LAHORE: The Punjab government has strong reservations over the Punjab Assembly (Privileges) (Amendment) Act 2021 that empowers the House speaker to tighten the noose around the bureaucracy through wide-ranging powers, including judicial and administrative.

Though the controversial bill was unanimously passed by the assembly overriding the objections raised by the governor, the Punjab government still believed that the Act violated law and the Constitution and merited a re-think to come up with legislation acceptable to all.

The chief minister’s secretariat is reportedly working on the subject and looking to hold a meeting with Punjab Assembly Speaker Chaudhry Parvez Elahi to brainstorm yet again and ensure that there was no illegality in implementing the new law. Sources in the CM’s secretariat stress that “separation of power is necessary”.

Officers see ‘anger’ against civil bureaucracy in legislation

Mr Elahi, the force behind the bill, had gone on to openly declare in the House that “no bureaucrat should now dare breach the privilege of the House as the bill has (automatically) become a law”. He asked the legislators to record the conversation if a deputy commissioner called them so the House could check the attitude of the bureaucracy. “The bureaucrats will fall in line once a couple of precedents are set,” Mr Elahi had stated.

The amendment law had added a schedule to the original 1972 Act prescribing punishment for a bureaucrat over breach of privilege of the House, any of its committee or member and granted judicial powers to the speaker and/or the committee named by him or the House on the breach.

In its original form, the bill passed by the Punjab Assembly on June 29 had also stipulated punishment for a journalist over breach of privilege of the House, any of its committee or a member. However, the proposed action was withdrawn through an amendment moved in the Punjab Assembly following a massive demonstration organised by various journalist organisations.

Sources say the federal and Punjab governments, after the bureaucracy pleaded with them, realised that any law that would push the officials against the wall would not work since the PTI government had so far not been able to win their confidence and persuade them to work in top gear. They say the bureaucrats were already working cautiously at a slow pace to avoid ending up doing something that followed a notice from the National Accountability Bureau, Federal Investigation Agency or the Anti-Corruption Establishment.

Some senior officers saw “anger and over-reaction” against the civil bureaucracy in the new law and regretted that the reputation of many a bureaucrat was being tainted. Since internal accountability within the civil bureaucracy had depleted, they regretted that the NAB had stepped in and now the House speaker wanted to punish the bureaucrats. Later, another authority would want to bash the bureaucracy if it believed the officers did not mend their ways, a senior bureaucrat commented.

Well-placed sources in the chief minister’s secretariat said the governor had rejected the Provincial Assembly (Privileges) (Amendment) Bill 2021 and returned it to the assembly speaker for being in contravention of articles 66(3) and 10-A of the Constitution.

“But, unfortunately, the Punjab Assembly did not consider the illegality and passed the bill again to make it a law,” a source in the secretariat told Dawn and added that the bill was not routed through the secretariat.

The source also stated that parliament’s duty was to legislate, and not assume the role of the police, administration and judiciary. “Not even a chief minister can take up the role of the police or judiciary, as the chief executive only asserts authority through the relevant institutions,” the source added.

The secretariat had taken up the matter with PA Speaker Elahi and suggested revision of the issue and that the law and Constitution be followed. “Since the PML-Q is a PTI ally, the government will convince Mr Elahi affably on facts,” the source said, adding that the issue would be rectified during the next Punjab Assembly session.

“If the bill stays what will Mr Elahi do when he’s not the speaker anymore and an opponent becomes the chair in the future?” a CM secretariat source questioned hypothetically.

Published in Dawn, August 27th, 2021

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