/ 17 September 2014

Soapie actors can strike all they want, we have Parliament

National Assembly speaker Baleka Mbete and Deputy President Cyril Ramaphosa.
National Assembly speaker Baleka Mbete and Deputy President Cyril Ramaphosa.

The exceedingly entertaining circus antics we witnessed on Tuesday was not a sign of a broken system; it was rather a strong indication of our democracy as embarrassing as it was to watch at times. Maybe it’s wrong to say it was embarrassing, because I enjoyed watching it. It was more entertaining than watching Generations.

Parliament should probably consider airing during prime time; for that alone I would pay my TV licence. It would be more than worth it. That way the SABC could replace Generations and we wouldn’t worry about striking actors at all. Can you imagine how much money the SABC could save? Who needs House of Cards when you have our House?

I would look forward to the incredible insults. I have no doubt that some would even employ comedians to write them some great insults and comebacks. The blatant insults, the cleverly veiled insults, the points of order would be stuff of dreams.

But more effort needs to be put into those insults, like those British parliamentarians of old who were such masters of the put-down that I have to include a few: How can anyone ever forget Winston Churchill and his put-downs which have stood the test of time? A member of the British Parliament once reprimanded Churchill for having fallen asleep while he was speaking. The offended MP said to Churchill, “Mr Churchill, must you fall asleep while I’m speaking?”

“No, it’s purely voluntary.” Churchill responded.

A member of the US House of Representatives, in an attempt to disarm the Republican speaker of the House, Nicholas Longworth, rubbed Longworth’s bald head and said, “Nice and smooth, feels just like my wife’s bottom.”

“Indeed, it does!” replied Longworth.

I got sidetracked here, as easily as Parliament gets sidetracked. Let me bring myself to order.

The debate that went on in Parliament is a clear sign that we live in a healthy democracy. If we lived in a dictatorship, it would have been shut down quickly and, worse, would not have happened in the first place.

Good points were raised. Is it appropriate for a high ranking official of a party to be speaker? Would that senior party office bearer not be beholden to their party instead of being impartial? It is a valid question. The rules governing the role of the speaker are clear, “Though the speaker is a member of a political party, he or she is required to act impartially and protect the rights of all parties.”

The important phrase there is “required”. Nothing says that the speaker may not hold a senior party political office. There were suggestions yesterday about adopting the British system where the speaker resigns her senior position from her or his party in order to be speaker. But then simply resigning from one’s party to be speaker does not guarantee impartiality.

A possible solution
The mistake that the opposition made was making this about the removal of Baleka Mbete instead of making it about a more effective and fair parliamentary system. It was a thinly veiled personal attack.

The MPs who used the UK parliamentary system as a standard, saying that we could apply the same principle here, failed to mention that in the United States, the speaker of the House is a leadership position and the office-holder actively works to set the majority party’s legislative agenda. That is how it is in the US.

Now, unlike South Africa, Britain is a parliamentary democracy while South Africa and the US are constitutional democracies.

There was a suggestion made by the Economic Freedom Fighters that interested me somewhat because I had the same thought before the debate began. What if the speaker is a judicial officer? A retired judge for example. Retired judges are not afraid of losing their jobs. They have salaries ­guaranteed for life anyway. The job would be to ensure impartiality in the parliamentary process. The judge would be respected by members of all sides of the House because there would no assumption that they are there to simply push one agenda.

Of course we have to remember that Parliament is not a court of law.

Still, if this were to happen, the wings of the EFF would immediately be clipped when it comes to parliamentary process because they would have no grounds to accuse the speaker of being biased.

It is an interesting debate. The system has worked all these years and is not broken, but the idea of a judge is not a bad one at all.