Sunday, May 24, 2009

A tale of two parliaments

By Paul Trewhela

Paul Trewhela on what the British expenses scandal says about the South African system

"A very British revolution" - this was the headline of the Daily Telegraph in London on Wednesday last week, stretched across its front page in large print. As a comment on a great historical event, it was true. It is a lesson to South Africa. People of all parties, but especially in the Opposition, should learn from it.

For the first time since 1695, the Speaker of the House of Commons was forced to quit his post, by a combination of a free press, an outraged nation and a sufficient number of honourable and independent-minded MPs of the three major political parties. He will go next month, disgraced.

Corruption in Parliament, MPs who function as a self-enrichment club at the taxpayers' and the general public's expense: that was and is the issue, in both countries. The difference lies in how the two countries deal, or, in South Africa 's case, don't deal with it.

A free press, fundamentally self-regulating (subject to the law of libel, which is very ferocious in Britain), was crucial to this quiet and unviolent "revolution" in Britain, in which the most senior official in the country after the Queen and the Prime Minister metaphorically had his head chopped off.

The Speaker, Michael Martin, 63, a Scots former trade union official and Labour Party time-server, whose predecessor Speaker Lenthall refused submission to King Charles I in 1642, was pulled down from his office on Tuesday by the MPs he was meant, but had failed, to serve, after the Daily Telegraph had enraged the nation and shamed the House with issue after issue filled with details of corrupt practice by MPs of all parties, at the public expense. Speaker Martin had shielded the abuse.

"On the take!" What a South African story! By contrast with the shameful scam that is the National Assembly in South Africa, the parliamentary expenses scandal in Britain was brought to light, and will be dealt with, by a free press and a constituency-based parliamentary system. No cabal of party bosses will be able to save any corrupt MP in Britain from the wrath firstly of that MP's local constituency party and then, if the sleazeball still survives to be a candidate, from the electors in the coming general election, due in June next year at the latest.

Compare and contrast. This is a very big story in Britain. Really, though, it is a bigger story about South Africa, because no party in South Africa has had the courage to face the truth about the country's Electoral Law and its inbuilt racketeering of politics that was created in the supposedly "glorious revolution" of 1994, under the benign smile of Emeritus President Nelson Mandela.

At the last minute, before final agreement on the new post-apartheid Constitution, a quick fix was arranged in secret in 1994 between the National Party and the African National Congress - two parties with an unsavoury past in relation to the democratic process - resulting in an electoral law "unique in the world's electoral history", as RW Johnson wrote in the best short account of this travesty, in his book, South Africa: The First Man, The Last Nation (Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 2004, p.208).

For MPs elected to Parliament in Britain, its constituency-based electoral system makes every one of them accountable to a definite set of ordinary adult human beings in a particular locality. These real human beings select that individual as a party candidate and they can later de-select him or her. Every candidate has to justify his or her record personally to the voters, and each one of them can be sent to the scrapheap if they prove to be junk.

The electoral system, as Johnson pointed out, is "the key to the workings of the ... political system and thus the most important item in the constitution." (p.207. My emphasis).

The problem with the South African electoral law, Johnson continues, is that it is really a "scandalous political bosses' charter." Witness how last year a certain set of political bosses parachuted into the National Assembly a person they wished to install as interim President of the Nation, after it had decided to recall the existing President. How humiliating for both the outgoing and the incoming President - to be summoned like a naughty schoolboy to the Principal's office, or dispatched into office like a parcel. How humiliating for the society, when its most responsible representative is treated in this way!

With no constituencies at all in South Africa, as Johnson points out, there is "no possibility for local communities to have any control over their representatives or to choose who they might be". Even when MPs die or resign, there are no by-elections. 400 MPs are elected on a purely proportional basis from party lists. Any MP who disagrees with his or her party can be thrown out of the National Assembly by the party bosses, who are given the power to move people at will into and out of seats in parliament and the provincial assemblies.

As Johnson argued, this is a "monstrous" system. Of necessity it has "vitiated many of the democratic provisions in the rest of the constitution", providing the executive with the power to exercise unaccountable control over MPs from above. (p.208) Parliament under these conditions can only be a fiction, a cipher, a rubber stamp, a lie, in which a pack of salaried and pensionable placeholders go through the motions of democratic debate when in reality every real decision has already been taken elsewhere. It is a mockery of the century-old struggle of this society for a real and meaningful franchise.

One need only compare the nationally validated and complex process in which Parliament in Britain, goaded by transparency in the press, moved last week to eject its Speaker, with the process by which the former Deputy President of the country, Ms Baleka Mbete, herself a former Speaker of the National Assembly, was removed from parliament in South Africa a few weeks ago, like a naughty schoolgirl. Once beyond sanction in the Assembly over her conduct in the matter of her driver's license, all of a sudden this MP - one of the most powerful people in the country - lost all status, and was swept out like the rubbish.

And not a soul complained.

As a reader wrote in a letter in the Daily Telegraph on the day on which Speaker Martin announced his resignation, the previous ten days had "buried the idea of proportional representation" in Britain.

"If I believe an MP is a hypocritical thief, then I can vote against him (or her). How do I do that with PR? Or is that the idea?"

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