Parliament’s Budget Vote Debate: Key Highlights
On Tuesday, 1 June, Parliament’s Budget Vote came up for debate in plenary sittings of the National Assembly (NA) and National Council of Provinces (NCOP).
We glean the key takeaways.
A hybrid Parliament
The Speaker of the NA, Ms Thandi Modise, in leading the debate on Budget Vote 2, highlighted the current challenges under which Parliament is operating in as well as the new organisational and procedural adjustements in response to same.
With the COVID-19 pandemic reaching our shores early last year, Parliament held its first official virtual committee meeting on 10 April 2020. The pandemic swiftly accelerated the digitalisation of parliamentary proceedings. MPs acknowledged this during the debates, with an all-round appreciation of parliamentary staff for stepping up and ‘swiftly acting and innovating when the COVID pandemic hit’.
Speaker Modise highlighted Parliament was ready to accept that virtual, hybrid, and “work from home” systems will be with us for a while as MPs must hold the executive to account; as they discharge their constitutional mandate. The need to invest in ICT and relook at employment processes and models to adjust to the fast-changing world of work was therefore emphasised.
Speaking to the same point during a parallel budget vote debate in the NCOP chamber, Chairperson Amos Masondo indicated significant improvements had been registered in relation to a parliamentary TV Channel. He announced Parliament was on course towards free-to-air television and the creation of radio broadcast services.
At this stage, it is unclear when there will be a return to fully-fledged (or at least 50%) parliamentary activity within the Cape Town precinct, particularly on the backdrop of the third wave and the vaccine rollout currently underway. Various parties have made calls for Parliament to go back to some level of normality within the realm of the pandemic. During the debate, Freedom Front Plus chief whip Corne Mulder, was the first to make the call saying there should be at least half of Members in-person when the House is in session, noting that the work of MPs entailed interactions between them. Members from the ACDP and UDM also echoed the same sentiments. “We are of the view as the UDM while virtual meetings have served their purpose but to some extent Parliament is beginning to lose home ground advantage due to virtual meeting, said Mr Nqabayomzi Kwankwa.
A tight Budget
Parliament was allocated about R2.6 billion for the 2021/22 financial year, and saw its baseline being adjusted downwards for the next three years with budget reductions for 2021/2022 at R256m; R338m for 2022/2023 and R296m for 2023/2024.
The Speaker said that a reduced budget meant the legislature's spending patterns had to be reviewed and its activities curbed. She made it clear that, as part of a raft of cost-cutting measures, Parliament could not continue to fund some of the benefits — including medical aid contributions — enjoyed by former members of the executive and former members of provincial legislatures.
MPs also weighed in on the budget cut, saying it will hamper the discharge of their duties. ANC MP Kenneth Morolong noted that although Parliament continues to hold the executive accountable without any malice and the responsibilities of Parliament are continually growing, the budget continues to decrease, when in the same vein the public demands high levels of scrutiny.
The EFF called for the appointment of a permanent Secretary to Parliament. Parliament has been without a permanent Secretary for almost four years. Incumbent Baby Tyawa was appointed in an acting capacity in June 2017 when then-Secretary to Parliament Gengezi Mgidlana was suspended over claims including misconduct and abuse of power.
The IFP welcomed the savings as a result of the pandemic such as on SONA, catering and travel.
Relocation of Parliament
Former president Jacob Zuma proposed Parliament’s relocation to Pretoria five years ago, saying he believed the implementation of the suggestion would cut the cost of public servants. Political parties such as the EFF and the ANC appeared to throw their weight behind the proposed relocation motion at the time. However, during the debates, Chairperson Masondo indicated that relocating Parliament from Cape Town as per the 2015 proposal was off the table now: “I hope that Members will understand that this is a debate we do not want to entertain under the current economic climate.” EFF MP Veronica Mente believed not moving Parliament to a more central location was “irrational” and would not help public participation.
Oversight and Accountability
During the Tuesday debate, MPs also laid much emphasis on the salient role of parliamentary oversight and accountability, with some lamenting a lack of it. The opposition benches made it clear that the budget must equip Parliament to hold the executive accountable. “If only the ANC Members can also do their bit in holding the Executive accountable. A good starting point will be to ask more uncomfortable written and verbal questions and stop with the sweetheart questions,” said DA MP Jacques Julius. More resources ought to be availed so that Members can be better equipped to hold the Executive accountable.
Members spoke about the need for more effective follow up on Executive undertakings and Committee or House resolutions – this was something raised sharply when parliamentary oversight came under the glare of the Zondo Commission.
As cliché as it has become, committees are the engine rooms of Parliament and it is there where the “real” work occurs. Various Members called for better capacitation of committees – the IFP aptly argued that a three-hour committee meeting once a week does not make for effective oversight and for Parliament to look at having more committees chaired by opposition members for more robust probing. The EFF called for the return of unannounced oversight visits. The ANC’s Khaya Magaxa (Chairperson of the Portfolio Committee on Public Enterprises) called for the continuous training of MPs as the once-off induction at the start of a Parliament was not enough. He said oversight and dealing with legislation required niche skills. Al Jama-ah said Parliament should offer more support to Members, especially smaller parties, for the drafting of Private Members’ Bills.
The FF Plus brought a more theoretical element to the oversight debate arguing that in SA, the Executive and Legislature were too close together which did not allow for better separation of powers. They pointed out 1 out 3 ANC caucus members, were also members of the Executive. They called for the return of interpellations as a oversight mechanism- these are mini-debates limited to a few minutes in which a member of the Executive replies to a Member’s question.
The DA’s Chief Whip, Ms Natasha Mazzone, called for the return of the protocol officer- ‘given the unimaginable heckling during sessions, this Parliament needs serious lessons on protocol’. She also made strong calls for the more frequent meeting of the ethics and powers and privileges committees to ensure there is change in how Members conduct themselves.
It was acknowledged that constituency work should be strengthened. Although funding support for constituency offices of political parties represented in the national legislature currently comes from Parliament itself, the status of these offices is indistinct to many, two years into the Sixth Parliament. The Speaker indicated Parliament intends to ditch having to administer funding support for these offices, and rather have the funding go straight to parties, which would then account directly to National Treasury. It is thus still to be seen how the bolstering of these crucial conduits between constituents and their representatives would materialise in earnest. The IFP suggested the savings from travel and other costs be used for constituency offices . Al Jama-ah, which is a one-member party, has five constituency offices – this is commendable.
View Parliament’s 2021/22 Annual Performance Plan here.
About this blog
"That week in Parliament" is a series of blog posts in which the important Parliamentary events of the week are discussed.