SOMETIMES the truth hurts. Just like words: it may annoy, irritate, impress etc. If speaking the truth is likely to achieve some healing, it deserves to be told over and over and as it is. One wonders what stage of development Lesotho’s parliament will have reached by 2040 or the 13th Parliament? That attempts up to now have gone at a pace of a tortoise, despite many articulately made pronouncements, is another truth. The major question is why such a slow development?
If indeed the current opposition in parliament is honestly back in parliament, it deserves to be commended for ending their incorrect move to stay-away from sittings of the National Assembly. Their return makes them honourable once more. Those who will continue to stay-away only contribute to promote the decline of the dignity of parliament as a national democratic institution.
One painful truth is that the Lesotho parliament occasionally displays features which depict it as not up to the times. The recent prolonged stay-away by the opposition collective was another saddening event for a democratic parliament in this age. It occurred at the wrong time: when the nation was at work to assess the value of coalition rule. This event, (just like the erroneous swearing-in of an ABC member who had actually not been returned to one of the previous parliaments) deserved to be picked up, Clerkly, for the forum of the Association of Secretaries General of Parliaments of the IPU which Lesotho is a member of. Another truth is that the handling of that very IPU Assemblies has been turned into a committee undertaking, and not a matter of parliamentary delegations.
That ASGP forum is another most valuable source of learning for democratic member parliaments [provided they are prepared/willing to actually learn/adapt]on how best or better performers (humans) handle various challenges which befall their home parliaments. The IPU statutes refer to this ASGP as a think tank for national/member parliaments. There are surely other parliaments that could learn something from the Lesotho experiences or demonstrate to the world, the kind of parliament Lesotho now has after decades of undemocratic rule.
It would be of interest if that Lesotho communication could include some say on the Second amendment to the 1993 constitution: why the Congress government chose to enact such a sanction on absenteeism by MPs; and why the sanction it prescribes was not invoked during the recent stay-away. One reason could most probably be that the amendment did not anticipate a mass stay-away, and only anticipated few incidents of unreasonableness from Honourable MPs. But parliament being a procedural institution, action might mandatorily require that every stay-away MP be put through committee proceedings or rules of natural justice be so observed, for the necessary determination that one`s constituency, or seat for a PR member, deserved to be declared vacant. Could this be just a matter of communication from the Chair?
This is another reminder that a constitution has to be supported with instruments which can easily give effect to its intentions. Else, its other clauses will remain an end in themselves. Standing Orders could best provide for such unique situations and as a matter of pensionable salary affecting MPs.
There is another saddening and never mentioned truth about the parliament of Lesotho: it`s customary failure/incapacity to pick and implement some valuable cues from the many reports of its parliamentary diplomacy. There is one major cause of this: wrong attitude towards the staff function where their hands on the levers of influence are under constraints. The Senate got excluded from the new parliament building because of this. One such a cue was in the form of a clerkly recommendation from the [20th] Parliamentary Internship Programme for Foreign Parliamentary Officials (PIPFO) of 2004.
That overlooked cue could have helped defuse or avoid the recent events of the 9th Parliament. That cue or recommendation was that both parliament and its executive should adopt the concept or mechanism of Consultative Meetings as a parliamentary device to develop and promote good rapport between government and the opposition benches; bridge/narrow the gap between the potentially hostile camps and confrontational debates and actions on the House floor.
That devise provides for individual ministers and the opposition to consult in advance, and away from the rigid parliamentary environment, on policy issues before they actually reach parliament. That has to be a responsibility of an identified Minister e.g. that of Parliamentary Affairs. That is how a government may whip itself to at least appear more responsive to the interest of parliament, above its own. This could extend to Presiding Officers and Leaders of political parties in parliament. Not all items of business have to be heard for the first time by the opposition in the formal setting of the House or Business Committee. There are occasions when opposition backbenchers have to be prepared intellectually or their views/inputs sought on issues of national interest. At times, government may find it in the public interest to adopt a view originated by the opposition. The DC Deputy Leader set a very good example: he unexpectedly seconded a motion nominating a name of a non-DC member to be Deputy Speaker of the 8th Parliament. Parliament is a forum for the principle of give-and-take has to be observed.
This PIPFO is an annual event aimed at, besides bringing willing parliaments together to share experiences, demonstrating that democracy is dynamic and current practices have to adapt and be challenged by new parliamentary trends: e.g. what actually determines the Lesotho Senate to be referred to as the Upper House? What is upper about it as it is now? Others may argue this to be a serious misnomer. Many former colonies of Britain have gradually added something to the traditional Westminster practices to suit their different situations.
However, there is a sad possibility that these Consultative Meetings may not fit well for Lesotho: with its deep rooted culture of political hostility: the oil and water analogy is another annoying but undeniable reality and truth. Another cardinal rule of this parliamentary tool is that there should be no reference to a consultative meeting during formal House debates. Basotho being as they are, an opposition MP may instinctively wish to embarrass a Minister just to play to the gallery. Decisions of the forum are not binding on a minister. Success of this device calls for discipline, maturity and honesty. That some of our politicians lack in these could be another challengeable truth.
All these are cited as possible reform areas which could be considered. For a democracy to be in sound form, it is very necessary for parliaments to be in good health. As a Christian nation, one could expect the entire nation and its democratic institutions to be guided by Biblical teachings. How national actors interact is very important. Scripture, e.g. Luke 6:31, teaches that one should do unto others as he/she would like them do unto him/her. Political parties and their followers ought to be aware that a ruling party today may be the opposition tomorrow. Another truth is that the 9th Parliament opposition did not learnt how gentle the 8th parliament opposition was with the first coalition government; and how respectful to the constitution it was. They knew what it meant to be in government and in the opposition. When singing was necessary, they sang the National Anthem and not stokvel songs in a House of parliament. They never threw documents at ushers. Instead, they took them to the electorate and used them in their campaigns.
Parliament remains a temple of democracy. It may be likened to a temple referred to in Matthew 21:12 where Jesus chased out and overturned tables and chairs of those who were buying and selling goods in a Jerusalem temple of worship. In the case of the 9th Parliament, the electorate has the prerogative to view MPs who stayed-away, or any MP who does the unexpected in parliament, with doubt and not re-elect him/her in the next election.
The opposition has a role and responsibility to genuinely explore shortcomings and weaknesses of a government, and suggest (not prescribe) alternatives. The bottom line is that the opposition is entitled to have their say while government is similarly entitled to its way. Whatever expires in the House has to show that it occurs in a House of honour. Defeat of a minority view in the House is part of parliamentary democracy, while stay-away is un-parliamentary and unconstitutional.
The forthcoming reform exercise ought not to just focus on the systems. Attention is presently on local and national policy issues and misunderstandings on them. Lesotho parliament deserved to be capacitated to participate and deliberate in activities of international institutions. Parliamentarians have to be considered when a country delegation to the United Nations General Assembly is set up for oversight purposes; it has to have a say in the determination of international treaties Lesotho enters into; it must have some role to play in the terminations/appointments to statutory positions etc. Truth is that parliament is presently only informed or learns from the media. It has to grow out of this.
l Maluke is a former Deputy Principal Secretary: Ministry of Law, Constitutional and Parliamentary Affairs (BCP government); Clerk of Senate (2002-2010) and member of the Association of Secretaries General of Parliaments and of the Society of Clerks-At-The-Table of Commonwealth parliaments and of the SADC Parliamentary Forum. MP for Bobatsi No.80 constituency, 8th Parliament on DC ticket.