THE auditor general of Pakistan (AGP) has just retired and, at the time of writing, the government must be going through the process of appointing a new full-time AGP. Meanwhile, the Finance Division has notified the appointment of an acting AGP.
The AGP’s office is a constitutional position and considered one of the main pillars of Pakistan’s governance and accountability framework that ensures good use of public money. The AGP also heads the Supreme Audit Institution (SAI).
Articles 168 to 171 of the Constitution define the term, appointment, removal, functions and powers of the AGP. Section (3A) of Article 168 states: “The other terms and conditions of service of the Auditor-General shall be determined, by Act of Majlis-i-Shura (Parliament); and, until so determined, by Order of the President.”
The Musharraf regime had promulgated the Auditor General’s (Functions, Powers and Terms and Conditions of Service) Ordinance, 2001, when the National Assembly and Senate were suspended. Various amendments have since been made to strengthen the AGP’s office and to bring it on a par with its global counterparts. But there are some areas which need further strengthening, especially the selection, shortlisting and appointment of the AGP.
The AGP’s office must be brought on a par with its global counterparts.
Although the sensitive position of the AGP demands complete independence from the executive, the current procedure of appointment by the president as defined in Article 168 (1) is totally dependent on the discretion of the executive without any involvement of a commission or parliament. As the notification of the appointment of the acting AGP indicates, the finance ministry plays a major, often decisive, role in the appointment of the AGP which may be characterised as a potential conflict of interest as the AGP is primarily going to look at the accounts and related procedures and practices of the ministry.
This is in stark contrast to the procedure of appointment of positions in Pakistan’s other accountability or constitutional institutions. The judges of the higher judiciary are appointed by a judicial commission headed by the chief justice of Pakistan. This commission has representation of the executive, elected bodies of lawyers and, of course, judges. The appointments are confirmed by a parliamentary committee constituted for the purpose.
Although the chairman of the National Accountability Bureau is not a constitutional position, the appointment has to be made by the government after a meaningful consultation between the prime minister and leader of the opposition in the National Assembly. The parameters of consultation have been clearly defined in a Supreme Court judgement.
The Election Commission of Pakistan, another constitutional institution, is also involved in the accountability of elected representatives and political parties. The appointment of election commissioners has to follow a rigorous two-tier process of consultation initially at the level of the prime minister and leader of the opposition and subsequently a parliamentary committee.
International best practices for the appointment of heads of SAIs are increasingly favouring a consultative process involving parliament and public accounts committees, reducing the executive’s influence to the minimum. The auditor general has to, after all, audit the accounts and procedures of the executive. It is the same argument which has led to the appointment of a nominee of the opposition as chairman of PACs in a large number of democracies including Pakistan where the practice has been in place, at least at the federal level, since 2008.
The International Organisation of Supreme Audit Institutions, which is the largest world body of its kind with195 full members including Pakistan, has defined eight key principles, guidelines and good practices related to the independence of SAIs. Its guideline related to the second principle calls for the appointment of SAIs by a process that ensures their independence from the executive.
In the UK, the comptroller and auditor general (CAG) is jointly selected by the prime minister and PAC chairman and later ratified by the House of Commons. Similar appointments in the US require consent of the Senate. Appointment of the auditor general in Sri Lanka has to be approved by the Constitutional Council which has representation from the opposition. In countries as diverse as Australia, Japan, Thailand and Bhutan, the executive does not have the discretion to appoint the SAI head.
Isn’t it time that the government, which is committed to broad governance reforms, initiated the appointment of the new AGP through an institutionalised consultative process involving a parliamentary committee especially the PAC which has a direct stake in the office of the AGP?
The writer is president of the Pakistan Institute of Legislative Development And Transparency.
Published in Dawn, August 22nd, 2021