Westminster lesson for our MPs

Westminster lesson for our MPs

Westminster lesson for our MPs

British politician John Bright famously christened England the “Mother of all Parliaments” – a phrase now used in reference to Westminster, the fulcrum of British democracy.\r\nBut if Westminster is the Mother of all Parliaments, Uganda’s Parliament increasingly passes for the ‘Theatre of all Parliaments’.\r\n\r\nFrom piglets being smuggled into the House precincts by youths protesting against unemployment to Speakers fleeing the Chamber when debate heats up, to MPs being chaotically ejected from the House, you are never short of drama in Uganda’s legislature.\r\nSeconded to Westminster for a three-week stint with The Indy’s Parliament team, I was keen to know what parallels could be drawn from the two legislative settings.\r\n\r\nWith the phrase Parliament derived from the French verb “parlez” (to speak), the tongue has often betrayed our MPs and they could do better borrowing some oratory manners from their colleagues at Westminster.\r\n\r\nParliamentary business here is often derailed by redundant and long-winding points of Order, Information and Procedure – in stark contrast to the seamless flow of debate at Westminster.\r\nAt the peak of these interruptive tactics in 2011, a coterie of mostly NRM Women MPs went to ugly heights and coalesced into a loose alliance to shout down Opposition MPs. They were baptised ‘the Hecklers Club’ in the corridors.\r\n\r\nPrime Minister’s Question time is a highlight at Westminster. Journalists, often happy to follow proceedings from their offices, will cram into the press gallery, media houses live stream the 30 minute session while MPs are forced to find spaces in the aisles of the packed Chamber.\r\n\r\nThere is a clear model of who and when to ask questions during PMQs. These sessions never disappoint as MPs ask searching questions of the prime minister who must have both his wits and wit about him.\r\n\r\nTo come up with a list of who to ask, backbench MPs are required to enter their names on the Order Paper which is then randomly shuffled by a computer to come up with a list which is called by the Speaker.\r\n\r\nMPs not selected to ask are picked to ask supplementary questions as and when they “catch the Speaker’s eye.” The Leader of Opposition, who is allowed up to six questions, will always have the first hurrah.\r\nThis contrasts sharply with the jumbled approach in Uganda’s Parliament where a 45-minute PMQs session has been on since last July.\r\n\r\nMooted as an opportunity to have the prime minister definitively respond to matters of public interest, Uganda’s hit and miss model where MPs only get an opportunity to ask only after “catching the Speaker’s eye”, has not helped the spirit of PMQs.\r\n\r\nThe few MPs who are lucky enough to get an opportunity pose long-winding questions – often on non-issues – making the 45-minute session a monotonous waste of Parliamentary time.\r\nThe cunning former premier Amama Mbabazi was a master at skirting around imprecise questions.\r\n\r\nMinisterial questions is another model that Uganda’s Parliament could borrow from our former colonial masters. Though Uganda’s Parliament has a fairly organised model for questions to ministers, the latitude given by the rules allowing ministers a fortnight to respond has led to a backlog of questions without replies.\r\n\r\nRules could be changed to follow the Westminster model where ministers must answer questions straightaway.\r\nRaising quorum in the Uganda’s Parliament is an eternal difficulty and part of the problem is the dearth of an effective whipping system.\r\n\r\nHere, party whips, ideally expected to whip their members to attend to Parliamentary business, have long abandoned their roles. Opposition party whips seem to be too meek to rein in their members, while ruling party MPs are only whipped by President Museveni as and when the need arises.\r\n\r\nThe ongoing failure to raise quorum for members to vote on crucial bills and motions highlights the malaise in which the whipping system at Uganda’s Parliament is wallowing.\r\nMPs generally miss votes, not because they are busy, but more probably engrossed in idle chit-chat in either the canteen or their offices.\r\n\r\nBut with a stern whipping system, MPs would be reined in to perform their legislative duties. At Westminster, for instance, an Opposition MP had to cut short a lunch meeting with me and two colleagues to rush to the chambers to cast a vote after being called by his party.\r\n\r\nThere have been calls by some groups like the Uganda Law Society for the Speaker and Deputy Speaker to relinquish their party membership once elected to the Speakership in order to protect the independence of Parliament –especially from the Executive.\r\n\r\nConstitutional reforms have to address the need to have a Speaker free from political parties to avoid a repeat of the tiffs between Speaker Kadaga and the Executive [President Museveni and former premier Mbabazi] that dominated the formative sessions of the Ninth Parliament and hamstrung House business.\r\n\r\nIn England, the relationship between Speakers and the government has always been turbulent with seven Commons Speakers executed by beheading between 1394 and 1535, according to the Westminster website, until the office of the Speaker was divorced from the Executive.\r\n\r\nAs the Ninth Parliament enters its final lap, there is good food for thought from England which could help the next Parliament address procedural loopholes which allow MPs to hide behind certain rules to stymie House business.

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