Diary of a Parliamentary Nerd

Monique Doyle

In Grade Two, not more than nine years old, I went on a class excursion to Parliament. I remember the day vividly as the bus drew close to the end of Roeland Street and stood before the gate behind which the white pillars of the National Assembly gleamed in the morning sun. Making my way through the tour of Parliament, our class had the unexpected – but fittingly – pleasure of bumping into the former Minister of Education, Prof Kadar Asmal. He waited patiently so that each one of us had the opportunity to shake his hand – I was in awe at the thought of meeting a Minister in person. Fast forward 20 years later, a feeling of awe still fills me when I’m going about my business in the parliamentary precinct and I spot a Minister hurrying off to a meeting, press briefing or sitting of the House. During my six years of observing Parliament I now know there are Ministers who arrive in meetings noisily with a broad contingent of support staff and those who slip in quietly and roam the precinct without any protection.

Since this class excursion, Parliament has held a very special meaning to me and this reverence for the institution has followed me. In primary and high school, when the State of the Nation Address (SONA) was still held during the day on a Friday, the event would be played on the class TV while the lesson was in session. Today, SONA is one of my most anticipated days of the year – I so look forward to observing the personal style of the MPs, along with their partners, family and other loved ones, where the mood is relaxed and very different to a usual sitting or meeting. In the same breath, I remain mindful of the fact that unfortunately many see the event as extravagant and an unnecessary waste of time and money.

When I stumbled on the PMG website, I knew instantaneously this was something I needed to get involved in. I came across the website while working on my 2011 Honours dissertation. Remember I said my interest in Parliament has followed me since that Grade Two school tour? Yeah well, I was not kidding. Throughout my late high school career and time as a UCT undergraduate student, I knew that what I eventually saw myself doing would have some connection to the national legislature. It should then come as no surprise that my Honours dissertation centered on Parliament, to be more precise, its oversight function.

I sent through my CV and hounded Rashaad Alli who at the time was PMG’s inimitable coordinator. After numerous calls (I didn’t win the award for perseverance throughout my school career for nothing!) Rashaad agreed that I could come in and “shadow” another monitor to get an idea of what the work entailed. I even circumvented the writing exercise because I was so good at convincing Rashaad that I had exactly what it took to work for PMG! I couldn’t wait to begin.

I remember the meeting I shadowed – it was a meeting on the controversial Protection of State Information Bill that was attracting widespread media attention at the time. I already got my first taste of what having a front row seat to national decision-making felt like. I shadowed incomparable PMG monitor Susan whose fingers glided over the keyboard as she furiously captured the clause-by-clause discussion without the need to look up at who was talking because she knew exactly to whom the voice belonged to – I aspired to this!

A few days later I was given by very first solo meeting to monitor. It was the Portfolio Committee on Correctional Services. By any measure, it was a gentle start as the meeting agenda entailed internal housekeeping matters. It was a sweltering February summer day in Cape Town. I arrived early, made my way down to the precinct and proceeded to hunt down the venue of the meeting – no one tells you that most of the buildings on the precinct are characterised by a labyrinth of corridors and passageways! It must have been 20 minutes after the meeting had already started when I finally located V117 and every Member turned around to catch sight of my abrupt arrival – talk about starting at the deep end! Six years later and I am proud to report that I have come to master the maze and have come to learn the nooks and crannies of most of its buildings.

Photo: Monique Doyle Photo: Monique Doyle

Over the six years at PMG, I have attended hundreds of committee meetings, poured over endless PowerPoint presentations and written countless number of words. Somewhere in the middle of these six years I was awarded a Master’s degree where 28 000 words, you guessed it, centered on Parliament (this time, its Committee system and institutional capacity). I have been present and sat in on meetings that cover the full gamut: legislation, public hearings, oversight, inquiry, interviews and budget scrutiny. These meetings can also be categorised in the following ways: mundane, routine, interesting, explosive, historic and confidential.

I’ve encountered many friendly Ministers, who I initially thought would not be very approachable, formed friendships with Committee staff and sat through harrowing public hearings. I have seen MPs who have a deep passion and commitment to their work and the country. At the same time, I've sat in meetings where I have doubted this commitment. My hope is that the Sixth Parliament will really push its oversight powers and hold government and the Executive accountable with absolute vigour – my observations, and research, has shown that parliamentary committees are still too often conducting oversight in a passive way when it should instead disrupt comfort zones and so earn that public confidence desperately needed.

Meandering through the corridors and observing countless meetings has demonstrably proved that Committees are indeed the engine rooms of Parliament, cliché as that might sound. I’ve observed that MPs largely work together, despite party lines, except of course if the agenda of the day is controversial. Everyone works together in deliberating on legislation, holding government accountable (albeit to varying degrees) when receiving updates on the programmes implemented by a department. This stands in stark contrast to the functioning of the House when there is division on the same legislation everyone contributed to, critical debates and general showmanship. I have since come to learn that this is the nature of parliamentary politics. I’ve learnt more about the inner workings of Parliament in my time at PMG than all my years of studies – I’ve come to grasp the stages legislation pass through, how to read the Order Paper and ATC, the composition of government and the intricate dynamics of the Committees – the experience has been nothing short of priceless.

I like to think that in a very small, minute way, I have contributed to the functioning of the legislature, increasing transparency and accessibility to information to promote accountability. After all, the maxim still rings very true that access to information lies at the heart of empowerment. In my current role at PMG I have been working on a more analytical look at the functioning of the legislature and its core mandate and I have researched and produced studies on its public participation and legislative functioning. The research has shown me that while Parliament does perform well in certain areas, there are others requiring reform and attention. During its later life, the Fifth Parliament has exposed its teeth and given use a glimpse of what it looks like when the legislative arm of the state flexes its muscle. My hope is that the Sixth Parliament will pick up the baton and carry this momentum forward.

Monique Doyle is a researcher at PMG and holds a Master's Degree in Politics and Public Administration from UCT.

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