ISLAMABAD: Former Senate chairman and Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP) stalwart Raza Rabbani on Friday raised questions over unelected people attending cabinet meetings and having access to sensitive information.
Speaking in the Senate, Mr Rabbani conceded that it was prime minister’s prerogative to change his cabinet but at the same time the appointments must not affect functioning of the government and parliament.
Pointing out that there are currently five advisers and 17 special assistants to the prime minister, the former Senate chairman said that none of them was under the constitutional oath not to disclose any information that was brought to their knowledge by virtue of their official position.
“How can they become privy to classified and sensitive information when they are not members of the cabinet? How can you share defence budget with [adviser on finance] Abdul Hafeez Shaikh? Are we in safe hands?” Mr Rabbani asked.
Is it fair that 17 ministries are with special assistants who cannot come to house, asks Senator Rabbani
Almost all important ministries, including finance, petroleum, commerce, power, information and overseas Pakistanis, were currently under the control of unelected people, he said, adding that this gave credence to reports that Pakistan was being pushed towards a presidential system.
There was no mention of special assistants in the Constitution, except in Article 260 that was about definitions, yet they attended cabinet meetings as in charge of the ministries assigned to them, Mr Rabbani said.
Under the rules, the prime minister is in charge of those ministries and divisions, which are not assigned to anybody. “That means the prime minister is in charge of 22 ministries and divisions at this particular time,” he remarked.
The PPP senator explained that any legislation to be carried out by a ministry ought to be signed by the relevant minister as statements of objects and reasons of bills also carried signatures of that minister. “Is it fair that 17 ministries are with the special assistants who cannot come to the house? Isn’t it a joke with the parliament?” he asked.
Calling it a serious issue, Mr Rabbani observed that there seemed to be an attempt to introduce a so-called technocrat set-up and replicate Ayub Khan’s authoritarian model. The president during the days of Gen Ayub Khan was empowered to veto a bill passed by parliament, he recalled.
Leader of the House in the Senate Syed Shibli Faraz, after the PPP senator’s remarks, sought a verbatim report on the proceedings so that the law ministry could examine and address the constitutional issues raised in the house. He said parliamentary affairs minister used to respond to questions of all the ministries, but the opposition wanted each question asked and issue raised to be responded by the minister concerned himself. “In ideal circumstances, it should be like that,” Senator Faraz agreed in principle. However, he added, around six ministers were accompanying the prime minister during his tour to China.
Separately, speaking on a calling-attention notice on reallocation of Rs24 billion out of Rs27bn under the head of China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) special initiatives towards different programmes, Mr Rabbani said there appeared to be a tilt in government’s foreign policy towards the United States.
The former Senate chairman recalled the US secretary of state’s statement made last year opposing the International Monetary Fund (IMF) bailout package for Pakistan and another statement proposing to block aid to allies of China. In October 2018, he said, the IMF chief economist had also cautioned that excessive loaning from China would not be good, and China’s involvement would be a risk to the economy, he added. He said pressure was being built on Pakistan for gradual withdrawal from the CPEC and scaling down the strategic relationship with the two neighbouring country. He also referred to New Delhi’s allegation that the bailout package would be used for terrorism.
The PPP senator alleged that the government had provided CPEC-related sensitive information to the IMF and demanded that the IMF conditions must be disclosed and discussed in parliament.
He regretted that Rs24bn funds for the CPEC had been diverted to the discretionary programme for parliamentarians, reducing the total funds for special initiatives under the CPEC to Rs3bn. Almost 200 CPEC schemes had been scrapped, he added.
Responding to the calling-attention notice, Minister for Parliamentary Affairs Azam Swati ruled out the reversal of CPEC and said no one would be allowed even to cast an evil eye on it. He said the original allocation for CPEC projects was Rs167bn out of which 70 per cent had already been released. He said the Rs24bn diverted to other works had nothing to do with the original CPEC allocation.
On a point of public importance, Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz Senator retired Lt Gen Abdul Qayyum raised the issue of construction of a firing range in Diplomatic Enclave by the US Embassy. For this, he said, an advertisement had recently been placed by the embassy on its website.
The matter was referred by the chair to the Senate Standing Committee on Interior.
The committee, headed by former interior minister Rehman Malik, has already taken notice of the issue and sought a reply from the interior ministry.
Published in Dawn, April 27th, 2019