NA budget session on ‘autopilot’

Low attendance becomes a norm after political heavyweights conclude their budget speeches


Rizwan Shehzad   June 20, 2021

ISLAMABAD:

After hurling budget books at opponents, using abusive language against rivals and violating decorum of the National Assembly, the budget session for 2021-22 now appears to be running on autopilot.

Low attendance or addressing empty benches is becoming a common occurrence in the lower house after the political heavyweights concluded their concluded their budget speeches.

As the House discusses the most important bill of the year – the finance bill -, there are hardly a dozen lawmakers present on either sides of the aisle.

For instance, during Saturday’s roughly seven-hour-long budget session there were at times half-a-dozen lawmakers present on the treasury and opposition benches; roughly a dozen legislatures slamming or favouring the annual budget in the House of 342.

When questioned whether it was not an exercise in futility at the cost of public money, some lawmakers argued that they had to be in their constituencies. Some justified that a lawmaker was free to go to a world tour even if there was no voting item on the agenda, while others pointed out that the Leader of the House – currently Prime Minister Imran Khan – should set the tone by personally attending the sessions.

“When there is no voting item on agenda members tend to come and go all over the world,” stated Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N)’s Ahsan Iqbal. “In the House of Commons sometimes just half a dozen members are present during the debate,” Iqbal added.

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PML-N’s Mohsin Shahnawaz Ranjha was of the view that low attendance on Saturday was because “our public wants them [lawmakers] to be seen in their constituencies over the weekends.”

Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP)’s Hina Rabbani Khar blamed the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) government for not taking the parliament seriously and rendering the budget process futile.

“Just like the institutional decay that the PTI regime has heralded,” the ex-foreign minister said that, “the budget making and approval process, flawed as it was, has been rendered completely an exercise in futility.”

Khar recalled that parliament was given respect during the PPP’s tenure as the premier would attend almost all sessions. “I remember in our times we used to make sure that either the Fin Min [finance minister] or MOS [minister of state] was present all the time,” she said.

In addition, Khar said that the, “Parliament was given respect, the PM would also attend the budget session, in fact, almost all sessions daily,” adding that, “this government doesn't take anything seriously and certainly doesn't believe in taking Parliament seriously.”

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PTI’s planning minister, Asad Umar, whose tweet confirmed that he was in Hunza after delivering his budget speech, was asked to comment but he did not reply. A couple of other members from the treasury benches were also requested to share their views but they didn’t.

Only a few days ago, lawmakers were fighting for the very reason that both sides should be heard without any interruption. Majority, it seems, has drawn the conclusion that the best way to do so was to stay away from the assembly if they have already spoken or if it was not their turn.

Consequently, no one points out the quorum - usually used as a weapon to prematurely end the house proceedings - despite a low attendance in the House.

For now, the lawmakers are busy pouring their hearts out to empty chairs. Soon, political commentators said, the bigwigs would return to make a speech and the parties would make sure that the House is full and the session doesn’t reflect that it was on autopilot mode.

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