Opinionista John Steenhuisen 1 April 2018

Unity of Purpose, not Centralisation of Power

There is no question that the Democratic Alliance has evolved into a large and complex organisation that requires ever more careful management, strategic decision making and astute political leadership. This is a result of our growth over the past two decades, and is something we can all be immensely proud of. However, the growth of our party – and its growing complexity as an organisation – brings with it a temptation to put decision-making power in the hands of fewer and fewer people, and to gradually remove checks and balances on decision-makers.

The need for nimble decision-making should however never be used as a pretext to justify concentrating power in fewer hands. We are, after all, a democratic party that believes in a devolution of power and constitutional checks and balances.

At least two of the proposed constitutional amendments to be debated at our Federal Congress signal a departure from these checks and balances. It is therefore our job, as constitutional democrats, to oppose these proposals when we meet at DA Congress 2018.

The questions on every delegate’s mind as we study and debate these constitutional amendments should be: Is this proposal genuinely democratic? Does it put power in the hands of the party members or the party bosses? Who is writing the rules? And are the rules written to benefit them or the organisation?

In the spirit of promoting constructive debate ahead of the Congress, and because there will only be a extremely limited time to debate these at the Congress, I am writing to share my views on two proposed amendments which concern me.

The first is the extension of leadership terms from three to five years.

Amendment no. 47 seeks to change the frequency of the DA’s Federal Congress from “once every three years” to “two years before the national and provincial elections”. In other words, under this proposal, the term of office for party leaders will be extended from three years to five years,

The explanation given by the Constitutional Review Committee is as follows:

The effect of this amendment will be that, subject to certain checks and balances, Federal Congress will be held only once every five years. This is because it now costs a huge amount of money to hold a one-and-a-half-day meeting, and while the renewal of mandates is critical, it is doubtful whether this justifies the expense.”

One thing that distinguishes the DA from other parties is the regular opportunity we give our members to hold their leaders accountable at regular intervals. Our opponents were stuck with a corrupt President who systematically destroyed the brand of his party precisely because of the five year mandate he received in 2012.

The argument advanced on the basis of cost is a straw man argument. It is surely up to us, as the membership of the party, to decide whether or not we hold expensive Congresses. If the choice is between a glitzy made-for-television extravaganza every five years and a low-key elective Congress every three years, then we must opt for the latter.

A Congress is not an election campaign launch, it is an opportunity for the party to take stock of itself, to focus on policy formulation, leadership accountability and strategic direction.

Unchecked and unaccountable leadership for a period of five years could cause significant harm to the democratic health of our party. While it may seem a perfectly comfortable proposal under the current leadership incumbents, we should not craft our constitution with these current incumbents in mind. Instead we should have an eye on the future and ensure that our constitution provides a safeguard for our party against any eventuality or risk that may present itself going forward.

The second area of concern relates to Amendment 54 which proposes that the following office-bearers should lose their position on the party’s National Management Committee: The Chief Whip, The Deputy Chairperson of the Federal Council, Federal Chairperson of Finance and the Parliamentary Leader. This also applies, by extension, to the newly created second Deputy Chairperson of the Federal Council.

The explanation given for the removal of these office-bearers from the National Management Committee is as follows:

The National Management Committee is intended to serve as a “sounding board” for the Federal Leader. Its membership should therefore be flexible, and it should be able to co-opt members as it sees fit.”

The first problem is that this characterisation of the National Management Committee is not true. The National Management Committee is not a “sounding board” for the Federal Leader. It is, as the party’s Constitution states, a federal structure of the party entrusted with the day-to-day management and administration of the party.

While there is certainly nothing wrong with co-opting people on to the National Management Committee, this should not be done to the exclusion of office-bearers that currently have the constitutional right to sit on that Committee. It is crucial, for example, that the Federal Finance Chairperson sits on the National Management Committee to ensure that party money is spent prudently and effectively. A similar argument could be made for the inclusion of the Chief Whip, the Deputy Chairpersons of Federal Council and the Parliamentary Leader (if applicable).

This amendment would mean that only four permanent office-bearers would form the National Management Committee: The Federal Leader, the Federal Chairperson, the Chair of the Federal Council and the Chief Executive Officer. The rest of the Committee would be co-opted to form a “sounding board” for the Federal Leader.

The National Management Committee is not a Politburo. It is a federal structure tasked with the important function of the day-to-day management of our party. As such, it surely requires the checks and balances that come with automatic membership for certain office-bearers. Removing these office-bearers and replacing them with people co-opted at the whim of the leadership will centralise power significantly.

We should surely, as a democratic organization, be endeavoring to widen the membership of important structures like the NMC in order to maximize both oversight and ensure a plurality of thought and ideas on this body. Making the circle smaller negates the purpose of the NMC and will affect both its credibility and functionality. Giving just four people the power to co-opt individuals could result in critical but important voices being silenced, and lead to a groupthink that would not serve the democratic cause of our party. DM

Steenhuisen is Chief Whip of the Official Opposition.

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