The ground was set. The finance minister was accused of using Nu 19 million from the general reserves to meet capital expenditure in his constituency. The opposition party and the People Democratic Party (not in Parliament) had already questioned the government’s move through press releases.
The issue reached the Parliament. Two members questioned the finance minister, one from a member of the ruling party hinting at what other political parties did in the past. The questions were loaded but carefully worded. There was an expectation of a heated debate on an important subject – whether government reserves could be tweaked and used in the way the minister is accused of.
However, those watching the debate on national television and social media were left disappointed. The debate was cut short just when it was getting interesting. The issue at hand, the accusation and the concerns expressed on the usage of general reserves, needed deeper discourse. It is not that the audience wants to see parliamentarians argue and fight, but the questions and answers should convince people who are already convinced that the government or the finance minister is at fault.
The finance minister had brought along copies of the Constitution and other legislations to defend his case. He even sought permission from the Speaker for extra time. Unfortunately, the request was not entertained.
The issue is in the format of the Question Hour. A member questioning is given three minutes to raise the question and a responding minister seven minutes. Going by the number of times the Speaker had to intervene or remind members every question hour session, time is a big issue.
Depending on how articulate a member is, a good portion is lost before they could get to the crux of the question. As seen from yesterday’s session, background to questions or answers to put the issue into context is out of question because of the time limitation.
The question hour session in Parliament is important and an interesting part of the sessions. Members represent the voters who have questions but no space to ask. It is through the elected representatives that the people question government’s activities and policies, pledges and promises, besides keeping the government on toes.
Concerns had been raised about the format of the Question Hour in the past. The regimented session, many say, is not serving the purpose. Quite often, there are no follow up questions and answers to important issues. The issue of general reserve needed more time and discourse, not only because a minister is accused of misuse of authority, but it would clarify discrepancies and iron out differences between political parties.
The practise of prepared questions and sent well in advance should also change. There is no issue of catching a minister off-guard or not being prepared for the session. A minister is always prepared to tackle any questions related to his ministry, policies or plans and even accusations. The format lets ministers get away with vague answers or with prepared answers.
Debate, it is said, is the beauty of democracy. When we restrict elected members from debating on crucial issues, it is no different from that of aspiring political candidates “debating” during the election period.
The Question Hour, many say, is the most watched because people get to understand the issues discussed. Most of the time, the legal jargon and parliamentary terminologies when discussing Bills put them to sleep.