How’s new parliament doing?

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The august house

Parliament in Pakistan has still to make its mark. It is hardly given a chance to perform independently and according to its spirit. As an open-ended institution it is easy to manipulate for long periods of time as compared to closed-end outfits such as judiciary. It is the only institution of Pakistan to have failed to make a clean break from the past and emerge as bastion of popular will. Its lack of credibility is so profound that successive democratically elected prime ministers did not pay it much heed particularly the ones who came to power with large public support.

True to tradition Imran Khan also intentionally ignored the parliament and despite his promise to attend its sessions regularly and to answer questions never adhered to his vows. Additionally Imran Khan faced inordinately vociferous parliamentary opposition unwilling to even listen to him. It is another matter that the attitude displayed by parliamentary members was a direct reaction to the unending bashing the previous parliament was subjected to by Imran Khan and his party. Though his attendance is a marked improvement on the abysmal record of just 10 percent attendance throughout the last assembly but Imran Khan’s attendance of only 7 sessions to date is expected to improve.

The current National Assembly is 15th in line and was elected during the national elections in July 2017 and since its inauguration has held 24 sessions. It is not very satisfactory to note that the total number of days it is required to meet in a calendar year are just 130. Why on earth it does not assemble in rest of the 230 days of the years is beyond comprehension. As the apex representative body it should meet more frequently for debating measures of public welfare. It is widely reported that members often are absent during regular sessions although the NA premises is a stone throw away from their abode in parliamentary lodges. As regular employees of the state they are paid salary and allowances they themselves should increase the number of attendance days.

Despite tall order of business proclaimed by PTI before elections
the government moved no legislation in the NA except the
Supplementary Finance Bill known as budget

Despite tall order of business proclaimed by PTI before elections the government moved no legislation in the NA except the Supplementary Finance Bill known as budget. This lack of presenting legislation at the start of assembly is no different than previous three NAs since 2002. Law minister Farogh Naseem claims that he has finished work on many bills but none has been presented to the National Assembly. It was expected that the legal team of PTI once headed by Babar Awan would have prepared legislation pertaining to many issues but nothing came out of that.

The main issue confronting the NA is the formation of standing committees that virtually determine the course of legislative action. They are required to be formed in the first 30 days of a new assembly but the matter has become the main bone of contention within elected sections. The number of committees in a National Assembly approximately ranges from 40 to 50 that do the groundwork for legislation. They liaise with federal ministries and respective departments to propose changes or improvement in legislation. The work performed by these committees range from scrutiny of legislation, oversight of performance of government ministries to review of Public Sector Development Plan (PSDP) proposals being held under respective government agencies.

The friction began when the opposition nominated Shahbaz Sharif for the position of Chairman Public Accounts Committee that is considered the fulcrum of parliamentary activity. This proposal generated a furore in PTI ranks who equated it with thief holding thieves accountable. There was nothing wrong with the proposal as it is the standard practice in democratic dispensations to give this position to leader of the opposition. The practice of letting this position been held by government benches according to 1973 Constitution changed in 2008 when PPP government facilitated the election of leader of opposition as chairman PAC in line with the Charter of Democracy signed by the PPP and PMLN in 2006. Both major parties repeated the practice in 2013 but failed to incorporate this convention into rules of the assembly propelling PTI to play upon this lacuna and oppose election of Shahbaz Sharif.

Fighting

The issue became complicated when the opposition, especially PMLN, declared that it will not become part of any standing committee if the PAC chairmanship is not given to leader of the opposition. The deadlock over the issue is ongoing and partisan stances are strengthened by PTI appointing its provincial speaker as Chairman of KP Public Accounts Committee thereby indicating that it does not feel obliged by the terms agreed between PMLN and PPP in the Charter of Democracy.

The situation is tricky as the government will soon need to present PSDP for next year and would require the input of standing committees. PTI is insisting that it will govern with a clean slate and would not allow Shahbaz Sharif to head PAC. It looks difficult to break the logjam because opposition also needs support of elected representatives to wriggle out of the difficulties it is experiencing currently.

Talal Wasif Qavi is an advocate

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