Saturday April 20, 2024

Government by ordinance

By Editorial Board
March 15, 2022

Since it came to power, the PTI government seems to have decided its preferred mode of enacting laws is via ordinance, pretty much bypassing parliamentary scrutiny and debate. In this context, in an important recent judgment, a bench of the Supreme Court has ruled, while hearing a petition regarding taxes that had moved up from the Sindh High Court, that ordinances are not the right way to run a country and are permissible under the constitution only in very specific circumstances. Barring an emergency situation when an immediate decision is needed, and parliament is not in session, there is little need for a government to issue ordinances. When laws are passed in parliament, which is elected by the people, it is essential that they should pass through the usual stages of debate within a committee and then in the House before they are turned into law. An ordinance bypasses all these steps and demonstrates the kind of contempt for parliament that we have seen in successive governments in the country, with the PTI government having a particularly strong tendency for such behaviour.

The question of ordinances had come up in January as well, this time in the Lahore High Court while the bench was hearing the case of the Ravi Riverfront Urban Development Authority. Ruling against the setting up of the development scheme, the court had noted that using an ordinance to take away rights from the people was deeply problematic and stood against the basic principle of the basic law of the land. We hope that following these judgments, this and future governments would be more cautious. Of course it is easier to get rules passed quickly without the usual elements of contention and objections from the opposition that occur when a bill is presented in parliament. But the government needs to be aware that this debate and discussion is not an impediment to its desire to have a certain law passed, but in fact a means of assisting that law and improving any of its contents that come up for discussion in an open forum, such as the parliament. In short, it is what democracy is supposed to look like.

There is very little justification for the use of ordinances in a democracy, where directly elected people sit in the legislature. The use of ordinances not only encroaches on their work but is also an offence to many millions that are represented by elected legislators. The beauty of democracy – and we have said this time and again, especially when it comes to freedom of the press – essentially lies in debate, dissent and diversity. Using a constitutional provision that allows for a stop-gap arrangement in emergency situations as a norm comes across as alarmingly authoritarian.