A strong and assertive parliament is essential for democratic development in Pakistan, says a Free and Fair Election Network (FAFEN) report on the performance of the National Assembly in its fourth parliamentary year.
The report says wide-ranging reforms need to be implemented in order for the parliament to function properly and enforce its decisions.
The report suggests that the reforms focus on enhancing the role of the standing committees, improving transparency, participation and attendance of legislators, the role of the chair, misuse of points of order and ensuring government promises to the House. In order to achieve success, reforms would have to be implemented in the Rules of Procedures and Conduct of Business that govern the National Assembly.
The targeted reforms suggested by FAFEN are considered essential to improving parliamentary efficiency and the effectiveness of its core functions which consist of legislation, executive oversight and representation.
Additionally, the network has urged all political parties to initiate a public debate on the issue of parliamentary supremacy at a time when it is being questioned.
The report recommends that political parties include their vision and plans for parliamentary reforms in their manifestoes, and to make them available before the upcoming elections.
FAFEN’s broader recommendations for improvement in parliamentary effectiveness have been made following four years of observation of the National Assembly proceedings.
In moving towards parliamentary transparency, improved access to parliamentary proceedings for citizens would be a step forward. There is also a need for parliamentary parties to ensure that their members are participating in the sessions and contributing quality input.
A crucial point made in the report was that the attendance of members is vital to assembly sittings. It was also recommended that the National Assembly Secretariat keep a record of the actual time spent by members in the assembly, highlighting lack of quorum.
The report alleges that the government and the opposition have reached an unwritten understanding on not pointing out a lack of quorum in the National Assembly. Fafen reports that the point was not made even once during the entire year. On average, 74 members were present at the beginning and 80 at the adjournment of each sitting during the year.
Additionally, it was noted that when legislators do appear, they do not participate. The report pointed out that 60 legislators did not participate in any form of parliamentary intervention throughout the fourth parliamentary year.
The report also suggests additional orientation and training for the parliamentarians on fundamental responsibilities, adding that they should also be trained on basic parliamentary procedures, particularly those that are commonly misused, such as points of order.
A total of 1,275 points of order were raised in the fourth year, which consumed 31% of the total time. The report indicates that the excessive use of points of order cuts into the time allocated for the regular agenda, 60% of which remained unaddressed.
Fafen points out that in preparing the national budget, parliamentarians are given less than two weeks for debate. It has recommended giving legislators more time and information on the budgetary proposals and encouraged the scrutiny of ministries’ budgets by the relevant standing committee. In the fourth parliamentary year, 139 legislators out of 341 took part in the budget debate for only 34 hours.
In keeping with the idea of increased transparency, it was suggested that the National Assembly maintain a ‘public record’ of parliamentary business, thus enabling constituents to stay informed on the performance of their representatives.
Fafen also suggests that the question hour is being underutilized due to a lack of attendance. During the fourth parliamentary year only 400 out of total 1,271 oral questions were answered by the ministers.
It was also suggested that all questions be made available to legislators and the public and responded to within the stipulated timeframe.
Additionally, it was recommended that a comprehensive mechanism be in place to track government assurances given to the House on various parliamentary interventions. A total of 101 brief statements were made in response to calling attention notices in the fourth year.
Published in The Express Tribune, August 15th, 2012.