Ahmed Bilal Mehboob
Although parliament did not figure prominently in Imran Khan’s ‘first 100 days’ agenda —now, appropriately, the Prime Minister’s 100 Days Agenda — it is only natural that when progress on 117 milestones is being assessed, we should look back and see how the most important institution of the state fared during this period.
The present 15th National Assembly was elected on July 25 this year and met on Aug 13 for its inaugural session to mark the beginning of its five-year term. By Nov 20, which was the 100th day of the Assembly, it had met for 24 sittings. The Assembly is constitutionally required to meet for a minimum of 130 days during a parliamentary year. Going by this yardstick, the number of sittings in the first 100 days was satisfactory.
The Assembly did not pass any legislation except the Supplementary Finance Bill (budget) during this period, which reflects exactly the same pattern we saw in the past three assemblies since 2002. Assemblies are generally slow when it comes to legislation in the initial few months. Prime Minister Imran Khan attended seven of the 24 sittings translating into an average attendance of a little over 29 per cent. This may not be an ideal record but, compared to his 5pc attendance during the previous (14th) National Assembly — or former prime minister Nawaz Sharif’s 10pc, or former prime minister Shahid Abbasi’s 19pc — it appeared to be a substantial improvement, even though it dwarfs in comparison to former prime minister Yousuf Raza Gilani’s 90pc attendance.
Prime Minister Imran Khan’s announcement to take questions in parliament every week (later fortnightly) is a very welcome step, but despite the lapse of 13 weeks since the inauguration of the National Assembly, he has not initiated the Prime Minister’s Question Hour.
Committees in any parliament are considered to be the latter’s eyes, ears and even brain. The greatest source of concern about parliamentary performance has been, however, the non-formation of the standing committees of the Assembly which, according to the rules, should have been formed within 30 days of the election of the prime minister. Since the prime minister was elected on Aug 17, the National Assembly standing committees should have been formed by Sept 16 and their chairpersons elected by Oct 15.
The number of committees in a National Assembly approximately ranges from 40 to 50. Most of the standing committees correspond to the federal ministries, each dealing with business relating to a particular ministry. This work covers scrutiny of legislation, oversight of the performance of the concerned ministry and, since 2014, review of the Public Sector Development Plan (PSDP) proposals (commonly known as the development budget) relevant to a particular ministry.
The Public Accounts Committee is considered the most prestigious of all the standing committees. The PAC works in conjunction with the auditor general’s office and considers the annual audit observations made by the office for final disposal. It is considered an effective forum for financial accountability in parliamentary democracies. It is good democratic practice in most countries to elect the PAC chair from among the opposition members of parliament. The British parliament, whose system we follow in Pakistan, has a PAC headed by an opposition MP. The Indian parliament has also followed the same convention since 1967.
Since the promulgation of the 1973 Constitution, the PAC has been generally headed by a member of the ruling party, but this practice changed in 2008, when the PPP-led federal government facilitated the election of the leader of opposition as chairman PAC in line with the Charter of Democracy signed by the PPP and PML-N in 2006. The same convention was repeated in 2013 when the PML-N government facilitated the election of the leader of opposition, Khursheed Shah of the PPP, as chairman PAC. Both governments, however, failed to incorporate this convention in the Assembly rules.
The PTI-led government is opposed to the idea of facilitating the election of the leader of the opposition, who now happens to be Shahbaz Sharif of the PML-N as PAC chairman. It argues that a PML-N leader should not head the PAC which would consider the auditor general’s observations about the accounts of the past PML-N government. The opposition, especially the PML-N, has announced that it will not be part of any standing committee if the PAC chairmanship is not given to the leader of the opposition, and hence the deadlock.
Apparently, the influence of the PAC chair is either misunderstood or is overstated as all decisions in the committee are taken by a majority vote and the PAC, like almost all other committees, will have a majority of the ruling coalition. Therefore, any decision of the chair which the ruling coalition considers undesirable can be easily overruled.
Committees in any parliament are considered to be the latter’s eyes, ears and even brain as most of the serious work, such as the scrutiny of legislation, budget proposals and oversight of the executive is undertaken by them. Plenary sessions are considered to be ‘parliament on exhibition’, whereas the committees are seen as ‘parliament at work’. There is an increasing tendency around the world to assign more responsibilities to the committees.
As the PTI taskforces are expected to churn out a number of draft bills in the next few weeks for passage by parliament, the need for functioning committees would become critical. The PSDP for Budget 2018-19 will soon need to be considered by the standing committees. It is, therefore, critical that the committees be formed without any further delay. Although the rules authorise the National Assembly speaker to nominate committees and their chairs as a stopgap arrangement, the real solution lies in learning to work together despite differences and reaching an agreement not only on the chairmanship of the PAC, but also on other committees and larger issues, in the true spirit of democracy.