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> Time To Establish The Supremacy And Primacy Of The Parliament Is NOW; A 10 Points Agenda For The New Speaker Of The National Assembly  
   
 
PILDAT Analysis
March 20, 2008
Islamabad

   

Ahmed Bilal Mehboob, Executive Director of the Pakistan Institute of Legislative Development And Transparency - PILDAT, offers analysis about the challenges faced by the 13th National Assembly of Pakistan and proposes a 100-days agenda for the new Parliamentary Leadership of Pakistan.

 
 

Dr. Fehmida Mirza’s Election as the New Speaker: 
Election of Dr. Fehmida Mirza as the new Speaker of the National Assembly on March 19 has once again highlighted the liberal political outlook of the country as a whole although Pakistan, as a self respecting nation, does not need a certificate of ‘enlightenment’ and ‘moderation’ from any one within the country or outside. Dr. Fehmida Mirza, unlike some of her female colleagues, is not a proxy for a male member of her family. She is a directly-elected member who manages her politics like her agriculture and industry quite independently. Speaker of the National Assembly carries a high degree of domestic and international visibility. The speaker represents the country at international platforms such as the Geneva-based Inter-Parliamentary Union (IPU) and Commonwealth Parliamentary Association (CPA), with significant scope to project the country. Some years ago when Dr. Najma Heptollah was elected as the Deputy Chairperson of the Indian Rajiya Sabha, she was an instant hit with the west and was given a great deal of importance at the international forums. She went on to be elected as the President of the IPU. Dr. Mirza, probably the first Muslim lady to be elected as a presiding officer of a legislature, is expected to be very warmly received in the parliamentary circles around the world. She will be in a strong position to establish the supremacy and primacy of the Parliament in the political system of Pakistan as she is expected to receive much more attention and far greater support from international institutions than possibly a male Speaker could have mustered. Despite this apparent advantage and the strong support of more than 2/3rd of the total assembly members, she will be rated on the basis of how she conducts herself as the Speaker and how she runs the house. She will also be judged by her conduct towards the opposition. In the past many of her predecessors like Mr. Yusuf Raza Gilani and Mr. Gohar Ayub stood up to their own party leadership while accommodating legitimate concerns of the opposition. Mr. Gohar Ayub ordered the production of a jailed Asif Zardari in the house drawing ire from Mr. Nawaz Sharif, the party Chief and the Prime Minister at that time. Will Dr. Fahmida Mirza be able to establish herself as an independent and assertive Speaker only time may tell. But if she plans to establish the supremacy of the National Assembly, as she has announced in her very first Press Conference, she needs to start NOW. Besides tackling some imminent challenges, the agenda for the supremacy of the Parliament needs to be pursued in parallel. Here is our suggestion of what should be the first 100-day Agenda for the Supremacy of the Parliament.

 
 

The first 100 Days Agenda for the Supremacy of the Parliament:

  1. Parliament’s Role in Passing the Budget be Enhanced:
    Currently the parliament and more specifically the National assembly plays only a ritualistic role in shaping and influencing the country’s budget. Beaurocracy leads the budget-making effort with some input by the Finance Minister if he happens to be an assertive and capable person. Assembly is used merely to give MNAs the sense of participation. The Parliamentary budget process in Pakistan lasts merely 10 to 20 days with no role of the committees in scrutinising the demands for grants. There is no mechanism to invite the MNAs input to the budget making ahead of time. The entire country goes into the pre-budget seminar frenzy but peoples representatives get no chance to tell the executive how should the country’s budget look like. Unfortunately the new Speaker and the new Government is taking over at a time when only a little over 2 months are remaining before the budget is presented in the assembly. It is recognised that there is not sufficient time to revise the budget process this year. But a symbolic beginning can be made by giving at least 3 days to the standing committees to scrutinize the demands for grants of their respective ministries and submit reports to the full house. A more substantial change such as increase in the period of budget debate and a pre-budget mechanism to get MNAs input to the Annual Development Programme and the budget in general may be introduced well before the budget session of 2009. Indian and Canadian models of the parliamentary budget process may serve as good examples to learn from.

  2. Bring the Defence Budget within the Purview of the Parliament:
    The current practice is to just give one lumpsum figure allocated to the national defence in the budget documents. No detail is provided; not even the distribution among three branches of the armed forces. It should be clear to everybody that national security is not compromised at all by giving the basic details. Indian Defence Budget may serve as a good example. The Defence Budget in India is not only a part of their budget documents, it can also be seen by the public at Indian Government’s website too. An early dialogue should be initiated with all concerned to ensure that a beginning is made in this respect this year. Beaurocratic lethargy and protecting them from public accountability is the only reason why Defence Budget details are not provided. They just hide behind the argument of national security.

  3. Give Proportionate Slots of Committee Chairs to the Opposition:
    The last National Assembly set a bad precedent by keeping the chairs of all standing committees within the ruling coalition. The committee chairs should be offered to the opposition in the same proportion as is their strength in the house. It may be asking for too much but perhaps it is not if we suggest that the chairmanship of the Public Accounts Committee should always go to the opposition. If this is too radical, a consensus chair like the one found during the last assembly in the person of Malik Allah Yar may be found. 

  4. Draw a Parliamentary Calendar, Publicise it and Make Everyone Follow it:
    Although the National assembly rules require that a parliamentary calendar be approved early on, it is rarely followed and respected. The calendar should be on the National assembly website and, except for real emergencies or requisitioned sessions which can not be predicted, the assembly should strictly follow the calendar. 

  5. Legislative Performance Requires Urgent Improvement:
    The 12th National Assembly passed 50 laws during the 5-year term compared to 73 ordinances (146 % of the laws passed by the assembly) issued by the President. In contrast, Indian Lok Sabha passed 248 laws compared to just 34 presidential ordinances (less than 14 % of the laws passed by Lok Sabha) in 5 years. About 140 laws were pending with the National Assembly and its various committees when the 12th National Assembly completed its term and dissolved in history. Some laws like the Money Laundering Bill or the National Human Rights Commission Bill were pending with the Assembly for many years. This is a rather unenviable record of legislative performance. The constitutional provision of presidential ordinances should be used only in real emergencies and acts of parliament should surely outnumber the ordinances by an order of 10 to 1 if not more. The new speaker should more aggressively monitor the performance of the assembly and its committees on this count and encourage her colleagues to enhance their legislative output.

  6. Increase the Real Days of Assembly Meetings and Prime Minister’s Involvement:
    The original 1973 constitution provided that the National Assembly should meet for a minimum of 160 days in a year. This number was later revised downward and now the Assembly is requited to meet for 130 days minimum in a year. But, in fact, the Assembly met for just 77 work days per year on the average during the last 5 years. The assembly met for about 2.5 hours per working day on the average. This certainly needs improvement. In a parliamentary democracy, the parliament remains in session all the year round except for well-defined breaks. That is how the parliament ensures its supremacy. A parliament can not be taken seriously in absentia. The Speaker should encourage the new Prime Minister to make it a habit to regularly attend the assembly when it is in session. The Prime minister should use the floor of the assembly for making all important statements or announcements. The Speaker should also encourage her colleagues to amend the Assembly Rules of Procedure and Conduct of Business to provide for a weekly Question Period (say 30 minutes) for the Prime Minister. Prime Minister’s greater involvement in the proceedings of the Assembly will go a long way in strengthening the institution and establishing its supremacy. 

  7. Create a Petitions Committee or make Petitions Aspect of the Standing Committees Well Known:
    Strong and active parliaments draw their strength from a close and direct link with the people. An interesting aspect of this linkage is the Petitions Committee of the Parliament which invites, receives and processes the complaints sent by the people about any thing under the sun. Germany and India can be cited two examples of such an arrangement. Although all standing committees in our assembly may act as petition committees in their respective area of work, this aspect of the committees has remained dormant to date and needs to be strengthened. The Chief Justice of Pakistan endeared him to the people of Pakistan by inviting public complaints and then taking suo-moto action on them. In fact, the Parliament is a more appropriate forum to receive such petitions.

  8. Punctuality and Decorum:
    The National Assembly sittings suffered delays sometime by the hours during the past 5 years. Its sittings seldom started in time. The Honourable Speaker may start a glorious tradition to be in the house herself on the dot at the appointed time and start proceedings. This will set the tone of the 13th assembly and will serve as a great example to the society at large. Sometime there is an air of casualness among the honourable members during the proceedings of the house. Members are sometimes seen engaged in prolonged greetings and conversations right in the middle of the Assembly proceedings. The former Prime Minister had developed a routine of holding meetings with his party members, receiving their applications and affixing his comments on them right during the assembly proceedings while sitting in the house and members took their turns in sittings next to him to present their cases. This is a clear disrespect of the house and the Speaker should not allow this to happen.

  9. Transparency:
    Almost all aspects of the assembly proceedings should be open to the public unless, of course, special circumstances warrant otherwise. It is a pity that the verbatim record of the assembly proceedings including the question hour is not accessible to public despite the fact the assembly staff takes great pains to produce such record. The Honourable Speaker should pass immediate instructions and provide necessary resources to the IT department of the assembly to upload all verbatim record including Question Hour on the Assembly website. The Election Commission IT Department has made tremendous improvement in its transparency recently and there is no reason why the most important institution of the state i.e the National Assembly can not make its website the prime vehicle of its transparency and public accessibility in line with the IPU guidelines.

  10. Support to Parliamentary Committees:
    Most of the Standing Committees of the assembly lack independent research support and have to rely on the findings and brief of the executive. Each Committee must have at least one subject specialist and two research staff. The next assembly budget must make a provision for this staff. Without effective committees, the dream of parliamentary supremacy can not be realised.

 
 

Simultaneously, the coming Government can draw strength from the assembly by bringing all policy matters before the house for debate. No one can quarrel with the elected executive’s right to make decisions on behalf the people but a participatory debate and oversight can not only improve the quality of decisions, it can also help the government in standing up to the external pressures in a much better way.