THE Pakistan Commission of Inquiry Bill, 2016, was passed by the National Assembly this week — on the fourth attempt by the PML-N government. It was a master class in how not to legislate. First, the PML-N is unable to get its own house in order. The passage of the bill was stymied time and again because the PML-N, which has a majority in the National Assembly, could not persuade enough of its members to be in attendance to pass the quorum threshold. That itself is a remarkable indictment of the PML-N’s general approach to democratic institutions and parliament in particular. To blame rank and filers and backbenchers alone for their absence would be wrong. When the prime minister himself rarely visits parliament and cabinet ministers routinely skip Assembly proceedings, it is unlikely in the extreme that MNAs with no specific parliamentary duties will be interested in attending the sessions.
Second, the government has been unable to adequately rebut the opposition’s claim that the bill is intended to somehow try and shield Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif and members of his family from a thorough and independent inquiry into their wealth and assets. To be sure, the opposition is indulging in a great deal of politics and theatrics with their allegations and the government does appear to have presented a bill that strengthens the present commission of inquiry system. However, the dispute between the opposition and the government since the Panama Papers were revealed to the world in April has principally been about the order in which an inquiry should proceed. The opposition has rightly insisted that the prime minister be investigated first, a demand that the government has fiercely resisted. The bill passed by the National Assembly this week may allow for the government’s preference for a simultaneous and expansive inquiry into all manner of individuals, public and private, to prevail.
Third, the government’s willingness to bypass the ordinary systems and norms of parliament may be tested again. While there is a hostile legislative atmosphere over the bill, it is the PML-N that has helped create it with its tendency to work unilaterally and without taking other parties along. Consider that a bill passed by the National Assembly solely by the PML-N has no chance of passage in the Senate, where it is short of a majority. The government does have the option to attempt to get a bill approved in a joint sitting of parliament, but that is a roughshod approach that tends to have negative consequences for parliament’s smooth functioning. Moreover, what does the government hope to achieve by creating the space for an empowered inquiry commission that the combined opposition will in any case not be willing to accept? A commission will only be credible if it is accepted by both sides of the parliamentary aisle.
Published in Dawn December 4th, 2016