THE TASKS OF PARLIAMENT
With Odongo Odoyo
Sometimes, we do not understand the role and task of parliament. In this article, l have borrowed some key issues from one of the commonwealth countries which l am sharing with my readers. The application might differ but not very much though. Take for example the case of Austria.
Parliament has, first and foremost, the task of examining bills and passing them into laws, and of checking the work of the Government, to mention only its most important duties. But note that the tasks of parliaments may vary from country to country. These tasks change in the course of time.
Parliament passes the laws that govern. The law-making bodies are the National Council, the Federal Council and – in the federal provinces – the Provincial Diets. The government, the public authorities and the courts have to obey these laws in the same way as all citizens do.
Parliament watches closely what the government does: the Ministers and State Secretaries have to justify themselves for what they – and the authorities under them – do. The idea is not only that Parliament exercises control over them – discussing the matters in question may also give rise to improvements and reforms.
Representation and the Public
The word, parliament, is derived from French “parler“, which means “to speak“. Public debate, exchanging arguments, and even political disputes governed by clearly defined rules are the core business of any parliament.
Protests, Rolling One’s Eyes, Heckling: Nothing but Play-Acting?
It is before Parliament that politicians have to justify themselves and that’s the reason for political decisions are brought out into the open. Protests, members rolling their eyes or heckling the speakers: plenaries may sometimes remind spectators of actors playing out a scene, but all this is part of the game and adds new touches to the work achieved in the committees: It is in the committees that politicians discuss law texts in detail before they go to the National Council plenary to demonstrate to the public what they stand for – a process that is gaining more and more importance in today’s media society.
Everything for the Public
Since the democratic system requires openness and transparency in all respects, all documents and the minutes of all National Council and Federal Council sittings are published, those interested may observe sittings of the National and Federal Councils from the public gallery, and many parliamentary debates are also transmitted by television.
Transparency is an important prerequisite for a functioning democracy and for making sure that voters in political elections are well informed when they decide for whom to vote.
Participation in the Administration
Administering the laws of a state is in principle the task of the government. However, the portent of some decisions is so great that the government can only take them jointly with the Main Committee of the National Council – one such matter, for example, is the decision to dispatch soldiers to participate in international peace-keeping operations.
Participation in the European Union
Parliament is informed of all projects within the scope of the European Union, and Members of Parliament deliberate on all EU projects jointly with the member of government in charge of the matter in hand and prepare the position to be taken. The government then defends this position in the competent EU bodies. In this respect, Parliament has the right to impose factual conditions on the government. Since 2009 the Parliaments of the EU countries have, under the Lisbon Treaty, been given the right to directly participate to a certain extent in the EU legislative process.
What should Austria spend money on? And who should pay how much in taxes? The national budget is always an important issue for Parliament. It is prepared by the Ministry of Finance and the government presents it to the National Council for decision. The budget debate gives ample opportunity for discussing the objectives and focal points to be pursued by the policy-makers.
At the same time, the government has to inform Parliament how the money is to be used and what it wants to achieve with its expenditures. Accordingly, the National Council will discuss the objectives and focal policy issues in the course of the budget debate and when scrutinizing the current reports submitted by the Ministry of Finance. Since 2012, the National Council has also enjoyed far-reaching rights of participation regarding fiscal policy measures at European level.
Parliaments also have the task of electing other important office-holders representing the State. In Austria, Parliament elects, for instance, the President of the Court of Audit and the members of the Ombudsman’s Office. Both the National Council and the Federal Council may make proposals for the appointment of the members of the Constitutional Court and have a say in nominating Austrian members of EU institutions.