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Taking parliament seriously

January 21, 2019

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The writer is president of the Pakistan Institute of Legislative Development And Transparency.
The writer is president of the Pakistan Institute of Legislative Development And Transparency.

A FEW days ago, some of the leading television channels were almost simultaneously flashing the ‘breaking news’ that Prime Minister Imran Khan would be attending the National Assembly session. In a normal parliamentary democracy, the expected attendance at a parliamentary sitting by a prime minister would have hardly been news, let alone breaking news. Sadly, the attendance of prime ministers in parliamentary sittings has been dwindling in the recent past.

Former prime minister Nawaz Sharif attended only 10 per cent of National Assembly sittings during his truncated third term. His attendance in the Senate was even less. Prime minister Shahid Khaqan Abbasi did somewhat better by attending 19pc of Assembly sittings during his short term spanning 10 months. Imran Khan has so far attended 20pc of the sittings but his last appearance in the National Assembly was three and a half months ago. According to parliamentary traditions, prime ministers are generally considered exempt from regular attendance in parliament, and therefore no record of their attendance is kept or publicly shared. Despite the exemption, prime ministers make sure that they regularly attend parliamentary sessions whenever their official engagements and foreign visits permit. The British prime minister answers questions in parliament every week, a tradition which Prime Minister Imran Khan announced he would follow but has been unable to initiate so far.

With changing times and the advent of new technologies, legislatures need to reinvent themselves.

Successive Pakistani prime ministers’ general lack of interest in parliamentary proceedings has not been limited to them but seems to have affected their ministers, ruling party members and members of parliament in general leading to overall thin attendance and a fragile quorum that too often is not met. Ministers are often absent when the house’s questions relating to their ministries are discussed. This causes the presiding officers to express their displeasure and frustration at the attitude of ministers.

Lack of attendance is indicative of the general apathy towards parliamentary proceedings which, in turn, points to the larger issue of parliament not being taken seriously even by the lawmakers. Sometime one feels that parliament doesn’t mean much to prime ministers and ministers beyond the National Assembly’s role at the time of election of the prime minister. Besides low attendance, there are several other manifestations of this attitude of non-seriousness towards parliament.

In a parliamentary form of government, the prime minister and ministers are expected to make major announcements inside the house rather than address news conferences or resort to tweeting and other instruments of social media. Social media can, of course, supplement parliamentary activities but should not be taken as a substitute for parliamentary debate and face-to-face interaction within the house.

Electronic media has also taken some shine away from parliamentary debates. Quite a few parliamentarians seem to prefer to be on prime-time television talk shows rather than attend the ongoing parliamentary sitting. An obvious reason for this is that the people in their constituency have better access to television talk shows and can see their elected representatives making some forceful points on electronic media, while they remain largely ignorant about the proceedings within parliament. One solution is to start the live telecasting of parliamentary debates as well as selective airing of the parliamentary committees’ proceedings.

Parliamentarians are understandably keen to keep their constituents informed about their activities in the capital, and various countries have established dedicated parliamentary channels to air live as well as recorded proceedings of parliament, its various committees and parliamentary parties. The feedback from such countries suggests that attendance and active participation in parliamentary proceedings by the legislators improves after the live telecasting of the proceedings. There are some possible negative effects of telecasting the proceedings too but by setting clear guidelines, these negative effects can be overcome.

The trend of organising all-parties conferences, especially the ones convened by a ruling party, also undercuts the utility of parliament. Since all or most major political parties are represented in parliament, a debate inside the house or one of its committees should be the best and most effective means of developing a multiparty consensus. The present prime minister has so far not convened an all-parties conference and it is a good sign. He may need to forge a consensus across party lines on some of the issues such as the extension in the term of the military courts beyond the two-year period sanctioned earlier by parliament.

The best recourse will be to use one of the relevant parliamentary committees or a joint meeting of the concerned committees in the Senate and the National Assembly. Business advisory committees in the Senate and National Assembly are also very useful forums which bring together parliamentary leaders or their senior deputies. These committees can be used to develop consensus beyond just the technical agenda setting of the two houses.

With changing times and the advent of new technologies, parliaments also need to reinvent themselves. In addition, parliamentary proceedings need to be craftily conducted so that the debates don’t become dull, boring or repetitive. Greater emphasis should be placed on policy debates to enhance usefulness of parliamentary proceedings. Many MPs feel frustrated because they hardly ever get a chance to speak. Some system needs to be devised to involve the backbenchers, young and new MPs.

Walkouts are considered a legitimate parliamentary instrument of protest and to press a point, but these are still disruptive. The only way to avoid such disruptions is to avoid provocative language and to establish a working relationship with the opposition.

Last but not least, the prime minister’s regular participation in parliamentary proceedings is the best way to enhance the prestige of the house and the legislators’ interest in it. Nothing will reinvigorate the entire spectrum of parliamentary community ranging from ministers, ministerial bureaucracy to parliamentarians from both sides of the aisle more than a regular prime minister’s question time in parliament.

The writer is president of the Pakistan Institute of Legislative Development And Transparency.

president@pildat.org

Tweets at @ABMPildat

Published in Dawn, January 21st, 2019