Parliament faces daunting challenges ahead of resumption

Concerns over mechanism that may be employed in ensuring voting in Parliament.

In Summary

• We remain concerned with the integrity of results that would obtain from electronic voting. 

• We intend to start streaming committee and plenary sessions of Parliament on various social media platforms to ensure maximum utility and public participation. 

National Assembly Speaker Justin Muturi during the 3rd Leadership Retreat at Ole Sereni hotel, Nairobi on August 25, 2020.
National Assembly Speaker Justin Muturi during the 3rd Leadership Retreat at Ole Sereni hotel, Nairobi on August 25, 2020.

Parliament resumes this September amidst serious threats posed by Coronavirus pandemic.

This Covid-19 pandemic has fundamentally altered every facet of our public and private life as we know it, and no less that of legislatures around the world.

But being a critical arm of government that must sit even during periods of State of Emergency or Declarations of War so as to deliberate on important and urgent matters relating to the State including authorising expenditure, legislatures stand in a unique position and similarly face unique challenges.

Cognizant of this, the National Assembly made an amendment to the Standing Orders to reflect the new situation whereby it allows for holding of physical, virtual and hybrid proceedings.

But this development has had its bespoke challenges of which I now discuss.

Challenges still abound on Members of Parliament who are not technology-savvy and who have to rely on others for assistance with accessing or participating in virtual proceedings.

In particular, we remain concerned with the mechanism that may be employed in ensuring voting in the Houses of Parliament by elected representatives.

Voting on major critical issues including passage of Bills and policy papers, election of leaders within the House, approval of budgets is a key issue which reflects and actualises the sovereignty of the people or the electorate that Members of Parliament represent.

Seeing how sacrosanct this right to vote is, as it represents the wishes of the electorate of the specific constituency of the representative, questions remain as to how to ensure voting in the virtual electronic platforms that we find ourselves constrained to using during these times.

Even more fundamentally is the integrity of the platforms and whether such voting would indeed be that of the elected representative and not that of another person who may be assisting the elected representative.

We remain concerned with the integrity of results that would obtain from electronic voting.

In addition, as is common with technology and technological platforms, there still remains the potential for hacking as well as other associated security risks.

We also have Committees of the House that deliberate on particular sensitive issues such as the Committee on National Security, and the possibility that such an issue may be discussed through electronic platforms that are at risk of hacking and other cybercrimes is particularly concerning.

What is more, there is need for confidentiality of various proceedings that are not meant for the public yet there are difficulties associated with confidentiality when Members of Parliament are participating in proceedings outside the Chambers of Parliament whether at their homes or elsewhere.

Third parties may access codes of virtual platforms and listen in to deliberations of Parliament.

The fact that participation in virtual parliamentary proceedings is predicated on ability to both have access to electricity and internet and being tech-savvy brings into question issues such as whether some Members of Parliament and by extension the constituencies/delegations they represent are being discriminated against where they are unable to participate.

We also envisage particular problems with recording and transcribing proceedings that occur in the virtual platforms given the differences with recording on the Hansard within the physical chambers.

Other questions that may need to be answered include how compatible the virtual platforms that are to be used are compatible with existing technology.

Some lessons that may be drawn from comparative jurisdictions such as New Zealand, Canada and the United Kingdom on some of the questions and/or challenges such as on voting is that voting on virtual platforms is only allowed for non-legislative issues.

If we are to adopt such a model, questions as to the effectiveness and practicability of the process would immediately arise.

It would mean that legislative issues, which certainly is our most important task and must be dealt with even in this pandemic era since some government measures require legislation, are not dealt with.

This would be an abdication of our hallowed responsibility.

However, I see an opportunity for public participation through online platforms and I can confirm that the National Assembly is alive to the potential of technology.

We therefore intend to start streaming committee and plenary sessions of Parliament on various social media platforms to ensure maximum utility and public participation.

Stakeholder engagement during the processing of various legislative proposals can be robust and dynamic if technology is deployed in a manner that seeks to fulfil the provisions of Article 118 of the Constitution.

To this end, the legacy media (radio, Tv and newsprint) must be our partners as well, to ensure maximum reachability for the essential feedback on the House business.

In light of claims and allegations of misappropriation of donor funds meant for combating the Covid-19 pandemic, Parliament is empowered under Article 95 of the Constitution of Kenya to play an oversight role and resolves issues affecting the people.

Health is a key critical issue that requires resolution and as both a watchdog and representative of the people, we are moving with speed to institute immediate and thorough account of the Covid-19 funds to ensure fiscal prudence and protection of the health and interests of the people.

The Public Investments Committee (PIC) has this week moved to call for immediate account of all the funds disbursed to date, but also you will see more oversight on this matter being done by the National Assembly Committee on Health even as PIC pursues its audit and accountability obligations.

We are also meet at a critical constitutional moment, as this week on 27th August 2020, we mark a decade since we promulgated the Constitution of Kenya 2010.

There is no better moment to reflect on the decade now gone past and retrace our missed steps while applauding ourselves for ones we got right.

A concerning issue on constitutional implementation relates to the Independent Constitutional Commissions established under Chapter 15 of the Constitution.

There have been occasions when these commissions and independent offices have felt slighted by the insistence that their Bills must pass through the Office of the Attorney General (which is an Executive position), thereby raising questions as to their independence.

What then happens in instances when the Executive is not keen on legislative proposals from a particular independent commission?

We see a situation where independent commission should be able to send or submit their legislative proposals to Parliament on their own in order to guarantee this independence.

I know for sure Kenyans are concerned about their economic situation during these difficult moments, and they are looking upon their government and especially elected representatives for help.

Whereas the National Assembly considered and passed the government proposed tax relief measures, we still face serious economic threats from the shocks of this pandemic.

Therefore, there is a need for Parliament to continue considering measures that cushion small, medium and big businesses as well as protect jobs for our people.

Far more ambitious stimulus packages in the nature and mould of Kazi Mtaani need to be developed and deployed, whilst ensuring that money reaches the most vulnerable and the targeted persons.

But even as we do so, we need to seriously check on our debt appetite.

We are already spending a significant portion of our revenues in external debt repayments in the midst of economic contraction.

If we are not careful, this may have implications on jobs and salary payments.

We could see salary cuts and even more painful salary delays in public service that may affect families and lead to serious economic challenges.

The National Assembly and Parliament will work with the Executive to ensure we take our nation forward in a steady way that guarantees opportunity for everyone, but also cushions the vulnerable.

Justin Muturi is the Speaker of the National Assembly.