For the people, by the people

Discussions, debates, yeas and nays … three years into their five-year tenure, and far removed from hostilities on the
Published April 17, 2016

Discussions, debates, yeas and nays … three years into their five-year tenure, and far removed from hostilities on the street and the media, the wheels of legislation have moved at a rapid pace.

The art of the possible

by Hassan Belal Zaidi

The National Assembly’s legislative performance belies the strength of the ruling PML-N. Instead, it reflects a more mature approach by political parties and those elected to form laws

It may be the grand theatre of political manoeuvring and the guardian of our national sovereignty, but the lower house of parliament is one of the messiest organs of the state. But then, as far as being a reflection of the state of the nation itself is concerned, the National Assembly is perhaps meant to be this way.

In the 34 or so months since the previous general elections, parliament has been the primary focus of opposition leaders such as Imran Khan, who even parked himself outside the august house for months in 2014, thinking he could have his way.

But as the PML-N majority has proven on more than one occasion, strength in numbers only really matters inside the house, not outside it.

In its first three years of government, the ruling party has managed to ensure the passage of nearly 50 bills in the assembly. Although this is no small feat, a quick look at the number of members instantly reveals the disparity between the government’s numbers in the house, as opposed to their legislative success.

Indeed, with 187 out of a total 342 MNAs, the PML-N’s simple majority that commands the loyalties of over 54 per cent of the house should theoretically be enough for them to govern and legislate unhindered.

But politics is the art of the possible; and it is often not possible for the government to get its way without spoiling relationships. To their credit, the ruling party has preferred to use tact rather than brute force on most occasions, despite their clear and present ability (and inclination) to do otherwise.

The sheer power of their majority was on clear display on the day when the PIA (Conversion) Bill 2016 was steamrolled through the lower house earlier this year, despite the near-complete absence of an opposition in the house. The same day, the government passed another five bills, doing more business on that one day than the rest of the session combined.

However, this is not always the case, and attendance on most days is so thin that the sound of crickets chirping in the treasury benches is audible from the press gallery.

Subsequent events, however, showed the government’s realisation that the opposition’s concerns regarding the PIA bill needed to be addressed, leading to its reframing and successful adoption through the joint sitting.

If they wanted, the government could have steamrolled the bill through a joint session, and indeed that’s what the original plan was. But warning bells were sounded by the opposition-controlled upper house – that had earlier blocked the bill’s passage – when its chairman reminded all sides that ignoring the Senate is tantamount to sidelining the federation.

If the National Assembly is a vaudeville setting, the Senate is decidedly more straight-laced and tightly-run. Reporters who cover the upper house are almost unanimous in their assessment that this is down to the new chairman.

If they wanted, the government could have steamrolled the bill through a joint session, and indeed that’s what the original plan was. But warning bells were sounded by the opposition-controlled upper house – that had earlier blocked the bill’s passage – when its chairman reminded all sides that ignoring the Senate is tantamount to sidelining the federation.

An accomplished scholar of the law and constitution, Raza Rabbani runs a tight ship with no tolerance for grandstanding or time-wasting of any kind.

A stickler for procedure, it was he that reprimanded PTV for broadcasting government ministers’ speeches and blacking out the opposition.

But the downside of that slap on the wrist for the national broadcaster is the complete absence of live coverage of parliamentary proceedings on state TV – a key function of the public broadcaster around the globe.

So even though a PTV broadcast van still whirrs faithfully outside as the sessions continue, viewers at home have been deprived of a chance to see how the business of politics and statecraft is actually handled.

The National Assembly speaker, on the other hand, has been decidedly more jovial since his return to the house after being re-elected.

Sardar Ayaz Sadiq offers a stark contrast with Mr Rabbani; the former cuts a charismatic and well-heeled figure, but is far more liberal with his wit than the Senate chairman lets on. His off-the-cuff remarks often stir up trouble on the house floor, and he is certainly not shy about exerting his authority in the house, on bureaucrat and parliamentarian alike

But perhaps Mr Sadiq’s biggest imprint on parliament this year has been the solar energy project, which he has championed and brought to fruition with the help of the Chinese. If nothing else, it may yet serve to limit the amount of hot-air around parliament in the days to come.

Cast of characters

The key cast members in this grand, sometimes crass, opera are a rag-tag bunch. Each, however, has a quality that makes him or her indispensible to house business, be they treasury or opposition members.

The most regular feature of the treasury benches is the soft-spoken Sheikh Aftab Ahmed, state minister for parliamentary affairs, which is often shortened in informal settings to ‘minister for parliament’. As the government whip and most regular attendee of sessions on behalf of the government, Mr Aftab is the PML-N’s point-man in the house.

Known for spinning any query that stumps him into a good joke, he is the primary focus of Question Hour and always on hand when an opposition walkout needs to be reversed.

Zahid Hamid, the well-spoken minister for both law and climate change, is the other pillar of government in the lower house. One of the more knowledgeable members of cabinet, Mr Hamid is the treasury’s fallback man in cases where Mr Aftab’s direct and colloquial approach does not serve the government’s purposes.

The parliamentary secretaries form the next column of defence and are usually on the frontlines during Question Hour.

Rana Mohammad Afzal Khan from finance recently curried his peers’ favour by recommending a pay-raise for MNAs.

Maryam Aurangzeb represents the interior division but, on occasion, does get a few things wrong.

Shahzadi Umerzadi Tiwana, the eloquent secretary for petroleum and natural resources, doesn’t mind putting down fellow members who can’t quite grasp the complexities of her ministry’s working.

Whenever the government wants to flex its muscle, legislative or otherwise, there is no shortage of treasury backbenchers who are willing to keep the opposition occupied by stirring up a hornet’s nest of some sort.

Notable among this cadre is Captain Mohammad Safdar, the PM’s son-in-law, who regularly reaches into the closet of history to pull out one skeleton or the other to embarrass members of the opposition.

His abilities were on full display during the recent passage of the Prevention of Electronic Crimes Bill, when he and other party colleagues ganged up to keep the opposition from raising valid queries over the proposed legislation.

The opposition benches aren’t short on parliamentary veterans either. In his capacity as leader of the opposition, Syed Khursheed Shah makes good use of his privilege to highlight the government’s follies and weaknesses, as well as doing some political point-scoring of his own.

In addition, the PPP benches also have Nawab Yousaf Talpur, Shazia Marri and Ijaz Jhakrani, ever-ready and willing to give the government a tough time. While Mr Talpur plays the role of the elder statesman, Ms Marri and Mr Jhakrani are willing to wade into battle at a moment’s notice.

PTI members, however, appear to be the real thorn in the government’s side and are some of the most vocal as well. Arif Alvi, Shah Mehmood Qureshi, Shafqat Mehmood, Asad Umar and Shireen Mazari form the elite guard of a party trying to style itself as the next opposition.

Ms Mazari, in particular, is one of the most eagle-eyed and vocal members of the opposition and never shies away when faced with belligerent lawmakers on the other side of the aisle.

Backbenchers such as Murad Saeed, Shehryar Khan Afridi, Ayesha Gulalai and Ali Mohammad are also perfectly capable of talking up a storm and routinely disrupt house proceedings to show the ruling party they aren’t the only ones who can grandstand.

In public interest

by Manal Khan

Although much legislation has passed over the past three years, here are five laws that provide more benefit to the people than others

Protection of Pakistan Act, 2014

In June 2014, just a few days after operation Zarb-i-Azb kicked off, the need for a modified version of the Pakistan Protection Ordinance, 2013, was in line. Zahid Hamid, minister for science and technology presented the resolution in the lower house, denying the alleged claims of human rights being violated in the 2014 version. Under the advisory of Nawaz Sharif the bill eventually was passed unanimously followed by a walk out of Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf, Muttahid Qaumi Movement, PPP, Jamaat-i-Islami and Jamiat Ulema-i-Islam representatives. Imran Khan also termed it as the ‘black law’.

As the name suggests, the Protection of Pakistan Act was promulgated to battle a constant external threat of war and terrorism aimed at Pakistan. It’s not just the US, which is suffering from the post 9/11 fear, but around the world, military courts have been set up as the solution for sectarian violence, spy tactics and anti-state actors. Under the Protection of Pakistan Act, 2014, military might and intelligence agencies shall be used as prime instruments of maintaining internal security.

Military and anti-terrorism courts first came into action as an answer to the Taliban insurgency in Federally Administered Tribal Areas and later in Swat. This was all before the attack on the Army Public School (APS) attack. Post-APS, moods changed, tables turned and our love of slaughtered children was equated with blind patriotism in the shelters of military justice. Raheel Sharif’s battalion was to deal with any and every non state actor within or beyond the borders

The Seed (Amendment) Act, 2015

The Seed Amendment Act, unanimously passed in the National Assembly in July, 2015, is a maze in itself. After the 18th Amendment, all agricultural reforms were handed over to the provincial assemblies.

This act, however, will regulate the sale of substandard seeds into black markets and aims to grant intellectual property protection to plant breeders, allowing the circulation of genetically engineered variety of seeds.

Basically, the Seeds Act is the first step towards a modern agricultural state, providing opportunities to both the private and public sectors.

To address the issue of malnutrition and micronutrient deficiencies, genetically manufactured seeds are a necessity of today, for the speedily growing population of Pakistan.

Environmentalists, development activists and small land farmers have shown discontent and do not agree.

Small farmers are considering their debts and developmental activists see it as another attempt towards the maximisation of profits.

Environmentalists, though, have a better argument in response.

Researches show that genetic sciences in agriculture have always proved as polluters and can endanger ecosystems that make life possible on the planet Earth.

The Minimum Wages for Unskilled Workers (Amendment) Act, 2016

In April 2015, the Minimum Wage for Unskilled Workers Act proposed to increase the minimum wage to Rs13,000 from a diminutive Rs8,000. It was moved by Rana Tanveer Hussain, minister for defence production, who sought an amendment to the Minimum Wages for Unskilled Workers Ordinance, 1969. The bill was preceded by the senate in Feb, 2016 and became a law.

It is an achievement nonetheless, to be able to increase minimum wages but the stakes for another 60m Pakistanis living below the poverty line do not change. A standard minimum wage is a measure to prevent exploitation of labour in coal mines, industrial factories, eateries, educational institutions and a plethora of others to follow, only if the workers are aware enough of their rights.

Which brings the argument back to point zero, how strictly should the law be implemented?

As of now, Polio campaign workers, hired by World Health Organisation (WHO) through provincial governments get paid Rs250 per day, and are registered for an amount of Rs1,000 in the books of the WHO.

The Criminal Law (Amendment) Act, 2016

Last year, in Nov, The Criminal Law (Amendment) Bill was moved by MNA Shaista Perveiz Malik. This includes all areas of protection of children against heinous crimes such as exposure to seduction, child pornography, cruelty to a child, internal human trafficking and child abuse. It further amends section 82 & 83, which rose the minimum age for criminal responsibility. Though the bill seems reasonable for a country where at least 3,768 children were sexually-assaulted during the year 2015, it hasn’t received a positive response from the pious right wing representation. This comes down to an average of 10 children being abused each day.

The year 2015 saw a seven per cent increase in incidents of sexual abuse against children, according to a survey conducted by Sahil, an NGO that works for spreading awareness about child sexual abuse in Pakistan. The bill was set out for a lot of progress, but as it seems congruent to the Women’s Protection Bill, the male dominated parliament was unable to reach a mutual consensus and still seizes to exist as an act.

Recently, a new chapter has been added to it which looks at the due importance given to offences of electricity theft or tampering with wires and meters. A punishment of seven years and a penalty of upto one crore can be charged, upon being guilty of electricity theft. K-Electric appreciated the clear terminology of the bill and added how operation Burq wasn’t affective because there were no repercussions for the crimes. But now that the law has been passed, citizens can act more responsibly.

The Anti-Money Laundering (Amendment) Act, 2016

The Finance Ministry had promised the International Monetary Fund, to expand the Anti-Money Laundering (AML) Act and target offences like tax evasion as a part of this act, as per the requirement of international standards. By the end of Nov 2015, tax crimes would be contested through the AML Act. But so was the dream.

After commitments were made, the proposed clause could not be agreed upon by the opposition party leaders and senators. The notion of brining tax evasion and taxation offences under the ambit of AML did not make them happy. Members of the committee who proposed the bill from a lower level of the senate had unanimously rejected the clause related to the inclusion of income tax frauds under the ant-money laundering law.

Nonetheless, the law was passed on Nov 26, 2015, and orated by Ishaq Dar, finance minister, clause by clause in the National Assembly.

It is aimed at improving the AML 2010, and combating the financing of terrorism.

Published in Dawn, Sunday Magazine, April 17th, 2016