THE prime minister was absolutely right when he observed the other day that parliament was the best forum for government-opposition interaction. Implicit in his remark was an invitation to the opposition to use parliament for any dialogue. But the government’s responsibility to render unto parliament what is due to it cannot be affected by the opposition’s efforts to deepen its grave by ignoring parliament. The government’s responsibility to secure sanction for its actions by getting them stamped by parliament cannot be ignored under any circumstances.
The government must not be complacent about the fact that the laws it has been making in the form of ordinances, violating established conventions while bypassing parliament, will be treated as tainted or substandard legislation. And it is impossible to gloss over the fact that some of these laws have brought disgrace to the statute books by providing for inhuman, cruel and degrading punishments, such as chemical castration. Such laws betray a streak of sadism in the lawmakers’ mindset that cannot be permitted in any civilised society.
It is not impossible that in the current phase of preference for a vengeful dispensation parliament might not be able to block laws derogatory to human dignity, but the people might also become aware of the opposite point of view as well as the means of undoing the excesses committed by lawmakers. When a measure goes through the parliamentary procedures we get a record of adequacy or otherwise of the consultative process. Such record tells us, for instance, that while adopting the bill for adding section 295 C to the Penal Code, the National Assembly did not take into account the suggestion of the standing committee to study the practice adopted in such cases by other Muslim states.
What is meant by recalling instances is to show that when a measure is passed through parliamentary processes it is possible to safeguard against miscarriage of a law to an extent impossible in the system of making laws through executive fiat. Further, measures adopted through parliamentary procedures attract the attention of the public at large and citizens can exercise their right to participate in the making of laws, policies and decisions and thus enjoy becoming part of governance mechanisms. Such experiences are among the more appropriate means of ensuring a healthy relationship, including concurrence and dissent both, between the individual and the state.
Some small steps could reduce the distance between legislatures and the people.
Apart from the need for parliament’s approval of all laws and policies no concept of a parliamentary democracy — that Pakistan professes to be — can be considered complete and wholesome without accepting the principle of parliamentary oversight in all matters. Besides, parliamentary debates are the only means of offering the people unadulterated information about the direction of the government’s efforts. It can thus be said in a nutshell that parliamentary debates inform and educate the citizens in the art of representative government and make for democratic management of public affairs.
Regular functioning of parliament provides the people opportunities for judging the merit of their elected representatives and their success, or otherwise, to project their electors’ aspirations and concerns.
Unfortunately, those managing parliamentary affairs over the past many decades did not address the havoc caused by anti-democratic forces by devaluing representative institutions, including elected legislatures, and especially by fairly consistent efforts, both overt and covert, to increase the distances between legislatures and citizens.
For instance, the question hour in legislatures was of great interest to common citizens as governments were asked to explain their policies and actions that were causing harm to people’s interests. This part of the agenda was devalued by a growing tendency among presiding officers of the assemblies to screen questions in their chambers and disallow queries quite arbitrarily and whimsically. Adjournment motions that sought postponement of routine business in order to allow discussion on matters of concern to citizens began to be frowned on, and by and by members of assemblies forgot all about the importance of such motions. The presiding officers’ power to suspend the question hour that used to be sparingly used in the bad old days became a frequent exercise. All these happenings reduced the importance of the question hour and undermined citizens’ interest in the legislatures’ proceedings. Inevitably, the movement towards consolidation of democratic practices was arrested.
If democracy is to be strengthened to an extent that defence and promotion of public interest becomes a habit with parliamentarians the legislatures’ agenda will have to be expanded to include, beside matters of interest to the ruling group, subjects that touch on public grievances and aspirations.
Some small steps could reduce the distance between legislatures and the people. As against the present practice of meeting the target of minimum working days fixed in the Constitution, parliament should remain in session for as long spells as possible and the vacations be drastically reduced. Private members’ days should never be curtailed. The government should rarely use its authority to scuttle private members’ bills. In fact, private members should be encouraged to take initiatives in the public interest and they should be helped to improve their assessment of public interest as well as their drafting skills. The idea is that instead of treating legislative initiatives as a government monopoly the private members’ contribution to legislation should be welcomed and encouraged.
One way of raising the value of parliamentary proceedings and increasing public interest in them is to increase the number of thematic sessions. That parliament should devote a day to discuss the realisation of Cedaw targets for women’s progress is an old demand left unheeded by successive regimes. The policy of indifference to women’s causes needs to be abandoned forthwith and issues concerning them, from exploitation of their labour to killings for so-called honour, given proper time and scope in parliamentary debates. Days can also be fixed for debates on other important issues, such as workers’ rights and peasantry’s exploitation.
The powers that be need to realise that democracy will not be deepened nor would its promised fruit become available to the people at large without allowing parliament the powers and the facilities it needs to discharge its non-negotiable obligations to serve the people.
Published in Dawn, December 17th, 2020