The crisis of public trust in Parliament and the way out

Monday November 11 2019


By Emilly Comfort Maractho

I received an email from a concerned Ugandan in the diaspora, who after reading my article on the proposal to raise teacher’s qualification to a bachelor’s degree, was disappointed that I had not written about the minimum qualification for Members of Parliament instead. He argued that although he agreed with my position on teachers, the real problem was with the levels of education politicians needed to qualify for elective office.
He strongly objected to the current minimum qualification of Uganda Advanced Certificate of Education (UACE) for MPs. In a country where people are over qualified for most jobs, this position is perhaps justifiable. After all, I recently saw an advert in which administrative secretaries for a government agency were required to have a Master degree.
Fortunately, I attended the 3rd Annual Legislature Sector Review between October 30 and November 1 in Kampala. I listened to the steps Parliament has taken to strengthen its capacity and improve public engagement. Speaker Rebecca Kadaga was candid in her speech, pointing out areas in which she felt more work needed to be done. It was interesting listening to the speakers and appreciating some things I took for granted. Parliament, it seems, was doing serious soul searching and looking for answers to its challenges.
This meeting enabled me to reflect on this email. Obviously, it is not the first time that questions around the qualification of MPs is being raised. Many find it odd that for a job that pays so highly and requires so much from the job holder such as making laws, appropriating funds and providing an oversight for the executive, there is a basic minimum qualification.
I realised that it may make little difference if the minimum qualification of MPs is raised to, say to a Master degree, as the person who emailed me suggested. Currently, majority of MPs are highly educated despite that basic requirement. Many are knowledgeable. The challenge of their effective delivery is largely tied to things like the number of MPs now counting at 459, party politics that is difficult to comprehend in the current context, and commercialisation of politics.
The consequence of these challenges has been emergent crisis of public trust in Parliament and politicians. The 10th Parliament has probably had the worst perception in recent years. There is a general hangover of the 6th or 7th parliaments, depending on where one stands. Hence, many Ugandans believe that Parliament has limited relevance, legitimacy and meaningless mandate. All these have impacted on their mandate and how they deliver it, as well as their image. As such, many MPs perform functions beyond their mandate, paying school fees and funeral costs.
This crisis of public trust emanates from unreasonable expectations and little understanding of the role of Parliament or an MP among the public. This great expectation probably hurts them most. If you are on WhatsApp or any social media, you have probably heard your MP despised and dismissed as shallow. Sometimes blanket statements that sound like the whole tribe of MPs are a ‘hungry’ lot with one intent to fleece the poor and steal from the government, surface.
Yet, one must look at an institution like Parliament as a unit in which the output of the MP is a product of a system. That system is there. Part of the cure lies in strengthening that system. Through the sector review and other engagements before, I learnt that Parliament has invested in a number of avenues to enhance evidence-based support in the legislative process through its budget office, the committees, research department, Hansard, ICT and library. The department of research services is quite strong and capacity building is ongoing, for which I am pleased. The department, thus provides up to date, objective and reliable information. This is a step in the right direction.
On the one hand, majority of MPs are unlikely to spend more than a decade in Parliament. On the other hand, the technical staff will remain and ensure continuity. As such, this group needs to be empowered to support the MPs in doing their job well. The quality of legislation and oversight is more likely to be enhanced by a strong technical team like the clerks, researchers and communicators. All these can repair the reputational damage it currently faces.
Even then, going forward, we need to have conversations around the numbers in Parliament, its potential impact and cause some action. There is no doubt, the numbers have affected the quality of debate, legislation and consultation of citizens. Other conversations to have are on the relevance of the current multiparty politics in the fashion that it operates today, the nature of elections that brings these multitudes of people to represent us, their qualification, and the nature of possible public-Parliament engagement. Only then can Parliament regain part of the lost public trust and truly legislate for sustainable development as it expects to.
Dr Maractho is the head and senior lecturer, Department of Journalism and Media
Studies at UCU.