HARARE – In 1787 in Britain, news reporters were first officially welcomed into the proceedings of Parliament.
And on the first occasion, Edmond Burke (1729 – 1797), an Irish statesman, writer and philosopher who, after moving to England, served for many years in the House of Commons of Great Britain as a member of the Whig party, is reported to have remarked: “There were three estates in Parliament, but in the reporters’ gallery yonder, there sat a fourth estate more important far than they all.”
Burke was referring to the governance system of Britain which comprised the three estates namely the Executive, the Judiciary and the Legislature.
The same is applicable in Zimbabwe.
The three estates play complimentary roles and are established in such a manner that they keep checks and balances, one towards the other.
For example, Parliament, which is the legislature, makes laws that are accented to by the Executive which includes the president and Cabinet, while the Judiciary implements them.
But from the time reporters found their way into Parliament, they made their own checks and balances, earning themselves the popular nickname of being the “fourth estate.”
In our own National Assembly, Wednesdays are devoted to questions for ministers to answer; while the Senate holds its question time on Thursdays. On the set days, there is a session for questions with notice and another for questions without notice. In the questions without notice session, MPs have the opportunity to pose impromptu questions to Cabinet ministers on issues affecting the nation with each question directed at a particular minister depending on their portfolio.
In the questions with notice session, written questions are forwarded to the ministers prior to the sitting and they are read in the august House for responses. Yet, in a worrying trend, some Cabinet ministers have decided to leave the entire job to their deputies who have a difficult time when hit by a barrage of questions from the legislators.
Up the gallery, newspaper reporters would be observing and taking notes to inform the world about what would have transpired.
The spotlight is back on the ministers once more with President Robert Mugabe last week officially opening the fifth and last session of the eighth Parliament by encouraging them to take Parliament business more seriously.
“Much more is expected from Cabinet ministers who should lead by example,” Mugabe said as he concluded his speech in the National Assembly on Tuesday last week, earning himself plaudits from opposition MDC legislators who have for long grieved against the absenteeism of Zanu PF ministers.
This week, Parliament agreed to set up a committee to make tabs of those ministers who would continue absconding the august House without excuse.
Yet, it should be noted that this is not the first time that ministers are skipping Parliament as they have been notorious for it for a long time. And Parliament itself had not been able to do anything at all despite a clear constitutional provision stating that by so doing, they would be in breach of the Constitution and therefore liable to sanction.
The absenteeism has made it difficult for the legislative assembly to exercise its oversight function, especially during the important Wednesday question time.
But there is another dimension to it which makes it very difficult for that committee which would monitor ministers to operate effectively.
The trend has been that it is tough to get ministers when the Zanu PF politburo is in session.
The politburo, in which the majority of ministers are members, normally meets on Wednesdays and they would prefer to exhibit loyalty more to the party than the national cause, as the trend has shown.
At its last congress in 2014, Zanu PF resolved that the government should report to its central committee, of which the politburo is the secretariat.
This has raised queries as to whether these ministers take the august House seriously.
In the worst case scenario, both the minister and the deputy abscond and this stretches for months until some questions become irrelevant after not being answered for a long time.
The situation is not helped by the fact that Zanu PF normally holds its politburo or central committee meetings on Wednesdays and Thursdays, the very days ministers are constitutionally required for question time.
In both the Senate and the National Assembly, you know the politburo is in session when front row seats that are reserved for ministers are unoccupied. Sometimes, even the Speaker of the National Assembly, Jacob Mudenda, vacates his high seat for temporary speakers.
In the absence of a responsible minister, legislators direct questions to the leader of the house, who is the minister of Justice, Legal and Parliamentary Affairs, which is currently occupied by Vice President, Emmerson Mnangagwa.
To his credit, Mnangagwa has been regularly attending the question time, although he too vanishes when the politburo meets, unable to leave the task of defending himself in the high stakes political game in the ruling party to others.
Some watchers have even suggested that the ministers have found it too difficult to forego the $1 000 allowance given for attending each politburo member at each meeting, especially given how Parliament has been failing to pay them sitting allowances.
For political analyst, Rashweat Mukundu, this was tantamount to national sabotage.
“Normally one expects a balanced approach to government and party business but in our case it is unfortunate that party business takes precedence. The priority of the Zanu PF government is not about accountability and development but about power hence the prioritisation of party business,” said Mukundu.
Parliamentary Monitoring Trust director, Sibanengi Ncube, said: “In any other country, Parliament business is taken much more seriously but it is different here, which is very unfortunate. It is for this reason that we are lagging behind as a nation in developmental issues.”
“What should be understood is that Parliament is a deliberative assembly of one nation with one interest, not a collection of emissaries from hostile interests,” he added.