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November 10, 2019

How not to legislate


November 10, 2019

The way the PTI government has bulldozed all parliamentary decency and defied all decorum is deplorable, to say the least. Never before in the parliamentary history of Pakistan were as many as 15 bills – including 13 presidential ordinances – presented in the House as were done on one day this week. Out of these 11 were passed, while three ordinances were extended for 120 days each, within half an hour, without allowing any debate on them. The drama unfolded immediately after Prime Minister Imran Khan chaired a meeting of the parliamentary committee of the PTI in parliament. The prime minister was reported to have instructed his members of parliament to pass all pending legislation using their simple majority in the lower house. This authoritarian tendency of the prime minister does not bode well for democracy, nor does it portend any good prospects for legislative practices in the country. While the PTI government has been slow in policymaking and fast on churning out ordinances, it has now also resorted to upending constitutional and customary norms by not fulfilling the basic requirements of democracy – debate and discussion.

A fundamental difference between a modern democracy and a medieval despotism is precisely this allowance for debate and discussion leading to accommodation of diverse opinions in legislation. Authoritarian and dictatorial tendencies may work in a game of sports, and that too for a while, but democratic traditions have be upheld at all costs in a parliamentary system. Democracy is all about setting traditions that promote participation and not exclusion. A desire to dominate through sheer numbers is a desire for destruction of participatory approaches to governance. No system can claim to be democratic if it trounces the basic principles of legislation in parliament. It is not only the prime minister who is to blame for this travesty of law-making; it is also the deputy speaker who was in the driving seat during that fateful session of the National Assembly on Nov 7.

Speakership is not a partisan position; once you are leading the house you don’t belong to a political party, you belong to the entire house. This is the essence of that august position, which was unfortunately not honoured by both the PM and the deputy speaker. According to sound parliamentary practices, a bill has to be read multiple times, discussed by both the government and the opposition, and any suggested alterations have to be considered carefully, before being accepted or rejected. The bills may be good or bad, but unless we unpack them threadbare we wouldn’t know; this is the right of the people that any ruling party should not violate.

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