A new debate has broken out, and set ablaze one of the current political discourses in our country. Several political commentators and the public in general have announced their disappointment at the alleged push by Members of Parliament to hike their pay, especially shortly after recent hikes. They advance the argument that MPs should be more focused on the appalling pay of public servants and workers in general. According to this sentiment, MPs should dedicate more time as the mouth-pieces of the less privileged instead of advancing, more forcefully, issues around their own perceived plight. The alternative sentiment is well documented, that MPs are underpaid, at least compared to their counterparts in many parts of the world. Some MPs, within and outside our party, the UDC, purvey this feeling, joined by other segments within our society. On the balance of scales, this is likely to be the less popular side of the coin. Both sides of the sentiment carry some truth, but more importantly the current debate remains largely incomplete or unfinished. Both sentiments miss the point, almost completely. The reasons are clear why this is so (that we are missing the point):
Firstly, if Botswana had a well configured political or parliamentary system, this debate would not have occurred in the first place, and if it did, such a system would have realised that MPs are ill-positioned to be the ones spearheading the debate; Secondly, our Parliament needs the resources and facilities to do its work, before compensation can even become an issue, and as it is, our Parliament will remain a side-show-talk-shop without any meaningful contribution to the development or transformation of our people’s lives. This is a tragedy easily consumed only by those who either live in denial or who are yet to encounter the true insights into our country’s political condition; Thirdly, MPs should never have to be at the forefront of conceiving, or debating their pay in any system, as this would constitute an abuse of a privileged position, and this is why a separate, independent structure and mechanism for determining the remuneration of MPs remuneration is necessary. Consider the circumstances of an MP from Okavango, or one from Gantsi. They have to travel 600 or more than 700 km to reach the capitals of their constituencies. The areas of their constituencies are vast, or even larger than some countries. The expenses, incurred by travel adequate to cover these constituencies regularly (and equitably), are significant, so significant that they can rarely be afforded privately by any individual. Our democratic system should be carved in a way that it is the state that facilitates the reach of those elected to represent or service the people, irrespective of how far they live. This is therefore not a matter that should be resolved through salaries of MPs but through adequate facilitation of travel by representatives. The debate should not be about salaries, but partly about facilitating the reach of public representatives to ordinary citizens.
I am aware that some of our movement’s MPs, in particular, Hon Salakae, is quoted as having advanced an argument in support of significant salary hikes for MPs. Among my life’s privileges is to have known him, and it has pained to experience his weekly travel to Gantsi, on his private account, to an extent beyond what his salary is able to absorb. To be fair, it is not conceivable that even a doubling of MPs salaries would resolve his circumstances – not at all. The question should not be, and indeed is not, about salaries, but one of finding effective and sufficient means to facilitate such dutiful reach, for the sake of adequate representation of the people. Own salaries should never be the focus or the realm of MPs. Our parliamentary system may fairly be described as an executive-minded system. It is the executive that dictates parliamentary business – in a five day week; four of the days (save for a few short questions) are mainly executive branch (Government) business. Government tables bills and papers. Ministers have unfettered access to specialised bill drafters, sometimes within their ministries, but often at the attorney general’s chambers. The Attorney General consults with them regularly and through their drafters. Only one of the five days, on Friday, when most are itching to take off for the weekend, is private members day, a day on which ordinary MPs may table their own bills/motions. Parliament has only one legal counsel available to assist MPs with specialised services pertaining to bills or motions, mainly through referrals (if any) to the Attorney General’s chambers who themselves are preoccupied with executive branch business. Bill drafting capacity is not readily or adequately available for MPs. Specialty bill drafting therefore, for ordinary MPs, is available through private networks in the legal fraternity or available when MPs raise funds, privately, to fund them. This is a significant anomaly.
Most progressive parliaments around the world have several drafters and invest considerable time drafting bills on behalf of members of parliament. The way to resolve the bill drafting capacity constraint will not go away irrespective of MP pay. Our parliamentary committees have little access to senior professionals in key disciplines, and chairpersons are selected along partisan lines. Many committees remain paralyzed simply because chairpersons are at a loss on what their responsibilities are, and this is true especially in committees responsible for the economy and finances of our country. This is a major blight and lapse in our system, which conceivably will cost our economy billions of Pula over the years. This further demonstrates that the debate should not be about pay, but about empowering MPs with the intellectual infrastructure to pursue their role effectively. No matter how high the pay, a parliament that is denied significant intellectual infrastructure will never render meaningful or effective contribution to national development. Compounding the deficiencies occasioned by executive-mindedness, Parliament that relies on archaic rules that are rigid and uninventive, risks fading into oblivion. Take the case of the existing system in which a MP is allowed to submit as many motions as they wish, sometimes more that 50 or 100, as is the case in the current Parliament. The motions need not necessarily be well researched, or reasonable, as is so often the case. This means, Parliament may go on for long periods considering the motions of only one MP no matter how superb the ideas or motions of other MPs who may have submitted their motions a minute or second later, those ideas will not see the light of the day.
As is the case now, Parliament has been constantly debating the motion of a single MP, with little effect on the fortunes of the country, while substantial motions have been languishing for months upon months. Motions noticed on water and power regulators, mortgage guarantee schemes, health regulator, and on special types of investments remain in limbo because of our system. What would change this is not salary hikes for MPs. It is the system we need to fix. Some commentators have relished their own interpretation of the MP salary debate as one reflecting the greed of MPs, especially those of the Government-in-waiting-party, the Umbrella for Democratic Change. The new currency is that UDC MPs turn into silent personalities whenever the opportunity for salary hikes surfaces. This is man-made idea. On the contrary, the UDC has consistently advanced that case for the reform of our governance system, including the empowerment of Parliament through the provision of greater intellectual infrastructure (more depth of professional staff), true autonomy through an independent parliamentary service with a parliamentary budget office and fully-fledged bill drafting capacity. We have also often advanced our case for an independent commission and mechanism responsible for Member of Parliament pay, which parliamentarians or the executive has no power over, as is done in some jurisdictions. The current wrath by the public on MPs over the pay debate is understandable. MPs should not be debating about their pay – this is an obvious and blatant conflict of interest. This is not how Government is run. This is a distraction from what legislators should be focusing on, the interests of citizens. However, the idea that the UDC is silent is erroneous. The UDC has been consistent and crystal clear, that the debate should be about the restructuring and re-configuration of our Government system, not about the pay of MPs. The reconfiguration of our system is what will offer our country the best prospects for economic and social transformation.