Parliament had to be adjourned last week Wednesday during the second reading of the Finance Bill because Members of Parliament, who were present, could not constitute a quorum for the debate to proceed, the Financial Gazette can report.
On December 8, 2016, Finance Minister Patrick Chinamasa presented before Parliament the National Budget for the current year that now needs to be debated in the National Assembly before it is either adopted, amended or discarded.
Last week, Chinamasa tabled the Finance Bill for the second reading, but Speaker of Parliament, Jacob Mudenda, was forced to adjourn sitting after the majority of the legislators absconded.
This was the second time that debate on the Finance Bill had to be aborted for lack of quorum.
Parliament needs a quorum of at least 70 of the country’s 270 legislators to be present.
The incident has sparked heated debate about the attitudes of MPs towards the business of the august House.
A major characteristic of the parliamentary sessions has been the prevalence of empty seats as most MPs prefer to do their private businesses when the house would be in session.
Some of the lawmakers have become notorious for showing up just to register their availability before hastily retreating from Parliament building to conduct their personal business.
As a result, Parliament has not been effective in the discharge of its legislative and oversight functions, with critics accusing the assembly for having been reduced by the Executive branch of the State to a mere rubberstamp.
In the debate that ensued following last week’s poor turnout, it was alleged that MPs were using parliamentary time to moonlight in order to make ends meet.
It was argued that just like the rest of the country’s citizens, whom they are supposed to represent in Parliament, lawmakers have been equally affected by the prevailing economic hardships and are now using every trick in the book to survive.
It emerged during the discussions that some of them were using vehicles allocated to them under a Parliamentary scheme to ferry passengers in order to earn an extra dollar, while the business of the assembly was suffering.
Mudenda believes, however, that their absenteeism was a result of indiscipline because the business of Parliament was not being taken seriously.
Kuwadzana East MP, Nelson Chamisa, argued otherwise, saying circumstances were forcing legislators into moonlighting.
“I think it will be very difficult, Honourable Speaker, Sir, for you to come to the conclusion that absence is on account of indiscipline and their absence is on account of mere dereliction of responsibility of duty,” said Chamisa.
“I know you are not an exception, Honourable Speaker, Sir. You also leave this Parliament from time to time because you have to find a way to survive. Your chair, Honourable Speaker Sir, has not been given the dignity it deserves by government. The dignity that has to give it the comfort and security of that office and we are really worried about that. It is an issue you may need to take due cognisance (of),” he concluded.
In response, Mudenda took exception to inferences that he was also moonlighting.
He said: “This is not a Chamber to advance populism. Your first calling is your duty to Parliament and not moonlighting. Let us protect the Constitution and create time for other things. That is why I sit in my office and wait until debate is completed, I do not go out moonlighting,” Mudenda said.
Chinamasa cautioned MPs who skipped parliamentary sittings to avoid justifying their corrupt activities on the basis that they were underfunded.
“If you justify corruption because we are not funded, who are we going to oversee and who will be taken seriously? We just come here, collect our coupons and go wherever and at the end of the day, the truth of the matter is, if we follow them, they are not going anywhere,” said Chinamasa.
“Some MPs are now pooling their resources together and are resorting to using one vehicle to travel to Harare and back before reselling their fuel coupons on the black market.”
Uzumba MP, Simbaneuta Mudarikwa, said legislators’ vehicles were now recognisable along the country’s highways as pirate taxis.
“Their cars are always overloaded because they are saying they want to make ends meet. I have a picture in my phone of an Honourable Member’s Ford Ranger that was overloaded. His mind is now full of poverty. Whenever he sees people, he wants to carry them,” Mudarikwa said.
Legislators receives US$75 per sitting and an average of 120 litres for those travelling between Bulawayo and Harare.
MPs from outside Harare also get accommodation and meals during parliamentary business.
Concerned by the continued absence of MPs from Parliament, the Southern African Parliamentary Support Trust (SAPST) has since called on Treasury to urgently review their conditions of service.
SAPST director, John Makamure, said: “MPs conditions of service must improve significantly because of the important law making, oversight and representative roles that they play. Their conditions of service are currently pathetic.”