Proven way to ensure MPs attend Parliament

Philip Ochieng's idea of publishing roll call should be adopted widely

In Summary

• Lack of qourum has been a perennial problem, yet media has power to change that

National Assembly members in session
National Assembly members in session
Image: FILE

Recently, I was watching one of those breakfast TV shows, where one of the talking heads said something about poor attendance in Parliament by MPs. I should have noted who was speaking, but I hadn’t finished my first cup of coffee yet, and so was not fully awake.

I seem to recall the talking head spoke about some complex way to ensure that the people’s elected representatives showed up in the House to do the work they are employed to do.

While I have no doubt that this particular talking head meant well and believed that their somewhat complicated plan could work, I thought we could simplify the whole affair.

Back in 1991, I was working at the Sunday Times, which was part of the Kenya Times Media Trust (KTMT). 

In July that year, in an effort to show that the paper was not sycophantic despite being owned by the country’s ruling party, the editor-in-chief of Kenya Times, Philip Ochieng, took on Parliament.

You must remember that until December 1991, there was legally only one political party in the country, and therefore, all MPs were members of that party.

There are some problems that appear to have continued from that time. These include the quality of MPs and poor attendance of parliamentary sessions by MPs. 

Concerning attendance, Ochieng wrote one of his most withering commentaries of his time at the Times. 

In a now infamous page one comment, Ochieng said the MPs, without exception, were “conmen, layabouts, thieves and ne’er do wells” who had been given “too much loophole” to enable them to wriggle their way into Parliament.

If you ask me, the same situation remains to this day, more than 30 years later.

Predictably, Ochieng’s views enraged the MPs, with both Cabinet Ministers and backbenchers setting their sights on this man, whom they thought was meant to be their lapdog for all times.

At around the same time as he was “speaking truth to power”, as it were, Ochieng came up with the novel idea of getting the team of parliamentary reporters from the Kenya Times to take a daily roll call of the MPs.

This roll call would be published in the newspaper on a daily basis, allowing the voters to see exactly what their employees were up to. It was kind of a daily key performance indicator, or KPI measurement.

As you might expect, this did not go down well with the overly entitled MPs, who thought that they were beyond being held accountable.

During a debate on the issue, Energy Minister and deputy leader of government business Nicholas Biwott accused the KTMT group of being “disrespectful to Parliament” and of “practising a low level of journalism” and threatened that MPs would not hesitate to throw them out.

They had done the same to the Nation newspapers a couple of years earlier (see last week's column).

The Kenya Times had launched the roll call, which became instantly popular with readers at a time when the House was being affected by a daily lack of quorum, frustrating parliamentary business.

The paper had questioned the quality of debate in the House and the fact that when they were in the House, MPs seemed to dwell on petty issues and personalities instead of serious matters.

Of course, Kenya and her politicians being what they were at the time, I believe that this courageous move by Ochieng was high on the list of things that would end up with him losing his job as editor-in-chief just a couple of months later in September 1991.

Tha said, I believe taking the roll call of Parliament, the Senate and the county assemblies and publishing it daily would be the best way of ensuring that our elected representatives were actually at the office, doing their jobs.

It would also be one way to raise circulation or achieve more online hits and so a win-win all round.

The question is, could any news organisation out there be bothered to try this out?

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