Parliament. Picture: SUNDAY TIMES

THE African National Congress (ANC) in Parliament on Thursday was accused of disrespecting the parliamentary process and legislative process as it muscled the secrecy bill through the National Council of Provinces.

At issue was a contention that the rules of the council were broken because copies of the amended Protection of State Information Bill had not been circulated to all members, and that the speakers of provincial legislatures — acting ahead of the debate and the council — had approved a motion to abandon the three-day rule.

Approval of the bill makes a Constitutional Court challenge almost inevitable. This can be achieved if one-third of the National Assembly votes to refer the bill to the court, or if an organisation formally challenges it in court.

Democratic Alliance MP Alf Lees said the fact that the debate was allowed to go ahead showed the ANC’s contempt for Parliament as a democratic institution and for its core responsibilities as legislature.

"The ANC’s handling of this bill through the parliamentary process has in the last week been procedurally problematic. In addition, a motion was tabled today to suspend rule 239(1), the so-called ‘three-day rule’, which provides that the consideration of a bill may not commence before at least three working days have lapsed since the committee’s report has been tabled. Members of the committee have not yet received an amended bill."

He called for the bill to be removed from the order paper, but was overruled by council chairman Mninwa Mahlangu, who said that copies of the bill were on the desks of council members.

There was also controversy when the ad hoc committee met in the morning when the ANC once again dumped an unseen document on opposition MPs and expected them to deal with it not having read it.

The ANC clearly feared that if the minutes of a year’s worth of its meetings were not adopted by the committee before it ceased to exist, then this would invalidate the debate and adoption of the bill by the full council in the afternoon.

Congress of the People MP Dennis Bloem told the committee chairman that he would be unable to participate in the adoption of the minutes without first having read them. Mr Bloem asked that the committee schedule another meeting to discuss the minutes, but chairman Rasiriti Tau (ANC) said that once the full council had debated the bill then the life of the committee came to an end and another meeting could not be called.

The ANC then used its majority to adopt the minutes of about 23 meetings held since December last year.

Introducing the debate, State Security Minister Siyabonga Cwele insisted that great strides had been made to address the concerns of the absence in the bill of a public-interest defence for those exposing crimes and corruption.

"What is strange, chairperson, is despite the ANC being accommodative to the views of the public and having spared no effort to accommodate all political parties … some opposition parties opted for the cheap politics of walkouts because they have run out of all logical arguments and sought to continuously move the goal post," Mr Cwele said.

"Let me assure you again that this bill does not permit the abuse of power. Further, let me assure you that this government would not support a bill that undermines our constitution, and which does not strike a balance between secrecy and transparency," he said.