Defend Truth


Parliament: SA’s expensive, bloated whale

By Ian Ollis
12 Jul 2013 0

Ian Ollis is currently a candidate for the Masters of City Planning (Transportation) programme at MIT in Boston. He formerly served as a South African MP, (Shadow Transport, Labour and Education Minister). He has also worked as a city councillor in Johannesburg, briefly lectured at Wits University and ran a real estate company. He has no dogs!

As this parliamentary term draws to a close, it occurs to me that I have spent almost five years working in a system that is somewhat archaic. The public is not getting value for money from this institution. Under the Zuma administration and the watch of Mathole Motshekga, Parliament has become an expensive bloated whale, and there are key interventions that government and members could push for which would make the institution much more effective.

Firstly, the size of the Cabinet needs to be radically pruned, as it is wasteful and reduces rather than improves the effectiveness of Parliament. Let’s put it in perspective (due to Cabinet shuffles, numbers are approximate and exclude presidents and prime ministers but include deputy ministers): In 1910, South Africa had 14 Cabinet ministers. De Klerk operated with about 33 ministers and deputy ministers. Mandela had around 42, Mbeki and Motlanthe had around 48 and Zuma has grown the total to a whopping 63. By comparison, Obama has to make do with 14 “secretaries”, Angela Merkel has 15 and Cameron and Clegg have about 20. Mandela, of course, had to make room for a Government of National Unity, which made Cabinet a little bigger than usual and had several deputy presidents. Each one has two luxury automobiles – apparently a new BMW 740i is de rigeur (Blade had to also have the silk paintwork, the heated steering wheel, the bar fridge…), two official residences (Pretoria and Cape Town), offices for staff etc. The cost is astronomical. Zuma argued he wanted to speed up service delivery. Clearly that was a wash!

However, it is the knock-on effect in Parliament that is so crucial. Each ministry has to have a corresponding Parliamentary Committee to oversee its work, consider legislation and approve budgets. We now sit with over 36 such parliamentary portfolio committees. This means in effect that only two parties have sufficient MPs to sit on all committees – The ANC and the DA – effectively already creating a two-party state and leading to the ANC frequently challenging smaller opposition parties with the statement “But you never attend the committee, how would you know what’s going on?”

Committees often sit simultaneously, requiring an endless number of committee meeting rooms. Each room must be equipped with sound recording equipment and needs to be assisted by a researcher and a secretary. Venues must also cater for seating for the media, officials summoned to Parliament as well as the public. Parliament has effectively run out of such venues, after converting several kitchens, caucus rooms and closets into committee rooms, and is now hiring hotel facilities and boardrooms. Each of these committees is supplied with two sets of coffee and snacks in the morning. If the morning meeting is planned to continue through lunch, lunch is provided; similarly with supper. Morning tea the other day consisted of platters of seafood – prawns, calamari and fish cakes – and a colleague tells me that his committee had lamb chops. At 10:30 IN THE MORNING! If the committees end at a reasonable time, of course, we buy our own lunch, supper or whatever. The president should never have appointed all these ministers and deputy ministers. Has anyone noticed an improvement of service delivery since the Mandela Cabinet? Has there been any increase in quantity or quality of legislation? I fail to see the need to have more than about 20 Cabinet ministers or parliamentary committees.

Individual MPs should rather have more staff capacity for their own research purposes. Few members of staff are made available to assist individual members of Parliament in their research and oversight work. Most MPs share a researcher between 10 or 12 people, and similarly a secretary between 8 or 10 members. So instead of capacitating individual MPs, the money goes to venues, food (the bill is now R18 million per annum, I’m told) and committee staff, all of whom are accountable to the administration – read ANC. In the UK, each MP is allocated a staff budget “intended to be enough for three full-time staffers. Individual salaries are at the MP’s discretion,” according to the UK Parliament’s website. This is augmented by interns. In SA, with our 11 official languages and related problems, should an MP be less equipped?

Parliamentary housing is located too far from Parliament. Parliamentarians are provided with housing for a low nominal rental in three parks – Acacia Park, Pelican Park and Laboria Park. The latter two are owned by government and the former is rented from the Hertzog Trust, reportedly, and maintained by public works. Hundreds of millions are spent each year, on maintenance and service costs, by public works. MP’s are ferried into Parliament every day by a fleet of air-conditioned luxury buses, together with some staff, who live in the villages. It’s an archaic system and needs to be reviewed. I tried to convince Trevor Manuel on several occasions in private discussions that the way we are doing this is inefficient. We should sell off the two government-owned villages and move MPs into apartments in town, close to the Parliamentary precinct, and get rid of all of the buses. The monthly costs would go down dramatically and MPs could walk to the office, getting some much-needed exercise in the process and probably getting more work done avoiding an hour-long commute each morning.

Finally, we have fallen into a trap by making use of a Parliament that seats all MPs simultaneously and is televised. The public tut-tuts if seats are vacant. However, if you will permit one last comparison with Westminster, the British Parliament consists of 650 MPs but only seats a maximum of 427. In major debates, the balance of MPs stand. However, the difference between these two systems masks an important truth. British MPs are not always all in the house. They may be in committees, or in their offices, attending to correspondence with the public. Our National Assembly chamber, because of its size, looks dreary when MPs are not all seated (which rarely happens) and is televised, leading to the constant complaints by the public that MPs are not doing their work. Virtually all MPs will agree that, if they are not on a speakers list for the day, or voting for or against a bill or report, that they do most of their real work outside of the house. The bulk of our work happens in committees constructing or amending legislation, in our offices drafting or amending press releases, replying to correspondence from the public, or speaking to the media, not to mention all of our constituency work. This has led to the drive to amend the rules of Parliament to allow laptops or ipads into the house. Simply sitting and listening to endless ANC lectures on Apartheid all afternoon for 20 years is not what we should expect from MPs by anyone’s reckoning, should we? DM

Ollis is a DA MP.