1 May 2013

Call for a greater understanding of the role of Pacific MPs

4:47 pm on 1 May 2013

A Pacific governance specialist says greater understanding by MPs of the role they are meant to fulfil, as well as access to resources to enable them to do their work, are critical if parliamentary performance in the Pacific is to improve.

Professor Graham Hassell from Victoria University's School of Government says dissatisfaction among people of the Pacific Islands region with their elected representatives is common, but that they also need to better understand the function of MPs.

HASSELL: Each of the Pacific parliaments is at a different stage in their development. And the different aspects of the development of a parliament are partly to do with the quality of the representatives and partly the quality of the facilities that they get to use and also partly a quality of the civic life of those countries. So you have a combination of circumstances of people who understand the job that they're doing as a member of parliament.

BLADES: Because it doesn't seem uncommon to have an MP in some of these island countries who gets into office and looks after himself and his people, and, really, turning up to the chamber to debate or attend a session just isn't a priority, right?

HASSELL: Sometimes an individual enters parliament expecting to make a big difference. And finding out that parliament is not an easy place to navigate. You have to be part of a larger group in order to get your views through and to make decisions. And at the same time you've got your constituency who are expecting rapid results. And so you have to make a choice as to whether you spend your time trying to be a parliamentarian or whether you spend your time trying to deliver on basic goods and services. It's a tension that all Pacific MPs face. And some will spend their time delivering to what their constituents want and finding the resources to do that so they can continue in parliament and be re-elected. Some think that's the fundamental role of the MP, and others know that it's not, but recognise that if you don't do it you won't be respected by your electorate.

BLADES: Looking across the region's parliaments, do some of them fail to sit for the minimum amount of days?

HASSELL: One of the challenges in the Pacific parliaments is the confidence of the majority of members in the prime minister, and the reason for the volatility of the party system. So that any particular week that a parliament is sitting, the prime minister cannot be sure that everybody is going to stay on his or her team. Now, a number of governments have responded to that insecurity within the parliament by sitting the minimum number of days. Because those are the days in which they can be endangered as a government. So there's not much incentive for them, in a political sense, to sit as a parliament. But that's very damaging to the parliamentary program of the country. So there have been times in PNG's recent history, not so much in the last term of parliament, but in a decade or two following independence, where every time the government called a session of parliament they would face a vote of no confidence. Vanuatu is in the same situation. Solomon Islands is in the same situation and votes of no confidence have been used even in Tonga. And so, faced with this constant use of no confidence votes, governments tend to try to shy away from the sitting of parliament. This needs to be addressed because parliaments are the key space in which the people's representatives get to discuss not only lawmaking, but oversight of executive. And all these things are endangered if parliament doesn't sit. So you do have some Pacific countries that have been sitting as little as 20, 25 days in a year. That's not enough time to pass legislation. It's not enough time to view the statutory reports that are required to be tabled in parliament, required to be scrutinised by committees, and have those reports come back. So the business of parliament piles up. The public become frustrated because they know a report went to parliament and they haven't seen it scrutinised. And it hasn't surfaced in the public domain because it can't do that until it's tabled in parliament. So people get frustrated with their own parliaments. So the whole process of improving parliamentary performance in the Pacific is dependant on these three aspects. One is making sure that the MPs understand their roles and that they have enough resources to do their work, for example, their committee work, that they have enough research support to be able to conduct enquiries, that they have the physical facilities. For example, for many years in the Solomons parliament, the members couldn't hear each other just because the sound system wasn't there. There are many parliaments that don't have internet for their members. There are many parliaments that don't yet have individual offices for their MPs. Of course, the most important aspect is the people who send the representatives, what their expectations are of MPs, that they should understand the role is to look at national issues to scrutinise the government, certainly to form the government, but also to scrutinise it. And not simply as a representative who goes to the capital city and is meant to come back with as much resources for that constituency. That's not the primary role, that's the role of government services.

BLADES: Are many of the island countries actively looking to reform and improve their systems?

HASSELL: The majority of Pacific parliaments are very seriously looking at their ability to perform. Some do it with assistance from development agencies. For example, the Solomon Islands program with the new UNDP is well-known, the parliamentary strengthening programme. That's also taking place in Micronesia. Other countries have preferred to do it on their own, using their own resources to develop the capacities. Parliamentary performance is improving, the facilities are improving, and also the educational standards of members of parliament is also improving. And that's just a natural result of literacy rates rising around the Pacific, that now you get members of parliament who are very well-travelled, quite experienced in their own system but also internationally, and really entering parliament to make a difference. And also we are starting to see a few more women entering parliament recently in PNG, women who are very experienced in their own government systems and really desiring to make an impact on the life of the parliament that they're in.