From a vantage point in the Parliament Watch, I watched with disbelief on Monday as one of the authoritarian chairpersons, Mr Tim Lwanga, hit the roof and evicted journalists from the Budget Committee. The only reason this man gave was that “his” committee was going to discuss “technical matters” and therefore, no need for journalists.
Well, that’s Lwanga for you. But for some of us who have over the years watched MPs come and go, we are reliably informed that by the nature of our training and experience, we are knowledgeable in public spending than some lawmakers.
So, the accusation that the journalists were not needed because the Budget Committee was going to discuss “technical matters” is a complete conjecture whose inner meaning insults journalism and confuses the symbiotic relationship between Parliament and the media.
Well, that’s not all folks! In the face of the current economic crisis and the biting shortages the country is facing, this Budget Committee abandoned free meeting rooms in the House and pitched camp in one of the luxurious hotels on Entebbe Road to discuss the proposed Budget cuts. The Budget Committee has more than 30 members.
According to my sources in Parliament, each MP was paid Shs1 for pocket money. To show how wasteful these MPs are at a time when they were meeting to cut ministries’ wasteful expenditures, for two days, they wasted more than Shs100 million.
What is not clear though is why these MPs decided to blow public funds in expensive hotels yet they could have used Committee rooms at Parliament and save that money for striking teachers and other suffering Ugandans who cannot afford ARVs or even those without drugs.
Why the MPs, including the opposition preach water and drink wine at night, will be a discussion for another day. But this week, let us look at the importance of an open Parliament, focusing on answering a fundamental question: Whose interests do MPs serve?
In the West, there is this idea that unless, public institutions are open to public scrutiny and susceptible to public opinion, true democracy cannot flourish and therefore, progress will always be like a dog chasing its tail.
On account of this principle, as part of the global movement toward more open and accountable government, citizens have become increasingly concerned with obtaining access to information particularly on budgets. In fact, Commonwealth Parliamentary Association (CPA) to which Uganda is a member, recommends unhindered media access to Parliament and its committees.
Similarly, the Inter-Parliamentary Union (IPU) to which Uganda is also a part and is hosting its 126th global summit here next year, believes that for a Parliament to be ‘open’ means, most obviously, that its proceedings are physically open to the public.
This may not always be straight forward in an age when the security of public figures is a pressing concern. However, other serious parliaments have found it possible to strike a balance between openness and security; in such a way that Parliament is manifestly seen to belong to the people as a whole, and not just to its members. This urge is premised on a belief that the best weapon of a dictatorship is secrecy, but the best weapon of a democracy is openness. The inner sense we draw from this counsel is that secrecy, breeds corruption and corruption kills public and private institutions.
Indeed, secrecy, particularly in public offices like Parliament breeds dishonesty, laziness, nepotism, and many other social ills. Certainly, secrecy means evasion, and evasion means a problem to the moral mind.
Why the secrecy?
By locking out the media from covering the Parliament proceedings, our representatives in the 9th Parliament, clearly began their five-year journey off-side. Unfortunately, this weird behaviour in Parliament is gradually eating into the House’s creed and has of late permeated committees, including the Budget Committee, which is supposed to encourage transparency.
When Lwanga evicted journalists from the Budget Committee meeting as if the discussion threatens national security, the Shadow Finance Minister Geoffrey Ekanya tried to plead on behalf of the journalists, but without any success, and in the end our lawmakers discussed the amendments to the budget behind closed doors in one of the lavish hotels outside Parliament building.
However, it should be clearly understood that under Section 20, subject to the Parliament Rules of Procedure, the sittings of Parliament or of its Committees including the one Lwanga chairs shall be public. With exception of Section 20(2) where the Speaker may, with the approval of the House and having regard to national security, order the House to move into closed sitting.
By allowing Mr Lwanga, whose dictatorial leadership appears to have betrayed him in many ways, there was a conspiracy of silence from the rest of the committee members. They purely looked comical especially when their chairperson claimed that they were going to discuss “technical issues” as if the 9th Parliament is the first to discuss the budget. These inexcusable events in Parliament will evidently remind Ugandans how Mr Lwanga’s leadership is a contradiction to Mr William Okecho and Ms Rose Akullo (Bukedea Woman), among others, who venerated an open-door policy in the handling of the Budget.
Call for action
Even so, in this column, we urge the rest of the MPs to see sense in openness and in the same spirit, the office of the Speaker should have a joint meeting with all the committee chairpersons/vice chairpersons to orient them on matters of good governance. Surely, Parliament should be the last institution to be seen promoting secrecy, wastage in government and corruption for that matter.
The lawmakers should know that the overarching purpose of access to information legislation, which is operational, is to facilitate democracy and rule of law. This Act does so in two related ways: It helps to ensure first; that citizens have the information required to participate meaningfully in the democratic process, and secondly, that politicians and bureaucrats remain accountable to the citizenry.
Parliament needs to foster a culture of openness in government. For that matter, the media undertake to work with Parliament to ensure public trust prevails, establish a system of transparency, public participation, and collaboration. Unlike secrecy, openness will strengthen our democracy and promote efficiency, honesty, transparency and accountability and effectiveness in government.
The rising assertiveness of committees is a welcome development. But for those locking out journalists on flimsy grounds need to reverse this naughtiness, it is not helping anyone.
Mr Lwanga and others should know that the media and Parliament share a responsibility to contribute to political, economic and social development in ways consistent with democratic principles by pursuing fact-based, fully substantiated reporting. Ultimately, economic development is best achieved and sustained in societies where the people are democratic and well-informed.
Source: Daily Monitor