point count voting if required from those logged in through the  electronic response system.   Minutes are established later through the audio track recorded in the same manner as before. This is quite some procedure to witness in some of the hallowed chambers where the Speaker once wore a wig.

An MP’s presence in any virtual meeting is established through a secure link sent to their email address which also enables counting to be established for the purposes of establishing a quorum, taking decisions on issues or voting on a matter. Links are established on Facebook, Linked-in, Twitter and Instagram, the photography on Facebook on parliamentary issues being quite stunning.

 7 out of 10

In general, the new parliamentary virtual world established is considered by most quite for such a rush and the process will no doubt tide the country through this terrible period in its history.  This aside from any opinion on how well MPs handle their own inputs and deal with difficult question of switching between one another to pose and answer questions.  What you see is what you get.  The result is not always pretty but it is legal.

One advantage is that with so much happening with lights flashing and buttons to worry about, there is little time for any MP to have a quiet slumber.

Posted in Agriculture, cabinet, Communications, Defence, Energy, Fuel,oil,renewables, Home Page Slider, Justice, constitutional, Police, Public utilities, public works, Security,police,defence, Trade & Industry, Transport0 Comments

Parliament looses control on government spending

SA’s big black hole in its fiscal galaxy…..

It  looks like the governing party knows even more about the daylight robbery going on in certain provincial and local government structures than was originally disclosed.    A big hole in local givernment spending is still swallowing up millions in taxpayer revenue.    Not good news when an election is happening.

As a result of the disclosures, this is a delicate moment for South Africa waiting to learn the make-up of the parliamentary political balance and who is nominated to Cabinet, and just as important as it is to see the structure of provincial government where most of taxpayer’s money is spent.

With the economy in peril, what happens now in terms of responses with regard to the outcomes on state capture and corruption, and how it is handled, is a matter of dancing on the edge of a financial cliff.  Financial commentators from the around the world are watching.

Gearing up

With Parliament re-opening, the third pillar of the South African democratic structure will again assume its critical role in debating and shaping government policy.    Equally important, it will resume its position as a listening post for business and industry.   We have sharpened our pencil.

Its seems such a short time since 1994 when Parliament started its first five-year government term. Looking back over the five terms, what a roller coast ride it has been.

Watching, waiting

Now, for the sixth time, 400 members on the national political party lists are allocated to the National Assembly (NA) and a further 90, representing provincial interests, go the National Council of Provinces (NCOP) in the form of 10 delegates for each of the nine provinces.

The NCOP has the task of monitoring the NA in fact, therefore representing, somewhat tenuously, the voice of the people in those provinces.

Good start

The home of the NCOP is a building opened in 1884 as the first parliament of the Cape of Good Hope which interestingly enough was multi-racial, condescendingly so some say.  Its good-looking edifice dominates the central portion of the parliamentary precinct, next to the more modern National Assembly building.

With political balance of the 490 MPs on the precinct about to be established and the voice of the people thus represented, there is a shadowy side to Parliament as well which many politicians at national, provincial and local government have learned to use or abuse.

 In reality, the NCOP is the combined voice of the nine legislatures of the provinces acting as a watch-dog and checking that the National Assembly is not disregarding their interests.

The watchers

Only 54 of its 90 seats allocated have voting powers, the balance of 4 members per province having a special status to be heard but who cannot vote.  One of those members with special status is the Premier of each province, all Premiers rarely attending being too busy with their legislatures.

The other three seats allocated as special status are for provincial members assigned for particular reasons, maybe on a specific debate, and who travel from the provinces.  Ordinary citizens cannot be heard unless invited to do so but may watch, unless the meeting is closed for good reason.

Basic work

When legislation is tabled, it goes first to the NA for debate and approval.  If it has strong provincial interests it is “tagged” to go to the NCOP not just for simple “concurring”. In this case, the matter is sent with a special call to all nine provinces for comment Houses_of_Parliament_(Cape_Town)and majority vote or rejection.  This mandate in reply from provincial power bases is then expressed upwards by the NCOP.

In the National Assembly, the 400 members are spread out into “portfolio” committees for debate on national government reporting on policy matters and in accounting terms.  Their main tasks are to approve the budget and allocate same to the nine provinces, also to debate tabled legislation and monitor how all national departments are performing against targets.

Numbers game

In the NCOP there is a problem. There are only 54 members allocated to it and who can vote.   With and far too many government departments to watch, as a result their monitoring brief on national departments is broken into selected groups. (Hence the term used by Parliament of “select” committees.)

In addition to the provincial presence, local government is represented in the NCOP by SALGA who can also attend meetings in the NCOP with a voice but have no voting powers. This really is the only contact Parliament has with local government.

Three-tiered cake

However, the snag with the system now becoming more and more evident is simply that the traffic on money matters is one-way only.  It goes from the top, downwards.    That is not because the system is wrong, since it was designed that way so that the NCOP is fully briefed on budgets and allocations to the provinces.

However, such a system can be easily “worked” to provide an outcome that hides criminal intent or sloppy accounting since no information is coming upwards other than when MPs decide to make personal visits as a committee team on a specific issue and travel themselves “downwards”.

Mushroom club   

Consequently, nobody in the NA has really any idea of what is happening in the nine provincial legislatures or how municipalities and local governments are spending the budget in a reportable audit form other than what is reported by to it by national government entities and departments.

For example, in the Free State, heaven knows what has been going on there for a number of years with past Premier Ace Magashule and his cohorts, who seemingly have only been monitored by AmaBhugane but certainly not properly by the Premier and the Free State legislature.

Nobody seems to have listened the DA in the Free State complain and their accounting experiences with Free State audits investigated, such matters having been brought up in question time in the NA again and again but written off as opposition trouble making. The NCOP, of course, does not come into the equation.

Another world

The net result is that none of the frightful qualified audits on Free State budget spending on infrastructure representing an accounting malaise of epic proportions have come fully before Parliament. At the moment the big black hole in the economy at provincial level appears to have much to do with the distortion in accounting terms between how the money was used for spending and what actually was the value of the work done, if at all.

When the power shortly returns to Parliament the President will only have a very short time to deal with his compatriots who, as Archbishop Tutu put it, have lost their moral compass and taught so many how to steal from the poor.

Perhaps the new challenge of the Sixth Parliament is to have better contact with provinces, municipalities and local government, since here lies the gaping hole in the economy coupled to lack of service delivery.

 

ends/ editorial /parlyreport/1 May 2019/sent to subscribers

 

 

 

 

 

Posted in cabinet, Finance, economic, Special Recent Posts0 Comments


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