WEAKNESSES generally associated with the legislative process in our country were once again exposed during the passage of amendments to the army, air force and navy acts in parliament recently. Although the subject was so important that it first dominated the proceedings of the Supreme Court, and later the national media, hardly any time could be found for a meaningful debate by political parties and parliament.
While being rushed through the parliamentary parties and the two houses and their committees, not even a comma was altered, indicating that either the three bills drafted by the concerned ministries were so perfect that further improvement was simply not possible (a far-fetched assumption given the recent performance of the ministries presenting flawed notification after flawed notification to the Supreme Court, only to be given short shrift), or the political parties, the houses of parliament and their committees shied away from doing their job.
The Supreme Court, in its order of Nov 28, 2019, had asked parliament to remove within six months the lacunae regarding the term and extension in the tenure of the services chiefs in the army, air force and navy acts. Six months was sufficient time to properly draft, debate and pass the required amendments following parliamentary norms but for some inexplicable reason, the federal government wanted to make short work of the entire process and pass the amendments in a single day — getting them passed by the National Assembly in the morning and the Senate in the afternoon. Since the political parties, especially in the opposition, were facing the public’s wrath for readily agreeing to support the bills, they demanded that some fig leaf be provided; hence, the process was allowed to drag on for the sake of form without any improvement in substance.
The legislative process was initiated on the wrong note by the government when it called an ‘urgent’ meeting of the federal cabinet on Jan 1, 2020. What was the urgency, one may ask, when a full five months remained at the disposal of the government and parliament? The cabinet approved the bill as presented to it in the same session. There was nothing in the media which suggested that any amendment to the proposed draft was suggested by any of the cabinet members.
It is a sad comment on the state of our democracy that the extension bills were passed without any debate.
The president of Pakistan summoned the National Assembly to meet on Jan 1, 2020. A government delegation led by Defence Minister Pervez Khattak met the parliamentary leaders of the PML-N and PPP the next day and both assured the government of their support for the bills. The PML-N’s parliamentary leader, Khawaja Asif, announced ‘unconditional’ support while PPP chairman Bilawal Bhutto-Zardari asked that the legislative process not be sidestepped. Interestingly, Khawaja Asif based his party’s unconditional support on Nawaz Sharif’s direction given weeks ago, when PML-N leaders visited him in London and when the contents of the three bills were not even known. Later, perhaps after the public backlash to the ‘unconditional support’, Nawaz Sharif apparently asked his party to insist on following the legislative procedure spread over 12 days. The government reluctantly agreed — but to stretch the process to a mere six days.
In a classic parliamentary democracy, legislation dealing with significant policy issues, like the one under discussion, should be debated in the parties’ forums such as the Central Working Committee which gives policy guidelines to parliamentary committees. The latter should review the legislation in detail and formulate proposals for amendments, if any, in the light of party guidelines. In each of the two meetings, participants should be given full opportunity to speak their mind unlike the case of the PML-N where the parliamentary party was, right at the beginning, apprised of the directions of Nawaz Sharif to support the legislation unconditionally. Members might have vented their frustration, but what was the scope of any discussion after that?
The rulebooks of the two houses contain elaborate provisions for the legislative process. Both the National Assembly and Senate Rules have separate chapters on legislation consisting of 45 and 39 clauses respectively. In the two houses of parliament, each legislation, by rule, is supposed to be referred to the concerned committee. The two houses separately debate the bills in detail after receiving reports from the committees for which normally a month is granted. The National Assembly has 47 committees whereas the Senate has 66, including the ministries-related standing committees.
In this case, the National Assembly and Senate standing committees on defence were the relevant forums. Initially, as in the case of many other bills, the government planned to suspend the rules and not refer the bills to committees. But it had to go through the drill under the pressure of the opposition parties. Sadly, it was all an eyewash. The entire legislative exercise on such important bills in the two houses of parliament and the two standing committees lasted for less than four hours. In one standing committee, the bill was approved in just 45 minutes. The drivers of the legislative process were in such a great hurry that they convened the National Assembly defence committee meeting in violation of the rules and had to reconvene it. Media reports indicate that the bills were passed in each house in 20 minutes flat.
It is a sad commentary on the state of our democracy in general and the internal democracy of political parties in particular that such an important law was ploughed through the parliamentary parties, the two houses and their committees without any meaningful debate. One of the party leaders alluded to external pressure on the parties but they should remember that lack of intra-party democracy makes party leaders more vulnerable to outside pressure. Irrespective of the positions taken by the parties, one wishes that the elected representatives had at least followed the true spirit of parliamentary norms to justify the huge parliamentary infrastructure sustained by the taxpayers’ money.
The writer is president of the Pakistan Institute of Legislative Development And Transparency.
Published in Dawn, January 20th, 2020