Sunday July 20 2014

How low has the quality of debate in House sunk?

 

By Eriasa Mukiibi Sserunjogi

Kampala- Deputy Speaker Jacob Oulanyah, 48, is never shy to say what is on his mind, sometimes seemingly oblivious of who it may rub the wrong way. Not for the first time during his three years in the position, he stoked controversy in Parliament last week when he castigated the quality of debate in the House.

The bow-tied, stout representative of Omoro County in Gulu District speaks passionately and breathlessly in a piercing voice, picking up speed and intensity as he delves deeper into a subject. And what he says many times pierces people.

“You look at the quality of debate, look at the level of research,” the Daily Monitor quoted Mr Oulanyah as saying, “Someone just comes into the chambers and starts debating.”

Mr Oulanyah said most MPs now only talk politics because it does not require research. For that reason, he said, he no longer takes off time to read the Hansard – the official record of parliamentary proceedings - for he does not find what is recorded there illuminating anymore.

The MPs we talked to agreed with the deputy Speaker. All of them said, however, that Mr Oulanyah was telling only part of the story.

For the story to be complete, the MPs said, the role of the leadership of Parliament, of which Mr Oulanyah is part, needs to be put into perspective too.

Failed leadership?
“I am surprised that the deputy Speaker would say that; he spoke as if he is unaware of whatever is wrong with the administration of Parliament and how it affects the performance of MPs,” says Mr Mathius Nsubuga, secretary general of the Democratic Party and MP Bukoto County South.

In Parliament, Mr Nsubuga says, “We just do things ad hoc. Members will never know what exactly they will discuss and when. If you asked Mr Oulanyah himself what he is going to preside over tomorrow he will not be able to tell you.”

Mr Nsubuga says the Order Paper – which shows the order of business in the house for the day – is released at 11am when the house is due to sit at 2pm the same day. “How do you expect the members to prepare adequately?” he queries.
He says members were last week given “a vague outline” of what will be discussed during this session of Parliament, but that they are normally not briefed, say on a weekly basis, on what will follow.

Mr Nsubuga says even the time available for MPs to debate national issues is limited. The whole house (plenary) is supposed to sit from 2pm three days a week – on Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday.

But it almost always delays, kicking off at 2.30pm or 3pm. The debate goes on for about three hours, although on some occasions it takes longer.
He says the time available for the whole house to sit – about nine hours a week – “is too short for us to discuss all the issues exhaustively.” Mr Nsubuga says his experience when he visited the Parliament of Zambia – which sometimes holds two sessions a day – made him wonder why the Ugandan Parliament does not consider increasing plenary time.

This is Mr Nsubuga’s second term in Parliament but he says during that time, the whole house has only been able to discuss one report coming out of the two committees to which he is a member.

That was the Public Accounts Committee report into what went wrong with the preparations for the hosting of the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM) in 2007.

The other committee to which he is a member – the Committee on Commissions, Statutory Authorities and State Enterprises – has never had a single report discussed by the whole house during the period in issue. Parliament has no time.

Some more time
“I have consulted with many members and one of the things they disapprove of is this trend of giving them two or three minutes to debate on a topic,” says Bunyole County MP Emmanuel Dombo.

“You cannot deliver quality debate in three minutes,” Mr Dombo says, “People are cut off before they deliver their final argument and the Hansard cannot make interesting reading for that reason.”

He says he knows “a number of senior MPs who have given up debating because of this restriction.”
Could it then be that experienced legislators are being crowded out by newcomers who are keen to make a mark in whichever way? Prof Ogenga Latigo, who was the Leader of the Opposition in the last Parliament, has ideas on what should be done.

“First timers in the UK Parliament, for instance, will not be members of committees,” he says, “One should have to influence debate first and the leadership and in the house sees where to place them. We should not just be allocating people who may not even have interest to different committees.”

Mr Latigo thinks that it is an indictment on Uganda’s Parliament that even first termers can chair committees. “How would you expect the quality of debate to be very high under such circumstances?” he wonders.
So we will let one of the most experienced MPs, Mr Jack Sabiiti of Rukiga County, speak. And he starts with taking issue with the time allowed for them to speak. “You are trying to give background and the time is up,” Mr Sabiiti says.

In the past, Mr Sabiiti says, MPs were allocated sufficient time to “exhaustively discuss the topic of the day and influence their colleagues in good ways.” Part of the problem with the current Parliament, he adds, is that the numbers are “unnecessarily too big.”

Dig at the Speakers
But Mr Sabiiti says the problem is sometimes bigger.

“The Speakers sometimes do not know who is the right person to handle a subject so they just pick anybody,” Mr Sabiiti says, “If you pick anybody that anybody can say anything.”

Mr Sabiiti senses “a clamour in the house for everyone to say something lest the media will report that they have never spoken in Parliament.

This may force some members to say less than quality things on subjects they know very little about.”

Mr Augustine Ruzindana, a former MP, has spent years studying how Parliament’s work and training parliamentarians, especially those from ruling parties in Africa, on how to constructively contribute to debate in the House.

His studies and experience have led him to some conclusions. He now believes that one’s background matters little, so long as “they apply themselves well when they get to Parliament.

He points to a “standout”, former legislator, the late Emmanuel Pinto of Kakuuto County, who he says did well in the House “despite his lack of advanced academic training.”

Contrary to claims by a number of MPs that they do not have research assistants and that the quality of their contribution is inhibited as a result, Mr Ruzindana talks of “plentiful resources for those MPs who apply themselves.”

He says: “For those who are not skilled in finance and economic matters, there is the Budget Office of Parliament to help them.

Parliament also has a number of researchers and each committee has clerks. There is also a library, which long before the MPs got ipads was stocked with computers connected to the internet.”

These resources helped the MPs who came before to inform themselves, Mr Ruzindana says, arguing that the resources available to the current MPs are even better.

Mr Ruzindana says those MPs who pick interest in certain areas and prepare themselves are soon rewarded.

“After sometime the Speaker zeroes down on people who have something to add to the debate on each particular subject. That is why you see that in many parliaments 20 or 30 people consistently speak,” he says.

If it is a trend that there is usually a select few MPs who take keen interest in issues as Mr Ruzindana says, have the Speakers failed to identify them in the current Parliament?

How come that, going by Mr Oulanyah’s views, the debate in Parliament is not influenced in significant ways by the few MPs who are supposed to stand out?

War of the Speakers
On becoming Speaker, Ms Rebecca Kadaga said that she would come up with a time table detailing the division of labour between her and her deputy, Mr Oulanyah. It may be debatable to what extent that proposal was implemented.

What is known, however, is that Ms Kadaga and her deputy were involved in a conflict that spilled into the public sphere, with Mr Oulanyah accusing his boss of “setting me up” to look bad.

Mr Oulanyah said the controversial Bills were pushed to him, sometimes without sufficient time for preparation, making him to attract the public’s ire.

But be that as it may, Mr Oulanyah had also not won much favour with some MPs, who openly accused him of leaning towards the ruling party.

They cited his attendance of a meeting at the President’s home in Rwakitura between Mr Museveni and ruling party MPs. Ms Kadaga skipped it and many said that in attending it was potential for a Speaker of Parliament, who is supposed to be neutral, to be compromised.
Mr Oulanyah was also accused by Opposition MPs of guiding debate in the House in a way that favoured the ruling party. And this is a subject Mr Sabiiti would like to revisit as the quality of debate talk rages.

Speakers are sometimes biased,” Mr Sabiiti says, “They do not want to listen to some messages that may contradict their party positions (and) so they just ignore whoever may espouse such views.”

SO HOW BAD IS THE DEBATE?

Whatever the reasons anyone may advance to explain the low standards of debate in the house, Prof Latigo says the quality “has hit the basement.”

“I sent in a message mourning (former South Africa’s President Nelson) Mandela and someone in the House wondered how my message would be read when I was no longer an MP,” Prof Latigo says, “You can see the quality of thinking in the House. I used to watch the debates (on television) but I gave up.”

Even in what Prof Latigo considers “very sensitive” debates, like those on homosexuality and public order management, “you never see MPs rising above their parochial thinking.”

Prof Latigo and others are in the Constitutional Court looking to have the recently passed law, which puts strict restrictions and prescribes tough punishments for those who engage in the act or promote it, repealed.

Prof Latigo lost his Agago County seat in 2011 but he hopes to rebound into the house at the next election. “I hope the Parliament of which I will be part will be different,” he says.

Prof Latigo is lucky to be out of the house and he therefore does not have to contend with levels of debate he openly frowns upon. Mr Oulanyah, on the other hand, is not that lucky.

He has to stay in the House and continue participating in meetings, with a measure of leverage, which can do something to improve the levels of debate. He will be hoping that his full term report will be different what he recently published.

emukiibi@ug.nationmedia.com

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