Building Mutual Cooperation within the Legislature

By Abubakar Jimoh

The very process of democratisation and effective legislation hinges on the development of tolerance, bargaining, mutual cooperation and understanding among members of the legislature.

In Nigeria, it is worrisome that cooperation building in the context of nation building remains poorly understood among political parties.

While cooperation should be viewed as a voluntarily arrangement in which two or more political parties engage in a mutually beneficial exchange for common goal instead of competing, effort at building cooperation in the legislature is always threatened by some major challenges identify in the analysis of Nikhil Dutta et al in a text titled “Strengthening Legislature for Conflict Management in Fragile States”, as poor communication and conflict of interest. According to them, establishing common ground and common perceptions of reality in the legislature relies on the ability to effectively communicate and structures such as party caucuses, which can assist or thwart effective communication.

Cooperation within legislative committee

Apparently, voting structures within the legislature provide incentive, but also disincentive for majority party to build cooperation. In this case, when decisions are made by majoritarian processes, majority parties may lose interest in engaging the opposition to find mutually beneficial arrangements. At the phase of engagement, debate can become uncontrollable as a result of too many voices taking part in the conversation. Where Committee is devoted to negotiate and facilitate discussion, the resolutions arising from such structure could lack legitimacy if some key stakeholders are excluded from composition of the Committee or existing regulations that allow a minority voice are not respected. Also, cooperation building effort can be hindered by external interference in the legislative mandate and activities.

At all legislative committee levels, to promote teamwork, legislators must address several critical issues. The Committee Chairmen should open the lines of communication within the Committees; and encourage a proper dialogue to find out more about the members’ concerns. This will prompt some important issues or ideas that will be beneficial to all. They must also engage members’ interest and cooperation by helping them understand what their roles are in the big picture. Open communication among all members of the legislature in order to help them related better with one another, thus developing trust and cooperation, as well as a strong willingness to work together.

Intra and inter-party cooperation

To facilitate cooperation, legislators must communicate support one another both within party and between parties. In absence of good communication, building shared perception of reality and mutual understanding of needs that is essential for effective cooperation and support cannot be achieved.  Lack of cooperation impedes legislators’ willingness to meaningfully contribute or dialogue on important issues affecting the citizens and nation at large.

Effective and open communication among all members of legislature is the cornerstone for stability and good governance both at national and state levels. Constructive mechanism to foster intra and inter-party communication has become imperative in the legislature as this would practically help to facilitate cooperation within and between groups of legislators. Also, inter-regional and intra-regional communication will provide enabling platform to support and improve regional integration through legislative involvement, and promote best practices in the role of legislators in regional integration and cooperation.

As it is observed in Scottish Parliament, inter-party should be encouraged to provide an opportunity for members of all parties, outside organisations and members of the public to meet and discuss a shared interest in a particular cause or subject. This can be formalized and regulated by a well-formulated descriptive operational Code of Conduct for the legislators.

In the analysis of Christopher Carman, a political analysis, “Inter-groups and cross-party groups are of importance in legislative politics not because they serve as formal venues for hearings, information sessions, or panel discussions, but because they form the basis of information exchange networks between interested actors both inside and outside the legislature.” They provide legislators with the opportunity to build relationships with colleagues inside the parliament who share their policy priorities, across both party lines and committee jurisdictions. They also provide links to outside organizations, such as interest groups, who can “feed” their policy input into the legislature.

In a strand of research to identify and explain the workability and instrumentality of relations between legislators, Gregory Caldeira and Samuel Patterson in a piece titled ‘Political Friendship in the Legislature’ explain that advice and cooperation would be paramount in legislative activities because legislative institutions must process a multitude of complex and controversial issues in an orderly and civil fashion; and legislators’ effective performance rests upon networks of friends. They noted that inter-personal ties among members laying the basis for the dynamics of legislative leadership, establish channels of connections through which bargaining, exchanges of cues, and decision making transpire.

Creating legislative sub-structures that can act as neural and non-conflictual forums (such as committee level) in which legislators can develop relationship and build cooperation to debate issues affecting the electorate is important in the legislature.

Respect for opposition party

It is important to allow and respect participation of minority opposition political parties to gain experience and best practices in the legislative process. This will also help to project democratic value of: leadership on legislative committees and key decisions taken by majority votes. The legislature should encourage democratic structure and practices that increase all members’ involvement in deliberations and decision-making.

As a pre-condition for effective legislation, legislators must be able to conduct their business, respect legislature as an institution, and exhibit willingness to work together to solve common problems. ‘Parliamentary Strengthening’ recommends that before seeking to conduct legislative business, whether on the floor of legislature or in committees, any potential animosities that existing need to be addressed.

“Only after parliamentarians from previously hostile factions reconcile to work together through the political process can they build relationships across party line and beyond their original group allegiances. For parliament to exercise a leadership role in a broader reconciliation process, parliamentarians themselves need to be able to work together. Parliament must consider confidence-building measures between the governing party and the opposition. The level of confidence between different side of parliament can be bolstered, for example, by ensuring transparency in decision-making, placing greater importance on the committee structure, and above all, ensuring that all parliamentarians participate in parliamentary business, rather than sidelining certain groups or members,” it explained.

Genuine commitment towards cooperation building

In the analysis of National Conference of State Legislators, the principles that provide the basis for legislative functionality are cooperation, understanding, communication process and institionalisation. For legislative relations to be successful there must be a genuine commitment to relationship building and cooperation.

In support of this background, Civil Society Legislative Advocacy Centre (CISLAC), in time of disagreement in the legislature recommends that the legislators reach out to the aggrieved members and maintain peace within party and between parties to avert conflict between private interests and official duties and uphold effective functionality of the legislature for the betterment of the country. Members must initiate constructive dialogue and reconciliation with aggrieved members and their political party, and collaboratively exercise their fundamental mandates—lawmaking, oversight and representation, in the interest of peace, harmony and democracy of the country.

Reaching an agreement is worth extra effort because the solution will last much longer and legislators can use such to fulfill their specific needs. Relationship among legislator must be based on mutual understanding and respect.

Establishing proper communication mechanism

Successful intra-party and inter-party relationship must include an education mechanism to help to establish this mutual understanding, acceptance and credibility both in terms of general understanding of the inter-party dynamic and understanding of the parties’ concern about specific issues. It is important that the legislators have better understanding of socio-linguistic and political background of the opposition so as to effective listen to them despite their diverse view on issues.

Regular communication among legislators is paramount to effective workability of legislators. The National Conference of State Legislators observes that frequent contact between the legislators after the eruption of conflict is not healthy dynamic for any relationship. “Many conflicts may be based on a simple misunderstanding or oversight. By the time a conflict boils over, however, the two sides may be locked into their positions, and the situation becomes more difficult to resolve. In addition, once an issue or crises has escalated it is time-consuming to determine who to talk to and difficult to establish relationship and build necessary trust to work out solutions,” NCSL noted.

On this note, it is better if working relationships among legislators can be established before an issue arises.

Avoid conflict of interest

In the words of Andrew Murray, a Professor of Law at London School of Economic, legislators are selected by general election to represent all the residents of a jurisdiction to determine the policy, norms, and direction of the community. They are responsible for the results, and the public holds them accountable at the next election. Problem arises in the legislature when there is inherent conflict between elected representatives and private interests.

More importantly, the ongoing effort by House of Representatives at reviewing the current Standing Orders governing members for efficiency is a welcome development. The review should however, be extended to encourage co-operation among members to enhance their performance and understanding in discharging legislative function. The system must be designed to put the merits of an idea ahead of party ideology, as this has serious implication on good governance. This reduces partisanship and frees members to support legislative initiatives on the basis of merit rather than politics. As CISLAC puts it, effective legislators must strike effort to contribute positively to good governance by performing important functions and maintain cooperation that are necessary to sustain democracy in this complex and diverse country.

Similarly, Bruce Hyer, Canadian Member of Parliament observed and lamented partisanship and rising annual dysfunctional of Ottawa as a result of declining co-operation among political parties in Canada’s Parliament.

He said: “This isn’t just schoolyard bickering, it has a real cost: it delays progress and costs taxpayers money. Canadians don’t send representatives to Ottawa just to fight one another. They expect – and deserve – a Parliament that works.

“One of the biggest impediments to a productive legislature is current rules that actively discourage cooperation between parties and foster political paralysis. In the increasingly partisan atmosphere of Parliament Hill, very few pieces of Private Member’s legislation are ever passed, let alone signed into law. We are now spending years and millions of taxpayer dollars re-introducing and re-debating good bills that have been delayed or killed in previous Parliaments.”


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