30 June 2018 marks #WorldParliamentDay. All over the world, parliaments exist to represent the people to ensure government by the people– this is said it to be the most profoundly important role parliament plays as an institution. Parliament represents the people by articulating the views of citizens in decision-making processes. Parliament can thus be said to be the bedrock of representational democracies or the sine qua non of representative democracy . It thus plays a unique and pivotal role that no other institution in a representative democracy can replace.
Parliament, in South Africa, ensures government by the people through its primary functions:
debate the important issues of the day: both houses of parliament hold debates in which Members discuss government policy, proposed new laws and topical issues of the day. The legislature provides a national forum for public debate of important issues
facilitating public participation
scrutinising, overseeing and holding government accountable: one of parliament’s main roles is to examine, check and challenge the work of government through questioning Ministers, debating and Committee work
the above is closely linked to checking and approving government spending (budget/taxes): the budget is presented to parliament by the Minister of Finance each year. MPs debate proposals and scrutinise the Finance Bills which brings the budget/taxes into law
make and change laws: another crucial role of parliament is to make new laws as well as make changes to existing legislation. It also has the power to repeal legislation and amend the Constitution
choosing the President: the National Assembly chooses the President (head of the National Executive) from amongst its Members
These functions are imperative to the effective functioning of democracies. Additionally, the work of Parliament is centred, theoretically at least, around transparency and openness – this gives the public insight into governance and critical decision-making. This is another element to consider when thinking about the importance of Parliament.
The South African Parliament consists of two Houses – the National Assembly and National Council of Provinces (NCOP). The NCOP represents the provinces to ensure provincial interests are taken into account in the national sphere of government by providing a national forum for public consideration of issues affecting the provinces . Parliamentary Committees are established as instruments of the Houses, in terms of the Constitution, to facilitate oversight and monitor government. Committees scrutinise legislation, oversee government action and interact with the public.
Without a democratic institution to fulfil these important functions and represent the people, government would not be held accountable, democracy would be without a vital check and balance and there would not be public representation. “A democratically elected parliament is the only true voice of the people and it serves as the basic plank of a democratic system. One of its core principles in the principle of political equality, meaning that political power should be distributed as widely and as evenly as possible among the people. This principle is captured by the adage: government of the people, by the people and for the people”.
World Parliament Day has allowed for a unique opportunity to reflect on the important and invaluable role parliament, in South Africa and globally, play and why they matter.