Parliament has adopted with one voice a long-delayed bill to convert the national airline into a public limited company in a session that also witnessed shouting, sloganeering and heckling when a key opposition leader tried to raise the issue of Panama leaks on the floor of the house.
When the joint session of parliament started, the opposition eagerly pushed for a debate on the Panama Papers revelations, but the treasury benches would not speak on anything but the six bills on the agenda of the day.
The session, which convened on March 22 to discuss the bills, was adjourned for three weeks after the house formed a 10-member bipartisan committee to evolve consensus on the six bills, particularly the Pakistan International Airlines Corporation (Conversion) Bill, 2016.
Law and Justice Minister Zahid Hamid tabled the PIA (conversion) bill in the house. According to the bill, the management of the company and its subsidiary companies will continue to vest in the majority share-holder, which shall be the federal government, whose shares shall not be less than 51%.
Initially, the government planned to privatise the national flag-carrier, but altered the plans after stiff resistance from PIA employees and scathing criticism from the opposition, particularly the Pakistan Peoples Party.
According to the PIA (conversion) bill, the main objectives of the government are to ensure PIA’s continued operations as the country’s national air carrier; to promote rapid development and modernisation of the airline to encourage injection of capital, skills and latest technology; to upgrade the airline’s operational and financial performance; and to achieve improvement in performance and operational efficiency in various business segments of the airline.
In order to achieve these objectives, it is imperative that the airline be corporatised and converted into a public limited company, incorporated under the Companies Ordinance, 1984. The conversion will enable the government to revitalise the airline and develop a healthy, competitive aviation sector in Pakistan.
When the law minister tabled the bill, the leader of the house in the National Assembly, Khursheed Shah, reminded the government of its commitment to withdraw show-cause notices against PIA employees, and to quash FIRs and termination letters against them. On April 6, Finance Minister Ishaq Dar had assured the bipartisan committee that all these issues would be resolved before moving the PIA (conversion) bill in parliament. Dar told the house on Monday that he had promised to quash the FIRs against the PIA employees after the bill was approved by parliament.
But Aitzaz Ahsan, the leader of the house in the Senate, was quick to dismiss the verbal commitment of Dar and sought a written assurance. Dar cited legal issues for quashing the FIRs. Senator Ahsan, however, said the government could withdraw the cases of administrative nature by writing to the PIA chairman. Speaker Ayaz Sadiq intervened to settle the row. He suggested that Law Minister Hamid and Finance Minister Dar resolve the matter with the opposition lawmakers.
The finance minister announced in the house that all cases of administrative nature against the PIA employees would be withdrawn by Tuesday. He also telephoned the aviation secretary, who is also acting chairman of the national airline, to tell him to withdraw all such cases.
The opposition, meanwhile, persisted in its demand for a debate on the Panama Papers. The speaker gave in when the opposition refused to budge. Senator Ahsan spoke on the offshore companies of the ruling Sharif family in an hour-long speech punctuated by sloganeering from the treasury benches. The Panama Papers revelation that three scions of the Sharif family have secreted their money in offshore companies has triggered calls for Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif to resign.
Cabinet ministers have been defending the Sharif family and accusing opposition leaders of stashing their money abroad. Senator Ahsan, however, said statements coming from the government camp were contradictory.
“The way money went from the country and loans taken from local banks was a cognizable offence and fraud which could entail 14-year imprisonment as per the accountability law,” he said, adding that all those named in the scandal must be brought to book.
Throughout Senator Ahsan’s speech, treasury members kept shouting. At one point Senator Ahsan paused and said while pointing to the treasury benches: “They don’t have anything to say except creating commotion.” In the meantime, Speaker Ayaz Sadiq announced a prolonged prayer break, an apparent attempt to avoid further discussion on the issue that involved Premier Nawaz Sharif and his family. The house also passed emigration and civil servants amendment bills. But anti-honour killing and anti-rape bills were deferred and referred to the relevant committee after JUI-F lawmakers raised objections to some clauses.
‘Derogatory remarks’ from JUI-F’s Amir Zaman against PTI’s Shireen Mazari triggered a walkout by women MPs from the house. Zaman refused to apologise, prompting the chair to expunge the remarks from the proceedings. The session was prorogued sine die when Mushahidullah Khan of the PML-N was responding to Senator Ahsan’s invective.
Published in The Express Tribune, April 12th, 2016.