Absent From the House

abmPARLIAMENT in Pakistan posted some noticeable improvements during 2015 including greater transparency in members’ attendance records. National Assembly committees also undertook a detailed preview of the federal budget for the first time in the country’s history.

Despite these and other improvements, one major weakness continued to overshadow the performance of both houses of parliament; for that matter even of the provincial assemblies. Members, in general though with some highly respectable exceptions, continued to display a low level of involvement in the business of parliament, be it legislation, policy debates or holding the executive to account. This lack of involvement manifests itself in many ways including poor attendance, lacklustre debates, short sittings and allowing the august houses to be used for hurriedly rubber-stamping decisions taken in fora such as all-party conferences without permitting meaningful debate.

The average attendance of the National Assembly during the second year that ended on June 30, 2015, was just 21pc at the beginning and end of the sittings, but in between it rose to 43pc. Unfortunately, even this peak is well below half the total strength of the house. The Senate sitting on Jan 1, 2016, had just 10 members (9pc) at the beginning. This figure rose to 27 or 28pc by the time it was adjourned.

Routinely, the houses are without the minimum quorum of 25pc. Although various parties have now come to a mutual unwritten agreement not to point out the lack of quorum and therefore continue without interruption even when there is no quorum, National Assembly proceedings had to be suspended some 40 times during the past two years because the house lacked the minimum numbers and members pointed this out. Both the Senate chairman and the National Assembly speaker have repeatedly voiced their frustration over the absence of ministers even when a business relating to their ministries was being transacted in parliament. Members’ attendance in the Senate and provincial assemblies was not any different, demonstrating a clear aversion to the business of the house.

Why do our legislators have such a shoddy record of attendance in parliament?

It seems that policy debates seldom take place in parliament. Policies are executed without much oversight. A case in point is the annual budget which is the most important policy document of any government and shows the priorities and direction of the government. An analysis of the budget process in parliament can be an indicator of parliament’s role in policy matters. During the past 13 years, the National Assembly has, on average, debated the budget for just 12 days each year. This compares dismally with 75 days in the Indian Lok Sabha.

Parliamentary committees, which are the prime institutions of oversight and scrutiny, have been kept out of the budget process in Pakistan in stark contrast to India, Canada, the UK and many other countries where committees scrutinise the budget relating to the ministry concerned. The passage of the budget in the National Assembly is, therefore, a mere formality. Surprisingly, seldom has a parliamentarian ever protested or complained about this serious breach of privilege to scrutinise the budget.

The Constitution requires the National Assembly and Senate to meet for a minimum of 130 and 110 days respectively in a year. Seldom have the two houses ever met for more than the minimum required number. A more precise measure may, however, be the number of hours spent in plenary sessions. The National Assembly has met for 281 hours during the past parliamentary year and this, on the average, translates into a little over three hours per day for the 92 days it met during the year. These are pretty short working days by any standard.

While the weak attendance, lack of policy debates and short working days in parliament indicate a very low level of involvement in the legislative business, it does not mean that parliamentarians are relaxing or having fun. Pakistani parliamentarians are among the busiest and most hardworking. The problem is that their time is chiefly spent attending to individual problems of their constituents. These problems relating to the local police station, revenue official, local bureaucracy, employment, postings and transfers may be characterised as petty, but for the mostly poor, illiterate and disempowered constituents these are issues of life and death.

Poor governance does not provide a straight route to solutions. In many cases, there is no solution unless a powerful patron pleads their case. In most cases, elected legislators are the only available patrons for these disempowered constituents. Elected parliamentarians spend long hours addressing these individual problems, moving from one office to the other within their constituency and in the provincial and national capitals to help their constituents. In addition, they are expected to attend every funeral and wedding in their large constituencies consisting of hundreds of thousands of voters. Sadly, most voters do not vote for their representative to play an effective role in the legislature; they simply want them to attend to their individual problems, and, at best, take care of local development. An elected parliamentarian can ignore these expectations only to his or her peril. This is the reason why business in parliament takes a back seat.

This state of affairs is the single greatest challenge facing the Pakistani parliament today. It must improve if parliament has to evolve into an effective platform of policy debate and ensure serious accountability of the executive. Will the recent election of local governments allow legislators to do the job they are meant to do? This remains to be seen. In the long term, however, enhancing public awareness of parliamentarians’ responsibilities and improvement in governance are two basic prerequisites for things to change. (Published in Dawn, January 5th, 2016)

Writer: Ahmed Bilal Mehboob

The writer is the president of the Pakistan Institute of Legislative Development and Transparency (PILDAT).

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