When parliaments aren’t sovereign, MPs lose interest

Speaker Rana Muhammad Iqbal urged the opposition to let proceedings run and not point out the quorum.


Mohammed Rizwan January 02, 2012

LAHORE:


Speaker Rana Muhammad Iqbal, the ‘bipartisan’ custodian of the Punjab Assembly, made an extraordinary appeal to the opposition yesterday. As question hour drew to a close and the chair prepared to take up call attention notices and motions, Khadija Omar of the opposition PML-Q pointed out that there were not enough members present in the house to meet the quorum requirement.


Iqbal, one of the most proud Rajputs on this side of the Sutlej, urged the opposition to let proceedings run and not point out the quorum. He reminded them of pledges made during house business advisory committee meetings and called for a ‘bipartisan compromise’. He asked them to overlook the quorum, or lack of it, so that the business of the house could be completed.

The speaker’s plea was mighty disingenuous. It is the treasury’s responsibility to ensure that quorum is maintained, that is, that at least 93 of the 360-plus members are in attendance. To urge the opposition to be responsible and bipartisan is to let the treasury off the hook. This session was not requisitioned by the opposition, nor was yesterday a private members’ day. The agenda was crammed with official business (eight bills).

The speaker’s appeal was a clear confession that the treasury simply can’t get 93 of its members to attend assembly proceedings. When the house began its legislative business yesterday only 45 or so members were present (including opposition members). Senior Advisor to the Chief Minister Sirdar Zulfiqar Khosa went up to the chair and whispered in the speaker’s ear. Soon after, the speaker adjourned the session. You don’t have to be a genius to figure out that the Sardar told the speaker that the treasury simply did not have enough members to run the house.

The opposition, revelling in the treasury’s helplessness, has made a habit of pointing out the quorum. That is why the bills presented in the house on December 12, the first day of this session, are still on the agenda. One could accuse the opposition of disruption if it pointed out the quorum on a private members day or during debates on public interest issues, but on a day like Monday, they are perfectly entitled to embarrass the government.

The treasury just hasn’t shown it is serious about running an efficient legislative assembly. They don’t even have a chief whip to rally the members (or if there is one, no one in the treasury appears to know him). Far too much responsibility has been placed on Rana Sanaullah, who usually handles house business on his own, with scant support from ministers. Perhaps more responsibility needs to be taken by Sirdar Khosa, who seems to be away from the house on other pressing engagements most of the time.

The lack of seriousness with which the assembly is treated is not just a reflection of the treasury’s incompetence, but also the way parliaments have been treated in Pakistan’s history. By and large, they have not been sovereign.

During a budget debate in the National Assembly during the Musharraf years, an opposition cut motion was carried because there were not enough treasury members in the house to defeat it. Then Speaker Amir Hussain declared the proceedings null and void and ordered a re-vote when there were more members in the house. In a proper democracy, this would have been grounds to force the government to resign. But in Pakistan, no one batted an eyelid.

Published in The Express Tribune, January 3rd, 2012.

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