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Opinions of Wednesday, 1 July 2020

Columnist: Frank Annoh-Dompreh

Celebrating International Day of Parliamentarism


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Mr Speaker, 30th of June, 2020 is a red-letter day in the political career of every Member of Parliament across the world as it has been earmarked as International Day of Parliamentarism. The International Day of Parliamentarism is commemorated every year on 30 June, exactly the date in 1889 on which the Inter- Parliamentary Union (IPU) was founded.

It is imperative to note that, the Day was established in 2018 through a United Nations General Assembly Resolution. The rationale behind the celebration of this is to recognize: (i) the role of parliaments in national plans and strategies, (ii) Ensuring greater transparency and accountability at national and global levels.

Mr. Speaker, the obvious question our constituents might ask is “Why celebrate this day?” Just like any international day that is created and celebrated on the United Nation calendar, the primary objective is that to educate the public on issues of concern, to mobilize political will and resources to address global problems, and to celebrate and reinforce achievements of humanity.

It in this similar fashion that this International Day of Parliamentarism is earmarked to celebrate parliaments and the ways in which parliamentary systems of government improve the day-to-day lives of people worldwide. The celebration of the day gives the opportunity for various parliaments to take stock, identify challenges, and ways to address them effectively. An International day such as this is significant since it is embraced as a powerful tool for advocacy.

Mr Speaker, kindly permit me to borrow the words of John Allen Fraser, a retired and astute Canadian parliamentarian who in his profound speech said ‘If the institutions of parliamentary democracy are worth preserving, the duty to explain them to the people they are meant to serve becomes vitally important’. It imperative to note that, a memorable day like this cannot pass away as any ordinary day without accessing the contributory role of parliaments to the institutionalization of democracy. Parliaments play an integral and indispensable role in democratic political systems.

With reference fromIPU and UNDP Report 2012, there is an assertion that “parliament is not sufficient to ensure democracy but democracy cannot exist without it”. In furtherance, friends from the academic communities, have gone so far as to suggest that the strength of the national legislature may be the institutional key to successful democratization and the eventual consolidation of nascent and incipient democracies across the developing world. In practising democratic economies, the parliamentary institutions are mandated to discharge an oversight responsibility and as such, in principle, parliaments have three key functions: holding the executive to account; making and approving laws; and representing citizens and mediating between competing or conflicting interests in the policymaking process.

Mr Speaker, like all humans institutions characterised by flaws, parliaments across the world have their unique challenges and limitations. This, therefore, suggest that parliamentary institutions are not sacrosanct, nonetheless, there is always room for improving the quality of work input and outputs of parliamentary institutions.

It is noteworthy to iterate that, instituting an international day for parliaments is earnestly important at this critical time for parliamentary democracy, when Inter-Parliamentary Union Webpage Report indicated that people are losing trust in political institutions and democracy itself is facing challenges from populist and nationalist movements. If democracy is to thrive, then parliaments, as the cornerstone of functioning democracies, need to be strong, transparent, accountable and representative.

Mr Speaker, on a day like this, I would want to use the opportunity to do introspection to parliamentary institutions across the world by addressing it successes that it has chalked so far. In terms of women representation in parliament, the percentage of women parliamentarians has increased from 11.3% t in 1995 to 24.3% as of February 2019 according to United Nation Women report, 2019. The steady increment in widening political participation involving women is one major feat that cannot be underemphasised.

In the case of developing parliamentary democracies, Rwanda leads with 61% of her parliamentarians being women, which is a great pacesetter for other democracies to emulate likewise. Again the deliberative roles of parliaments worldwide make it an obstacle to the untrammelled exercise of power. For instance, in Myanmar, the transition from half a century of military rule is underway, with new spaces being created for freedom of expression and political action. Significantly parliaments across the world also link international and national agendas, ensuring that governments implement international treaties and agreements that they sign up to.

They play a vital role in implementing the 2030 Agenda for sustainable development and the Inter-Parliamentary Union (IPU) has been working closely with them to help build their capacity in doing so. In countries emerging from conflict, robust parliaments can help make possible a peaceful transition to a functioning democracy by healing divisions in society through dialogue and cooperation.

Mr Speaker, parliaments as an institution across the world is faced with a myriad of problems. The problems include the following:

Public skepticism: It is no secret that citizens do not hold politicians in high esteem. According IPU conference report, 2015, a survey data everywhere suggest that public confidence in the authority of parliament is low and falling. The reasons are multiple which includes: The competitive nature of politics means that there are almost always winners and losers, promises that cannot be kept and problems that cannot easily be solved. A toxic combination of adversarial politics, broken promises and a perceived inability to bring about positive change undermines public confidence in political processes.

Secondly, public understanding of the role of parliament is generally limited, and even the most highly educated may struggle to distinguish what is the preserve of the executive and what is that of the legislative branch of government. This contributes to unrealistic expectations of what parliament and individual parliamentarians can achieve, and commensurate disenchantment when they are perceived to fall short.

Thirdly, Citizens clearly expect their elected representatives to serve the public good and parliamentarians to be morally beyond reproach. Parliamentarians are arguably held to a higher standard in that way than other sectors of society. Instances of misconduct are magnified by the media lens, and perception of unethical behaviour, even corruption, can spread to the entire political system.

Finally, IPU survey found that, people question the relevance of parliament when they do not see what it does on their behalf. It can be difficult to demonstrate how the work of parliament is important to people’s lives in concrete terms, and what life would be like if parliament did not exist.

Much decision-making power no longer resides at the national level, where parliaments can exert the most influence. Global financial markets increasingly shape our national policies, and international agreements can constrain a State’s ability to regulate the economy independently. More decisions are taken within intergovernmental forums where parliaments typically have little influence. For instance regarding the rules of international trade – and national politics are seen as powerless to influence developments.

Unequal power relations between the executive and legislative branches of government. By extension of this, in a large majority of countries, parliaments have the constitutional right to initiate legislation, yet most laws originate with the executive. Parliament’s law-making role tends to focus on the scrutiny of executive proposals, with limited opportunities for individual parliamentarians. The executive also often controls the parliamentary agenda, including if and when bills are scheduled for examination, a power often hard-wired into the political system. When the ruling party has a parliamentary majority, even though parliament may formally sets its own agenda, control may remain in the hands of the executive.

Parliament’s power to hold government to account lies at the heart of executive-legislative relations. And yet in practice, the members of a party in government have strong incentives not to challenge that government, such that the oversight function is typically left to opposition parties. Parliaments are therefore trying to develop systems that allow for effective oversight of the executive without the appearance of launching an “inquisition”

Globally, according to data collected for the 2012 Global Parliamentary Report, a relatively small percentage of State budgets (an average of 0.49 per cent) is allocated to parliament.

Parliaments face the challenge of keeping up with changes in society, such as the use of technology to solicit input from citizens on issues under debate. In all parliaments, even the long established and well resourced, there is tension between the need to evolve in step with society and the desire to preserve traditions and working methods often forged through decades of hard-fought political battles

Mr. Speaker, in our earnest quest to build a resilient parliamentary institution, it behooves on us to take the following into consideration

promoting the development of democratic culture in society, and underscoring the importance of political tolerance in the parliamentary arena;

investing more in civic and political education for children in schools; making concerted efforts to encourage people, especially young people, to vote;•making a public commitment to the core values of a democratic parliament – one that is representative, open and transparent, accessible, accountable and effective – and putting these values into practice;

ensuring that parliament is gender-sensitive in its rules, processes and legislative work;

enhancing the power and ability of parliament to oversee the executive on behalf of the people;•systematically monitoring public perceptions of parliament, seeking to understand the reasons for such perceptions and how they can be improved;

Adopting special measures to ensure the composition of parliament is more reflective of the composition of society as a whole, notably with regard to the number of women in parliament;

Insisting on the need for vibrant internal democracy within political parties; Experimenting with new forms of public participation in decision-making and budgeting;•providing more and better support to parliaments that wish to build institutional capacity, in line with the Common Principles for Support to Parliaments;

Democratizing the system of international relations, enhancing the role of parliaments vis-à-vis the issues that are high on the global agenda, and further developing the parliamentary dimension of the work of the United Nations. Mr. Speaker, I would like to conclude that the paradox is that while parliaments remain a symbol of hope and the belief that people can have a voice in decision-making, they continue to face many challenges, in long-established as in more recent democracies, nonetheless their contributory role in national and international development never go unnoticed on this memorable day.

This is because parliamentarians and its parliamentarian s are worth celebrating. I would like to conclude by applauding all parliamentarians across the world for the good works they have devoted their intellect, time and energies doing just to make our world a better place to live. As said by John F. Kennedy, as I expressed gratitude in this case to all parliamentarians, we must not forget that the highest appreciation is not to utter words but to live by them.

Rt Honorable Speaker, I owe you much gratitude for giving me the opportunity to break words on this memorable day. Thank you.

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