An expensive talk shop

February 23, 2020

Hopes were raised by Prime Minister Imran Khan who claimed during his electoral campaign that he would not only empower the parliament but would personally attend parliamentary sessions

Long ago our political science teachers taught us that any parliament is expected to perform three basic functions: bona fide representation of citizens’ interests, effective and honest legislation and monitoring government actions in public interest. In an ideal democratic set-up, public representatives are supposed to perform a legislative function besides introducing legislation on their own, because they are entrusted with the power to amend, approve or reject draft laws introduced by the government.

Being a follower of the Westminster genre of parliamentary practices, our Executive branch should ideally develop most draft laws and then allow the parliament to review, amend and ultimately pass laws. That should not stop the individual parliamentarians from introducing draft laws otherwise known as private member’s bills but only a handful of such draft laws reach the committee stage and even fewer are passed.

Information on the British process of parliamentary legislation, widely available in public domain, says that all bills (proposed new law) must be agreed upon by both Houses of the Parliament – Commons and Lords — before being presented to the sovereign for the Royal Assent. Between the introduction of a bill in the first reading and the Royal Assent, parliamentarians are given two further readings to discuss, reconsider and debate the proposed draft and if the government secures a majority, it moves to the Palace. Once the Royal Assent is received the bills become Acts of Parliament, meaning they become laws of the land. Since assuming the throne in 1952, Queen Elizabeth II has given Royal Assent to over 3,000 Acts of Parliament.

Many more thousands of draft laws are introduced in the Parliament but do not become national laws. Similarly, in the United States, otherwise a presidential system, over 10,000 draft laws are brought in before the Congress. Most do not go beyond the committee stage.

Hope has always been that Pakistani parliamentarians would act according to the rulebook on legislation for they make a lot of hue and cry whilst in opposition that assemblies – national and provincial – won’t get strengthened as institutions unless they do what they are supposed to i.e., legislate in public and national interest. However, once in power they ordinarily behave like the 16th and 17th Century European monarchs who wielded the executive power and retained the prerogative to think, make and pass laws.

Hopes were raised unnaturally raised by Prime Minister Imran Khan who claimed during his electoral campaign lasting well over four years that he would not only empower the parliament through pro-public legislations but would also personally attend parliamentary sessions like British prime ministers who attend a Q&A session every Wednesday noon because it is required by convention. But like most other promises, Imran Khan’s promise on parliamentary punctuality has turned out to be a pipe dream, at least for now.

Statistics gathered by the Free and Fair Election Network (FAFEN) reveal that Imran Khan has attended only 16 sittings out of a total of 133 since taking oath on August 8, 2018, till February 17, 2020. He remained absent from 117 sittings. Records for Asif Ali Zardari, Bilawal Bhutto Zardari and Mian Muhammad Shahbaz Sharif are also not very encouraging for the same period. Asif attended 21 sittings while Bilawal and Shahbaz were present during 53 and 51 sittings respectively. One reason for Asif Zardari’s continued absence could be his incarceration because of NAB cases.

But as they say while the cat’s away, the mice will play. Why would party MNAs turn up for a job they are paid for when they know that the leader would be missing? Parliamentarians who do come to the Parliament spend more time chasing ministers for seeking personal favours or for matters relating to influential constituents — hence a buzzing parliament cafeteria when the session is on.

Performance of the current government’s abysmal legislative work is also evident from the fact that more laws have been made through presidential ordinances than through parliamentary legislative procedures. Parliament, as per the Opposition, is a mere formality for the PTI government for the ruling party treats the institution as nothing more than an “ordinance-making factory.”

Since the sitting government is averse to journalistic comment, The News on Sunday thought it appropriate to speak to three prominent parliamentarians – one each from the leading political parties as to what they think of the legislative performance of the current Parliament and also the capacity of our law-makers to read and review draft legislations and amendments. We also sought the opinion of one of the most known watcher and commentator of the Parliament’s work.

Leader of the House in the Senate, Syed Shibli Faraz of the PTI agreed that a member of the Parliament in Pakistan serves as an enactor of effective legislation, an overseer of its implementation and a communicator with constituents. But he also contended that the legislative capacity of the lawmakers in Pakistan “varies depending upon their experience, tenure and terms in the Parliament as there is no provision of educational qualification or background prescribed for them to understand legal or legislative issues.”

But is he satisfied with the legislative work done so far by the current Parliament? “Of course, I am not satisfied with the level (of legislation done so far) but we have inherent weaknesses in the system.” He thinks things would improve if the parliamentarians were provided with more assistance and legislative/research facilities and staff. As leader of the upper house, Faraz could not have been more forthcoming knowing fully well that his party’s performance is way below satisfactory level.

In PML-N’s Senator Mushahid Hussain Syed’s opinion “there is hardly been any serious legislation in the past 18 months, mostly ordinances imposed surreptitiously and that too without consulting the Opposition, which has always been cooperative.” Syed thinks the PTI is afraid of the Parliament and “like the Press, they see the Parliament as a threat.”

He said any attempt at legislation reflected an approach that’s shoddy and lacked professionalism, particularly in drafting legislation, as was evident in the now famous case of ‘the Notification’. He described the last parliamentary year as “a disappointing year”. Parliament has become an extension of the ‘container politics’ with verbal feuds and political point scoring are the order of the day, he opined.

Six-times senator and a former Senate chairman Mian Raza Rabbani of the PPP very candidly said that the government was not serious about legislation and had made the parliament redundant. “The intent of the government was made clear in a speech by the prime minister within the first 100 days of his government when he said that since they didn’t have the majority in the Senate, the legislation would be done through ordinances.”

The intent turned into reality when the presidential ordinances were promulgated mercilessly in violation of the Constitution, he said. The president promulgates ordinances under Article 89 of the 1973 Constitution. “The government has violated Article 89 and breached the privilege of the members of both the Houses by causing delays in laying the ordinances in the Houses and depriving the members from moving resolution of disapproval under Article 89 of the Constitution. This threw out the bill concept of legislation by the Parliament, which has been upheld by the superior courts of Pakistan.”

Rabbani said that despite the government’s haughty attitude, the Opposition had helped in passing laws having pubic good at heart though the ruling party lacked a majority in the Senate. “The government shies away from the parliamentary legislation because that requires consensus building. This government believes in adversarial politics.”

Founder and president of Pakistan Institute of Legislative Development and Transparency (PILDAT), Ahmed Bilal Mehboob says, “Our parliamentarians generally are not interested or do not have staff support to undertake any serious work on legislation. A vast majority finds it difficult to comprehend, analyse and form an opinion about any legislation before the Parliament. There is no incentive in doing this hard work any way because they have to follow the party line.”

In his opinion the voters and constituents do not give much credit to the MPs for their performance in the Parliament. “They expect their legislators to intercede on their behalf with the Executive for jobs, transfers, police cases, reaching out to judges if possible. The second priority is local development: roads, schools, water supply, electricity and gas connections and sewerage, etc.”

Legislation does not find any place in the constituents’ priorities, Mehboob said. “It’s not that legislators do not work hard, they do work but on individual issues of the constituents or local development. There is hardly any facility like research support, staff, office etc, for serious work by a legislator because legislators have never seriously demanded it. So, mainly, the legislative agenda is in the hands of the Executive. There are a few knowledgeable and hard working legislators like Raza Rabbani, Muzaffar Ali Shah, and Ahsan Iqbal, etc, but there are very few of them and the number is fast dwindling.”

Regular interruption of Pakistani politics by ultra-political forces has thrown up fresh lots of provincial and regional politicians. Many of them have made a mark by incessant appearance on independent news televisionssince early 2000s. Participation in daily talk shows with loose or non-existent editorial control or broadcast etiquette, many young politicians have picked up a confrontational style conversation. Those who have made it to the Parliament justifiably think that politics is mere inane verbal circumlocution. Lack of knowledge of parliamentary traditions or tacit backing by the equally untrained leadership to stage rowdy scenes makes the newcomers believe they are doing pretty well by engaging in shouting bouts, personal taunts or plain absence from the House for days at end. Politics for them remains a costly non-serious affair.

The writer is Resident Editor, The News , Islamabad

An expensive talk shop: Prime Minister Imran Khan's attendance in Parliament