Portfolio committees

Parliament last week constituted its portfolio committees, the working groups that oversee the work of government departments.

While the membership lists posted on the legislature`s website are not yet final – and do not reflect all 13 parties in the legislature – some early observations can be made.

Firstly, the portfolio committees appear to be smaller than those of the Third Parliament. The Portfolio Committee on Defence and Military Veterans, for example has 13 members versus 25 in 2005. Although there are exceptions, MPs also seem to be serving on fewer committees. This is good. Multiple committee memberships in the past undermined subject knowledge and conflicting agendas often made it difficult for MPs to attend meetings.

Secondly, a considerable number of MPs are what the Americans will call “freshmen”, in other words, are new to Parliament and its ways of doing business. One trusts they will continue the nonpartisan tradition employed by most of the last Parliament`s committees and set politics aside when calling departments to account.

Not all veterans from the Third Parliament have returned to their former committees, many moving to new pastures. This has created the risk of low institutional memory, which poses a very real threat to holding department to account. When the slate is wiped clean, officials can rely on the shallow understanding MPs may have of their portfolios to escape sanction for even egregious evasions, half-truths and terminological inexactitudes.    

It is incumbent on our Parliamentary representatives to quickly become familiar with their portfolios. They will be well advised, however, not to consider the departments they supervise as their primary source of information. Officials have a vested interest in keeping MPs at bay: if they don`t know the detail of what the departments are doing, they cannot know what the departments are doing wrong. A rosy view of this phenomenon is that it buys the bureaucrats time to fix problems and present the solutions to Parliament, but experience with serial mal-performers such as the Department of Home affairs shows this is not always so.

It is easy for committees to become consumed with superficial supervision. Some members of the previous defence portfolio committee spent much of their time focusing on racial and gender representivity rather than asking questions, for example, such as why the Military Health Service costs more than the Navy. The latter has a combat and national security role, while the former has a logistic function.

It was only late last year under Benji Ntuli – who has sadly left Parliament – that the committee started asking hard questions. This resulted in a hard-hitting report in March – that must still be “adopted” or “noted” by the National Assembly – that pointed out key weaknesses for attention and action.

This report, which takes a good look at the military`s funding, state of readiness and the like should form the basis of the committee`s work. It also deserves defence minister Lindiwe Sisulu`s full attention.

SA has a small defence budget and it is vital that every cent allocated to this crucial area be well spent.

To adapt the words of former US president General Dwight Eisenhower, every misspent Rand, every bungled project, every cost overrun, signifies, in the final sense, a theft from every soldier, airman, sailor, medic and policeman who has volunteered to put their lives at risk for the rest of us.

We dare not fail them.

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