Questions are the lifeblood of democracy

Jack Bloom MPL

Caucus Leader

Note: The following presentation was given by Jack Bloom MPL, DA Leader in the Gauteng Legislature, at a conference today: The National Government Masterclass on Capacity Building Frameworks and Leadership Development for Members of the Legislature, Coordinators and researchers to enhance Parliamentary Effectiveness, Governance and Accountability 2013, held at Southern Sun Elangeni Hotel in Durban on 22 August 2013.

I was elected in 1994 to the Gauteng Provincial Legislature as a member of the Democratic Party.

We were a small opposition party then, with only five members.

There was a provincial unity government consisting of the ANC and the National Party.

The spirit of those early days was on reconciliation. Historic opponents were sitting side by side, and trying to find a way of working with each other.

We were the first to ask official questions, and the first to table motions for debate.

There was a lot of hostility when we did this. It was seen as somehow traitorous to ask a difficult question of an MEC in the House.

But there was an effort to reply honestly and in detail.

We could initially ask a question for written reply with 15 sub-sections, which was later whittled down to ten.

I remember getting long written answers that really did try to be truthful.

This continued for some time, until the ruling party started to resent the bad publicity they got from some of the answers.

The replies started getting shorter, and there were delays in replying to questions that could cause embarrassment for the government.

Some questions would not be replied to at all by the end of the year, when they fell off the order paper.

Fortunately, the Rules Committee accepted an amendment that we proposed based on a rule from the Eastern Cape Legislature.

This required an MEC to explain at the next oral reply question day why the reply to the question was overdue, and then the written reply had to be submitted.

This has largely solved the problem of late replies, except that the provision for exemptions is sometimes abused.

The real problem is vague replies that are sometimes comically evasive.

A favourite one is to refer to annual report which doesn’t actually have the information which is required.

Another one is to say “according to budget” instead of giving an actual monetary figure”

We have had to resort to questions which say: “what is the actual monetary figure in rands and cents”, followed by “If an actual number is not given when asked above, why is this the case?”

It’s become a real cat and mouse game. It’s quite a disgrace that I have sometimes had to use the Promotion of Access to Information Act to get information that was refused in an official reply to the House.

Questions are the life-blood of a democracy.

Parliamentary staff should be assiduous in ensuring that departments adhere to the rules when replying to questions.

Even a one-member party can make a big impact with well-crafted questions.

Helen Suzman proved this in the old apartheid parliament, where she recalls that she benefited from Speakers who hated her politics, but were scrupulously fair in enforcing the rules of parliamentary procedure.

It is said that a good government needs a good opposition.

A government that responds well to opposition questions and debate will strengthen democracy and serve the people better.