Zimbabwe: New Parliament Building Long Overdue

AT long last the Parliament of Zimbabwe has the premises that it needs to function effectively with the completion of the new Parliament Building in Mount Hampden.

The importance and convenience of the new building is not just having debating chambers that can actually accommodate 350 Members of Parliament and 80 Senators in reasonable comfort but other amenities as well.

One major problem, that has been commented on many times by presiding officers, has been coping with the dual role of Ministers and Deputy Ministers.

Most are members of the National Assembly and the Senate and the handful appointed from outside have speaking rights in both houses.

So when Parliament is sitting they are supposed to be available, both to represent their constituents and provinces, yet they also have their executive functions running the Government.

And being available on sitting afternoons has become ever more difficult, as Parliament sits more often and the workload of a Minister rises.

In the old days Parliament did not sit for nearly as many days as it sits now and in any case almost all Government offices were within a block or two of Parliament, so it was easy for Ministers to be called over to the office if they were in the Chamber or vice versa.

That has not been the case for several decades and gets more difficult as the years pass and traffic builds up.

The new complex, built as a gift from China, has a lot of offices to help deal with this problem. It is now easy to assign all Ministers with a private office in the complex, and for their private secretaries who can keep their appointments books, and for their permanent secretaries when they are about to speak in Parliament as a Government Minister and need access to the files and data from their Ministry’s administration to provide comprehensive and accurate answers.

The new complex will make it a lot easier, with modest commuting on sitting days, for a Minister to do both jobs, representing their constituency or province in the Chambers, giving Parliament the answers to questions and sitting through debate on their Ministry, but still being accessible to their Ministry.

And that is a major gain for both the constituents and the administration. We should be seeing a lot less of the problem of the Speaker or president of the Senate having to make it clear that Ministers need to be present when they are physically in the same complex on sitting afternoons.

The new National Assembly chamber sensibly follows the basic design of most Commonwealth Parliaments where the Members who support the Government, the majority, sit opposite the opposition, with overflow into cross benches, again divided by an aisle in the new building, which can also accommodate the odd independent or small party.

This helps to prevent factionalism and makes the jobs of the whips a lot simpler. The amphitheatre designs, the other common arrangement, regrettably allows splinter groups and factions to form, letting someone be one step to the left or right of another.

That design in fact led to the terms “left” and “right”.

One more major advance is to be able to give each MP and senator their own small desktop and chair, which has not been the case in the old building since 1962.

Sitting on benches is all very well but in the old days Parliamentarians found it useful to take notes without balancing a notebook on their knees and these days that is more likely to be an electronic notepad.

This should help upgrade debate in the Chambers, that Parliamentarians can take a more active part and be more functional as legislators rather than just sit there and then be sent to the right queue when a division is called.

We will also have to rethink some of the ceremonial although a surprising amount can be retained with minor modifications but opportunities now arise for something better.

The Zimbabwe National Defence University is just down the road which provides an ideal base for the assembly of the guard of honour and Presidential escort for the formal opening ceremony of each session each year.

And no doubt a suitable area can be found within the complex for the judges’ procession to form so that all three branches of State can continue to be together at least once a year and remember that they rely on each other, even if they are independent of each other.

But the imposing podium on which the complex rests, along with its sweep of steps and ramps, opens new opportunities to design ceremonial which roping off a city centre street and having a less-than-imposing door off the pavement does not allow.

Ceremony is important to address the importance of the actual work that goes on inside the Chambers and the committee rooms.

Public access is now far better, with proper reception areas for those needing to see their MP and with far larger galleries for visitors to sit and watch Parliament at work.

Trying to squeeze both into a modest 1890s bankrupt hotel, even with the balconies bricked in around 1938, has never been satisfactory and has tended to make Parliament separate from our everyday lives, despite its importance to making those lives functional.

A proper public area lower down the hill is another obvious requirement, and that will need to include public parking and a bus area, reasonably discreet but highly functional.

Parliament needs to be a serious part of society, not something walled away and at last there is space for this to be done properly.

So the new Parliament Building is not just a new building.

It is an opportunity for Members of the National Assembly and senators to do their work better, for better communication between Parliament and Government, and for better ties between Parliament and the public, along with a magnificent setting for more public ceremonial.

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