Although the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) government has been in power for more than 100 days, it is still struggling to constitute National Assembly standing committees, which in any parliamentary democracy function as eyes, ears, hands and even brain of the parliament. They are a necessary requirement for preliminary discussions and debates on proposed legislations.
This has been the longest delay in the setting up of standing committees in the history of National Assemblies in Pakistan. As per rules, these committees should have been formed by Sept 16. The Rules of Procedure of the National Assembly state, “All the members of Standing Committees are required to be elected by the Assembly within thirty days after the election of the Leader of the House under Rule 200.”
The reason for the deadlock in forming standing committees is primarily the ongoing political tiff between the ruling party and the opposition parties on the appointment of the chairman of the Public Accounts Committee (PAC).
The PAC is the most prestigious committee; it discusses audit reports of the public departments. There are special provisions empowering the standing committees to examine the expenditures, delegated legislations, public petitions and policies of the ministries concerned and their associated public bodies. They forward their findings and recommendations to the concerned ministry, which in turn submit their replies to the committees.
Traditionally, the leader of the opposition is appointed the PAC chairman. But, this time, the PTI has shown reluctance in entrusting Shahbaz Sharif, the leader of opposition in the house, who is also the younger brother of former prime minister Nawaz Sharif, to audit reports of public departments.
The opposition parties in the National Assembly have decided to not become a part of any standing committee if the PAC chairmanship is not given to the leader of the opposition.
“There is no compromise on this issue. We want the opposition leader as chairman of the PAC. Otherwise we will not be part of any committee of the house,” Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) leader Maryam Aurangzeb tells TNS. “People should realise that this is a failed government, even within the parliament. They are not serious about any business, legislation or respecting the sanctity of the parliament.”
Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP) has decided to back Shahbaz Sharif as the PAC chairman.
The British parliament has a PAC headed by an opposition MP. The Indian parliament has followed the same convention since 1967. In Pakistan, though, since the promulgation of the 1973 Constitution, a member of the ruling party headed the PAC. In 2008, this practice changed and the government started to appoint the leader of opposition as the PAC chairman to honour the Charter of Democracy (CoD).
Despite several meetings with NA Speaker Asad Qaiser, both the government and the opposition are not willing to budge from their stated positions on the PAC chairman’s appointment.
“This should be our biggest concern about the government’s parliamentary performance… that the government is unable to form the standing committees of the National Assembly,” says Ahmed Bilal Mehboob, President of PILDAT (Pakistan Institute of Legislative Development and Transparency). “I will term this a complete failure of the sitting government, which mostly comprises of politicians with no experience in parliamentary democracy. It’s a dysfunctional assembly.”
He says the standing committees are considered an effective forum for financial accountability in parliamentary democracies. “It is also a good democratic practice in most countries to elect the PAC chairman from among the opposition members of the parliament.”
Absence of the standing committees means the parliament is missing the role of oversight — “particularly, at this moment, when there are issues pertaining to foreign policy and economy,” he adds.
He suggests the government must speed up talks with the opposition parties to make the house functional.
Normally, the number of standing committees in the lower house ranges from 40 to 45. As per rules of the National Assembly, “There shall be a Standing Committee of the Assembly for each Ministry of the Government (Rule 198). The Standing Committees examine Bills referred to them by the House and submit its reports to the House. Upon introduction, a Bill other than a Finance Bill, shall stand referred to the Standing Committee concerned with the subject matter of the Bill (Rule 122).”
“We hope to break the stalemate on the constitution of standing committees in the upcoming session of the assembly,” Asad Umar tells TNS. “PM has also formed a two-member committee comprising Speaker Asad Qaisar and Defence Minister Pervaiz Khattak to hold talks with the opposition and things are moving forward.”
However, the PTI in its party meeting has decided not to give the PAC chairman slot to the opposition leader but any other senior member of PML-N.
The next session of the National Assembly is scheduled for December 10 (tomorrow). If the issue is not resolved, “the government might announce the standing committees comprising of ruling coalition members,” a senior PTI leader indicates.