John Roughan: The Dog Ate My Homework!
The Dog Ate My Homework!
14 November 2005
These words were the creation of a young school kid to excuse himself for not fronting up with a homework assignment. The class teacher could give such a student an 'A' for clever thinking but would certainly lecture the boy for failing to turn in his homework. However, last week the Minister's excuse "My car didn't work!" to clear himself for not attending an important parliament sitting showed neither creativity nor more importantly understanding how critical parliament's work is to the sound running of the nation. After all, Honiara boasts fleets of taxis and a phone call or two would soon secure a ride for the stranded minister.
The PM immediately sacked both offending ministers for failing to attend parliament. This was not only correct but long overdue. But ministers not showing up at parliamentary meetings is a clear sign of how far off our present members understand what this body is about and how its ineffectiveness over many years has led to the weakening of good governance. Ministerial no show, unfortunately, is not new. Parliament's last session only a few months back, for instance, was cut short. The Speaker was forced to adjourn the whole last day's proceedings because the house lacked the required numbers.
Unfortunately for our country, Cabinet has taken over running the nation while parliament, the law making part of government, has shown itself much too weak. The whole idea behind a strong working democracy is that government's three branches--the law makers, the executive with its ministries and the judicial--work best when they are in balance and pull in harmony. If one part of government dominates for too long, as has been the Solomons case, then the whole fabric of governance weakens.
Last week, for instance, the Rennell and Bellona member, revealed in parliament that Cabinet disregarded its own rules. It had officially appointed a select group of parliamentarians to study the sale of the Cultural Centre. However, Cabinet forged ahead on its own and sold the property to a PNG developer BEFORE committee members had a chance to discuss the issue. This decision and others like it clearly show that Cabinet sees itself alone as government and the other two branches are minor players.
If, however, Cabinet members had proven themselves, over the past four years, to be sterling leaders, exhibiting astute business sense and forward looking, then the nation would probably forgive them their excesses. But the opposite has been the case! History is hard pressed to find another Cabinet over the last twenty-seven years of independence that has witnessed so many ministers actually serving jail time, others currently facing serious criminal charges, as a group easily duped by overseas con men and guilty of trying to import million of tons of toxic waste in the name of development.
These mistakes are public knowledge. What of others not yet surfaced? Waiting in the investigative wings are certainly even more serious cases of fraud, submitting false compensation claims and gross misuse of public funds. These failings are not simply something on the personal level but have affected the whole nation for years. Had parliament, however, been more pro-active, more involved with the good working of the nation, national interests would have been better served.
The fact that parliament sits for less than 50 days a year is a travesty of good governance. This is a major reason why many parliamentarians think their major role is to be a social welfare officer--handouts for medical, schooling, transport, etc.--and a development worker funding projects. Since they spend less than 50 days a year in law making, the other 300 days are taken up with these roles: welfare and development. When members of the public and parliament itself seek more session days, the executive cries: "No money!" This becomes a convenient way to keep parliament weak and ineffective. The few days each year that parliament sits does much to undermine its proper work. Side lined to part time work, the institution has grown unimportant. The PM and Cabinet lay themselves open to the charge that they fear a dynamic, full time and working parliament. One that keeps a watchful eye on the executive, how it spends the national budget but especially acting in a monitoring role on ministerial work.
The new parliament to take office in March 2006 has its work cut out. A booming economy with machinery of government working well are incapable of themselves to bring the Solomons back in balance. New House members, for national health, must insist on the rightful place of the institution among the Executive and Judiciary branches. Anything less is unacceptable.