I belong to a club with a very small number of members. I don’t often meet other members of this club and when I do they often look at me in disbelief.
I belong to a small group of people who get very excited about parliamentary committees.
It’s very easy to believe that what parliamentary committees do is very boring. The work can certainly be very technical. It involves close study of proposed legislation, reports and submissions. And the processes used by parliamentary committees are very formal and legalistic.
But the roles that parliamentary committees play in an active and vibrant democracy are far from boring. They perform three very important functions.
First, parliamentary committees are part of the oversight mechanisms that operate in parliamentary democracies. They are expected to pay close attention to bills put forward by government and raise questions and concerns about what the legislation is intended to achieve, and how. One of the most important and potentially powerful committees is the Public Accounts Committee. Its job is to scrutinise how government through ministries, departments and other agencies spends public money.
Secondly, they are often referred to as the ‘workhorses’ of a parliament. It is at the committee stage that the text of parliamentary bills is revised and refined to ensure that it is correct and ready for debate by the full Parliament.
Thirdly, committees are able to liaise with the wider society about proposed legislation. They can invite submissions from civil society organisations, the private sector and academics about the issues that a parliamentary bill is intended to address.
Or rather, that is what parliamentary committees are supposed to do. In Vanuatu, and in most other countries in our region, this system exists on paper but does not function meaningfully in practice.
There are a number of challenges that Pacific parliaments face in making best use of a committee system.
They include having sufficient resources to support committees in their work, ensuring that committee chairs and members understand their roles and how to perform them, and being able to communicate the work that committees do in ways that add value.
Recently, Vanuatu was one of a number of countries from around the Pacific that took part in a seminar convened by the United Nations Development Program.
The seminar provided an opportunity for committee chairs and clerks of parliaments to share their experiences and learn from each other.
One of the objectives was to identify ways in which Pacific parliaments can make more and better use of the committee system. Dyfan Jones is a parliamentary specialist with UNDP and identified a couple of ideas to explore. One is changing the rules to make them more suitable for parliaments with small memberships:
Some Pacific Parliament have recognized that having a small number of committees meeting regularly and undertaking their work is preferable to having rules that provide for a long list of committees that rarely meet. A number of Pacific Parliaments have been looking at revising their rules to make them more appropriate for smaller legislatures.
This, in turn, may make it easier to make sufficient resources available to allow the committees that are most useful to work in ways that support the whole of the legislative process.
Those who champion the work of parliamentary committees often point to why they are good for policy. They have the potential to greatly improve the legislative process. This is something that is much needed in democracies where bills can be passed by parliaments with minimal (if any) debate on the floor of the House.
The methodologies used by committees mean that members of different parties can work together to progress meaningful policy objectives. This is markedly different from the confrontational point scoring that characterises interactions in the parliamentary chamber.
The use of parliamentary committees can also be good for politics. On the government side, committee work means that MPs not in cabinet are still able to contribute to important decision-making. Taking part in committee proceedings, including as chair, is a good training ground for new MPs in preparation for them taking on ministerial responsibilities.
On the opposition side, active involvement in the work of parliamentary committees is part of demonstrating an ability to form an alternative government. In Vanuatu there are often very few differences of policy position between government MPs and their opposition counterparts. In committees they can work together to achieve positive policy outcomes.
In many jurisdictions, there is a convention that a member of the Opposition chairs the Public Accounts Committee. This is in recognition of the importance of that body in providing an oversight of public expenditure. The Public Accounts Committee has the ability to be a very powerful check on the exercise of executive power.
In healthy democracies, governments recognise and support the valuable contribution that parliamentary committees can and do make. They make appropriate budgetary allocations to support the work of these committees. They ensure that committee members receive professional development in how to fulfil these roles. They make good use of reports and recommendations that the committees produce.
In Vanuatu, a renewed and enhanced commitment to the use of committees may lead to better policy processes and a better political environment all round.