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A manual for Members of Parliament: Assisting newly elected legislators to understand rules of procedure

A book titled: Members of Parliament: The job of a backbencher (Macmillan Press,1990) carries the following statement: “In the days immediately following a general election, the Palace of Westminster is full of earnest men and women. They are the new members of Parliament, and for many among them, the job which they have just been elected to do is something of a mystery”.

This statement is equally relevant to almost all newly elected members, not only those at the Palace of Westminster in London; but of many other Parliaments elsewhere, including that of Tanzania. The main reason for the alleged ‘mystery’ is that the Rules of procedure, as well as the other conventions and processes of Parliament, will of course be completely new and totally unfamiliar to them.

This will be much the same for the newly elected (and nominated) members of the Tanzania Parliament who are now on their way to Dodoma, ready to carry out the job for which they have just been elected.

This article is intended to assist them in understanding the Rules of Procedure which guide the deliberations of that august House, the Parliament of the United Republic of Tanzania; and also, equally important, to understand the other parliamentary processes and principles (known as conventions), which they must observe.

I am aware of the tradition under which the Speaker’s Office arranges special seminars for the newly elected MPs in order to expose them to the Rules of procedure which are used in the National Assembly.

Because of that, I will only focus on explaining those unwritten principles, or conventions, which are not usually included in the presentations made during the said seminars, but a knowledge of which is equally important for the members.

The Parliamentary convention The word “convention” as used in the context of this article, means ‘the way in which something is usually done’. The purpose here is to explain those things which are usually done in relation to our Parliament, but which are generally unknown, because they are not written in any law, not even in the formal Rules of procedure.

The relevant parliamentary conventions include the following: (i) The convention of starting Parliamentary sessions always on Tuesday. The Tanzania Parliament normally holds four sessions in every calendar year, generally in the months of February, April, June/July (the Budget session), and in November.

The most enduring tradition in this respect is that these sessions always commence on a Tuesday. That is why even the first session of the 11th Parliament has been summoned to commence its business on Tuesday, 17th November, 2015.

It is classified as a ‘convention’ because it is not expressly provided for in any written Rule of Parliamentary procedure. (ii) The convention of recognising what is known as ‘the two sides of the House’. The ‘two sides of the House’ means the Government side, and the Opposition side.

Traditionally, members of the Ruling Party and members of the Opposition parties sit on opposite sides in the House. Members of the Ruling Party are normally allocated seats on the right hand side of the Speaker’s chair, while members of the Opposition are allocated seats on the opposite side, to the left of the Speaker’s chair.

This convention was inherited at the time of independence from British House of Commons practice, but became unnecessary and was abolished upon the introduction of the One-Party Constitution in 1965, which eliminated opposition parties from the House.

However, the practice was re-introduced upon the re-introduction of the multiparty Parliament in 1995. (iii) The convention of recognising the ‘essential role of political parties’ in the House. This convention is based on the presumption that political parties are a fundamental factor in the Parliamentary system of governance.

And because the road to Parliament is through elections, that is why political parties have been given such a vital role to play in the matter of elections. These parties must compete in the elections in order to enter Parliament; and serious competition always involves two essential things, one is organisation, and the other is discipline.

The important point to be noted here is that political competition between political parties does not stop when the elections are over, but it now shifts to Parliament, and shifts together with its twin requirements of party organisation and party discipline. (iv) The convention of accepting ‘party discipline’ in the House. This arises from the fact that political competition shifts to Parliament immediately after the elections are over.

The tradition of maintaining party discipline in the House is in fact fully recognised by the Rules of the House; that is why these Rules make provision for the appointment of a leader known as the “Government Chief Whip” for the purpose of supervising the maintenance of party discipline on the parliamentary side of the ruling party; as well as the appointment of another leader known as ‘the Leader of the official Opposition’ for the same purpose of supervising the maintenance of party discipline on the opposition side of the House.

The Government Chief Whip is a kind of prefect. His job is to supervise the performance of Ministers within the House, as well as that of the other members of the ruling party, in order to ensure that they generally act as one solid team in supporting their government. Similarly, the Leader of the Official Opposition also acts as a kind of prefect.

His job is to ensure that members sitting on the opposition side of the House are united and disciplined in carrying out their constitutional task of securing continuous accountability by the government in the performance of its duties and functions.

It is precisely for this reason that the Leader of the official opposition is mandated to form what is known as a ‘shadow cabinet’, each member of this group is given a particular range of activities, which normally are the responsibility of a specific government Minister, for which he is expected to direct criticism against the government’s policy and performance in respect of that particular Government Ministry.

The Opposition’s weapons inside Parliament are: (a) asking questions, and (b) active participation in debate. In carrying out these functions, the Opposition has to bear in mind two important objectives. One is to ensure that the Government is at all times kept actively on its feet in the performance of its responsibilities; but its second equally important objective is to endeavour to achieve, if possible, the government’s defeat at the next general election.

This is normally done by the opposition side trying to demonstrate to the general public, either through the strength of their parliamentary questions which they put to Ministers (aimed at demonstrating the government’s failure to perform), or through powerful and convincing arguments against the government, put forward in speeches delivered by their members during debates in the House.

This is perhaps easier said than done; because in order for them to succeed in performing this function, the Opposition must be presenting what is commonly described as “constructive and responsible criticism”, so as to demonstrate to the public that they are indeed capable of forming a viable alternative government. (v) The convention of the ‘alternative Government-inwaiting’.

Under this convention, ‘the shadow cabinet’ is regarded as the alternative ‘Government-inwaiting’. This convention was designed to operate when the Opposition succeeds in defeating the government at a general election, whereby members of the erstwhile shadow cabinet now become ministers in the new government.

This convention is a key factor in the Parliamentary system of governance, which is designed to operate on the basis of “government by political party”, namely that the political party which wins an election forms the government of the day, but the losers continue with their challenges to the government from the opposition benches inside Parliament, in preparation for the next election.

The parliamentary Rules of procedure In the language of Parliament, the Rules of procedure of the National Assembly are known as “Standing Orders”. They are made (and amended from time to time as may be necessary) by the House itself, under authority granted to it by article 89 of the Constitution of the United Republic.

Understanding the Rules of procedure is indeed the first and foremost obligation of every member of Parliament. Some wise man once observed “A system can work well only if the people who are entrusted to operate it not only believe in that system, but actually struggle to make it work”.

Members of Parliament are strongly encouraged to struggle to make our parliamentary system work well by acquiring a proper knowledge of its Rules of procedure. Such knowledge will at least enable them to avoid committing the kind of procedural mistakes, or even outright breaches of these rules, which might necessitate the intervention of the Speaker.

A summary of the relevant rules For the purpose of assisting the new members of Parliament to understand the most relevant Rules of procedure which govern their participation during debates in the House, as well as the maintenance of order and decorum therein, a summary of these Rules is presented very briefly below.

Categories of parliamentary business There are two main categories of business which is transected in the House every day, each of which has a set of applicable rules. They are: (a) Questions to Ministers, and (b) motions which are moved to initiate debate. (a) Questions to Ministers.

The rules applicable in the case of questions to Ministers include the requirement of notice to be given, the valid purpose of asking questions, the manner of asking them, and the Speaker’s control of questions. (b) Motions to be moved.

Every debate in the House is introduced by way of a motion (Hoja) moved by a Minister (in the case of government business) or, for non-government business, by any other member. The general rule is that the process of debate in the House must commence with a motion being moved to that effect by the person responsible for the matter which is to be discussed.

Such motion must be seconded by another member, failure of which renders the motion ineligible for debate. There are several rules governing the introduction of motions, including the requirement for notice to be given, the manner of giving such notice, the minimum period of notice required, the form and content of motions, and the withdrawal of such notices where necessary.

There are also rules governing amendments to motions, particularly with regard to the form and contents of such amendments The rules governing debates. Debate is the everyday business of the House. There is a set of Rules governing debate in the House.

These include the time and manner of speaking in debate, how to raise ‘a point of order’, and the right of reply for the mover of the motion which is under discussion. There are also rules which govern the contents and relevance of speeches which, for example, forbid the interchange of personal abuses, and the use of what is known as ‘un-parliamentary language’; they also forbid allegations being made against persons outside the House, and the citing of documents which are not before the House.

Other Rules provide for the maintenance of order and decorum in the House. The procedure for making decisions. All decisions which are made in Parliament are made through public (and not secret) voting by the members present and at the material time. This is done either by voice vote, or by roll-call of the names of all the members present.

With very few specified exceptions, Parliamentary decisions are never made by secret vote. The only exceptions are when members are voting to elect their leaders, namely the Speaker and the Deputy Speaker; and when they are voting to approve the name of a new Prime Minister submitted to them by the President. It is only in these specified cases that members are required to make their decisions by secret vote.

The requirements for making valid decisions by Parliament are provided for in the Constitution of the United Republic, as follows: (i) There must be a quorum in the House at the time of voting to adopt any motion, (which is one half of all the members of Parliament). (ii) A decision becomes valid if made by a simple majority of the members present and voting on the relevant motion, except where the Constitution provides otherwise. (iii) The Constitution has indeed provided otherwise in three specific cases, namely (a) when Parliament is making amendments to the Constitution; (b) when Parliament is passing a resolution to impeach the President, aimed at removing him from power; and (c) when Parliament is passing a resolution to remove the Speaker from power.

In all these cases, the requirement is for a two thirds majority of all the members of Parliament.

piomsekwa@gmail.com /0754767576

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Author: PIUS MSEKWA

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