Delusions of adequacy

Published May 18, 2023

ONE wonders why our elected representatives felt it necessary to have their respect codified in law. With the bill to criminalise ‘contempt of parliament’, they are arrogating to themselves the role of judge, jury and executioner, thinking that doing so will empower them to bring to heel anyone who does not treat them with deference. It will not.

The Contempt of Majlis-i-Shoora (Parliament) Bill, 2023, prescribes a punishment of up to six months in prison and/or a Rs1m fine for anyone found guilty of holding parliament or its members in contempt. The word ‘contempt’ has been defined rather expansively.

It can mean breaching the privileges of a lawmaker; violating the laws guaranteeing the immunities or privileges of lawmakers; failing to obey the orders of parliament or its committees; refusing to give evidence or recording a false statement before a committee; attempting or influencing a witness to prevent him from providing evidence, producing documents or appearing before the committee; and failing to provide any documents or submitting tampered documents before a house or a committee.

Though the law appears straightforward, observers have pointed out that existing Assembly rules already protect parliamentarians’ privileges — there wasn’t any pressing need for this new legislation. The ‘justification’, in fact, lies elsewhere.

After the Supreme Court contentiously aborted a law clipping the chief justice’s discretionary powers, the government has changed tactics by using its powers to assert the notion that parliament is somehow ‘supreme’. Meanwhile, the National Assembly’s Public Accounts Committee is on a fishing expedition.

It is looking for evidence of financial irregularities in the Supreme Court’s accounts, but the court’s registrar — the custodian of its secrets — has proven too difficult to net. After the committee meeting this Tuesday, the PAC issued a ‘last warning’ to him for not presenting himself for questioning. With the aforementioned law in place, he could have been held guilty of contempt.

It is indeed a major problem that too many individuals and institutions feel they do not need to answer to parliament. However, this isn’t something a law can fix. The problem is not the absence of legislation, but lawmakers’ own failure to stand their ground and assert their authority.

In the PAC meeting mentioned earlier, the committee was finally handed a list detailing the monthly salaries drawn by senior ministers, judges and bureaucrats. It was promptly made public. Missing from that list were the salaries drawn by army generals.

Considering how central their role has been in the country’s affairs, this information would have been of as much public interest as the salaries of the other officials. Why was it beyond the committee’s purview? Our lawmakers may underline their importance with as many new laws as they wish, but as long as untouchables remain untouchables, little will change.

Published in Dawn, May 18th, 2023

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