The newly elected interim leader of the DA, John Steenhuisen, who is also the party’s parliamentary leader, says he is on a mission to help restore the dignity and decorum of Parliament and to get it working again as a watchdog rather than a lapdog.
Steenhuisen addressed the Parliamentary Press Gallery Association – his “home crowd” as the former chief whip called it – on Thursday as his charm offensive since being elected interim leader over the weekend wound its way back to Cape Town.
He described Parliament as the “most crucial institution of our democracy”.
“When it works as it should, it reflects the will of the people and it serves their interests.
“The first and most obvious step toward achieving this is letting go of the notion that we are enemies inside the House. We may be political opponents, but when we sit in those benches we are bound by a common goal. Our collective job is to find solutions – to put forward coherent arguments for the ideas we believe in, and to listen with open minds to ideas that may be at odds with ours.”
Steenhuisen said South Africa had a vibrant multi-party democracy, reflected in Parliament’s benches, but the country would not benefit from this plurality of ideas if MPs do not learn to reach across the aisle to find common ground.
“I know such common ground won’t always exist – there are some issues on which we fundamentally disagree – but there is plenty we can agree on. And if we are to make Parliament work for the people, then we have to be open to co-operation.”
He said Parliament had failed to live up to this standard in recent years – “a daily circus of insults, disruptions and even violence”.
“And you have seen, first-hand, the deep polarisation and paralysis of Parliament that this has caused,” he told the assembled parliamentary journalists.
Steenhuisen said ordinary South Africans knew MPs were well-paid to do a crucial job.
“But all they see is grandstanding and insults. It is little wonder that voters are increasingly losing faith in the democratic process.
“We need to turn this around in this Sixth Parliament. We need to re-establish Parliament as a place of big ideas, vigorous debate and service to the people of this country.”
He said Parliament has two constitutional duties: to pass legislation that gives all South Africans a better life and exercising oversight over the executive.
“We have all seen, over the course of the Fourth and Fifth Parliaments, what happens when Parliament abdicates its responsibility to hold the executive arm of government to account: Our state falls into the hands of the highest bidder.”
He said state capture could have been prevented “had Parliament simply done its job”.
Lapdog to watchdog
“This Sixth Parliament needs to find and show its teeth again. It needs to go from lapdog to watchdog.”
Steenhuisen’s first proposed intervention is a standing committee to exercise oversight over the presidency.
“It is the only department that has no such oversight committee and is therefore allowed to operate without any scrutiny.”
He is also a proponent of changing South Africa’s electoral system from a pure proportional representation to a hybrid system where some seats are awarded on proportional representation, and some are elected directly by voters.
“The problem with the current system is that MPs don’t answer to anyone except their own party, and this has removed all accountability from Parliament.
“A purely constituency-based system, while far more accountable, wouldn’t be ideal either because small parties would be crowded out. The answer lies in a hybrid system, where there is both accurate representation of the vote and a degree of direct accountability to voters.”
Steenhuisen said the DA would introduce several bills aimed at strengthening oversight and building an accountable and capable state, and also stimulating and sustaining “the key agenda” item: economic growth.
“If what we do inside the House does not contribute to this growth, then we’re doing the wrong thing.”