After the morbid spectacle of budget books being hurled at political rivals, profanities exchanged and decorum of the National Assembly breached, the budget session for 2021-22 now seems to be on autopilot.
Low attendance or addressing the empty benches is becoming a common occurrence in the lower house of parliament since the heavyweights of the assembly concluded their budget speeches. At times, there are only a dozen lawmakers present on both sides of the aisle while the House discusses the most important bill of the year – the finance bill.
For instance, on Saturday’s roughly seven-hour-long budget session, there were half-a-dozen lawmakers present on the treasury and opposition benches; roughly a dozen legislators slamming or favouring the annual budget in the House of 342.
When questioned if it is not an exercise in futility at the cost of public money, some argued that they had to be in their constituencies; some justified that a lawmaker was free to even go to a world tour 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,” Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N)’s Ahsan Iqbal said. “In House of Commons during debate sometimes just half a dozen members are present,” Iqbal added.
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’s (PPP) Hina Rabbani Khar blamed the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf government for not taking parliament seriously and rendering the budget process an exercise in futility.
“Just like the institutional decay that has been heralded during the PTI regime,” the former foreign minister said, “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 PPP’s tenure as the premier would attend almost all sessions. “I remember in our times we used to make sure that either the finance minister or MOS (minister of state) was present all the time,” she said.
In addition, Khar said that “Parliament was given respect, the PM would also attend the budget session in fact almost all sessions daily”, adding “this government does not take anything seriously and certainly does not believe in taking Parliament seriously.”
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 did not.
Just a few days ago, the lawmakers were fighting for this 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 is to stay away from the assembly if they have already spoken or it is not their turn.
Resultantly, despite the low attendance in the House, no one points out quorum, which is usually used as a weapon to prematurely end the house proceedings.
For now, the lawmakers are busy pouring their hearts out amid empty chairs. Soon, political commentators said, the bigwigs would return to make a speech and the parties would ensure that the House is full and the session does not reflect that it is on autopilot mode.