The opposition Democratic Alliance (DA) party says Minister of Defence and Military Veterans Lindiwe Sisulu still has to provide a follow up answer to the many “non-answers” to Parliamentary questions she has submitted since assuming office last May.
National Assembly speaker Max Sisulu on Monday tabled a letter in Parliament from Deputy President Kgalema Motlanthe saying he had written to ministers who have failed to answer questions “requesting an explanation for each question that had not been replied to and information on how the ministers intend ensuring that all questions are answered within the time frames set by Parliament in the current parliamentary session”.
The letter, dated February 18, was in reply to a letter Sisulu, the defence minister’s brother, had written to Motlanthe in his capacity as the leader of government business asking how unanswered questions were to be handled. Motlanthe had last November instructed ministers that all written replies to parliamentary questions be supplied by December 15. Despite this, 119 questions had not been replied to by that date.
Sisulu and police minister Nathi Mthethwa both had 13 questions outstanding in January. They were not the worst offenders, with the transport ministry owing 26 and the health department 16. However, Sisulu’s answers included a number of “non responses”, questions that were answered with the phrase: “We have requested the necessary information as soon as that has been received a substantive follow up response will be forwarded.”
DA defence shadow minister David Maynier says to his knowledge not one such question ever elicited a “follow up response”, including one asking whether any security-related improvements had been made at state expense to her private home(s). Sisulu has repeatedly said in speeches and media statements that she respects Parliament and parliamentary convention.
But the legislature itself took issue with the quality of defence ministry responses in November when the Parliamentary Questions Unit said it would no longer accept ministerial responses to Parliamentary questions as answers unless they addressed the issues raised. Parliamentary official Michael Plaatjies told the DoD in an email copied to the Speaker that the response “We have requested the necessary information as soon as that has been received a substantive follow up response will be forwarded” was not an answer but merely information.
“After careful consideration we have determined that the responses provided were not replies to the questions, but were information. We have therefore returned all such questions to the question paper until the replies are provided,” Plaatjies wrote.
Business Day newspaper Tuesday noted “Parliamentary questions are a vital oversight tool, particularly for opposition MPs, and it is the convention that they are answered promptly and truthfully.” The paper said most of the unanswered questions had been posed by the DA but there were also some from the Congress of the People (COPE), the Independent Democrats and the Inkatha Freedom Party.
DA parliamentary leader Athol Trollip said he was “encouraged by Motlanthe’s letter” to the ministers and that in the face of their habit of ignoring questions it would be instructive if Motlanthe’s letter received a satisfactory response. “But if they cock a snook at this request from the deputy president then it will be deeply revealing of their attitude to their responsibilities. The ministers have been put on terms and we will wait with interest to see what happens,” Trollip said.
COPE national spokesman Phillip Dexter told Business Day his party had been perturbed by the lack of responsiveness from the executive for some time now. He said COPE had intended to raise the matter for debate in the National Assembly but in the light of Motlanthe’s intervention the party would give it a “few weeks” to see if there was any response. If Motlanthe’s letter failed to elicit the desired response then COPE would go ahead and raise the matter in the National Assembly, the paper said.