COVID-19 fears: Underwhelming year for NA at risk of remaining incomplete

Lower house has been in session for just 54 days in the current year. Rules stipulate a minimum of 130 days

Saqib Virk April 05, 2020
National Assembly of Pakistan. PHOTO: APP

ISLAMABAD: Like much of everything else, the novel coronavirus has placed parliamentary business in Pakistan on what seems to be an indefinite hiatus. And with just four months left, it appears increasingly unlikely that the National Assembly will be able to salvage what has been an underwhelming parliamentary year.

According to official record, the lower house has been in session for just 54 days throughout the current parliamentary year, most of which it spent embroiled in turmoil between the government and opposition. Parliamentary rules stipulate that the National Assembly must be in session for a minimum of 130 days.

Although Prime Minister Imran Khan was conspicuously absent from the house for the most part, key opposition leaders Shahbaz Sharif and Bilawal Bhutto Zardari also walked out on important meetings.

Other than the Zainab Alert, Response and Recovery Act and amending the laws pertaining to the appointment of the three services’ chiefs, the National Assembly took up no major legislation. Although 131 government and private member bills were tabled in the current year, the house passed just 21 with only 12 going on to become acts of Parliament.

What is more concerning is that the treasury and opposition could not hold meaningful exchange even in the face of calamity as NA Speaker Asad Qaiser struggled to bring all parliamentary parties on one page despite the pandemic.

While seven of the ten democratic countries worst hit by COVID-19 continue to hold regular parliamentary meetings to discuss situation, the National Assembly has so far not followed suit.

With the country forced to impose lockdown and enforce social distancing, it appears the government will have to cram as many meetings ahead of September whenever the NA hiatus ends. The lack of standing committee meetings, however, will mean important legislative business will remain suspended.

If the COVID-19 situation persists, however, it would be very difficult for the government to call the budget session, parliamentarians warned.

“The entire world is going through an extraordinary time,” said Minister of State for Parliamentary Affairs Ali Muhammad Khan. “We have a God-given responsibility to take appropriate and timely decisions.”

“We have conveyed these concerns to the opposition and they agree that the session should be postponed as under present circumstances, it would endanger MPs, parliamentary staff and visitors,” he added.

According to the minister, he advised the speaker to form the parliamentary committee to ensure Parliament plays its due role in overseeing the COVID-19 crisis. “The government would take administrative decisions, but this committee will keep an eye on it,” he explained. “I think it is more important to save the lives of people than the legislature, but parliament will continue to play its role.

Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz MNA Mohsin Shahnawaz Ranjha told The Express Tribune that the Constitution had provisions for emergency, such as allowing legislation by way of ordinance. “Opinions may also be sent by sending presidential reference to the Supreme Court,” he said. “I have also suggested introducing online voting for parliamentarians to ensure the legislature remains effective.”

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