FAFEN calls for reforms in Pakistan's parliamentary practices

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ISLAMABAD: A citizen-parliamentarians dialogue organised by the Free and Fair Election Network (FAFEN) on Friday made several far-reaching recommendations for improving the parliamentary practices to make Parliament more vibrant, effective and responsive to public needs and aspirations. 
The dialogue, the first of its kind, also extracted an assurance from the chief guest, Senate Chairman Nayyer Bokhari, to consider permitting civil society organisations attend the meetings of Senate committees for developing a structured mechanism to improve parliamentary performance on the one hand, and overcome disconnect between the people and their elected representatives on the other hand.
Recounting the achievements of the Senate, Bokhari said that for the first time a major initiative launched by the chairman to bring together the present and past senators on a structured platform to deliberate on the issues of national importance beyond party lines. 
This, he said, could be path breaking if pursued diligently by the senators. The Senate chairman observed that the core objective was to make the Upper House a true bastion of provincial harmony, national unity, and cohesion, and enable it to play a more effective role as a vibrant legislative, oversight and public representative forum. According to him, this, in turn, would help reinforce democratic process, promote democracy as a vehicle of change and progress.
Senator Farhatullah Babar proposed revisiting the rule providing for a complete ban on discussing anything in the House which was sub-judice, saying that Article 68 of the Constitution restricted such discussion only to the extent of the personal conduct of a judge in the discharge of his duties and not more. 
He said that a mechanism should be developed where discussion on matters before courts might also be taken up in Parliament taking care not to discuss the merits and demerits of a particular case or argument.
“It is strange and defies logic that there is a complete ban on discussion under a calling attention notice on any matter before the courts but no such restriction applied if the same issue was taken up in a motion under Rule 218 of the rules.” 
He said the provision of general constitutional guarantee of freedom of speech to every citizen and a separate and specific constitutional provision guaranteeing freedom of speech in Parliament demanded that the total ban on discussing such matters was reviewed. He also recommended a parliamentary debate or a review of court’s suo moto powers under Article 184(3) of the Constitution and the court powers to review the constitutionality of laws along with the need for setting up special constitutional courts.
The FAFEN called for re-definition of the powers of the Senate and its standing committees in order to enhance the Senate’s oversight of the executive branch of government and to help ensure that the treasury was delivering on official commitments made to the Senate. The recommendations were made at the launching ceremony of FAFEN’s annual Senate Report 2013-14, which is based on its direct observation of Senate proceedings during the 11th Parliamentary Year. For greater transparency and accessibility, the FAFEN says all proposed legislation must be made available for public scrutiny through each stage of the legislative process, and parliamentary proceedings should be open to citizen observers who apply for accreditation through a standardised process. The speakers also recommended a dedicated television station and/or radio channel was launched to air the proceedings of all legislative bodies. Similarly, all standing committees should have websites to reflect their performance, and their proceedings should be open to citizen observers.
They called for robust procedures to track government assurances through an assurances committee and to monitor that standing committees meet within required time periods in order to deal with the business mandated to them and to curb backlog. According to them, no vote should be allowed in the Senate without a quorum, especially votes on proposed legislation.
To ensure that the Senate’s time was utilised effectively, participants said Parliament should design a more achievable agenda for the orders of the day, and suggested that points of order raised other than during the zero hour should be disallowed and not documented. They said the time for zero hour should be increased to enable the full participation of senators as long as the quorum was maintained, and time for Private Members’ agenda should also be increased. According to FAFEN’s report, the Senate made 113 recommendations for the 2013-14 annual budget, of which 21 were incorporated by the National Assembly for the first time. A total of 31 bills appeared on the agenda, including six government bills, 25 private members’ bills, and seven bills sent by the National Assembly. The Senate passed two private members’ bills, while 24 bills were introduced, but not passed, and five bills were not taken up. 
The Senate adopted 26 out of 50 resolutions tabled, 23 calling attention notices were put up, of which 16 were taken up and seven remained un-addressed. Fifty-eight Senators submitted 1,067 questions, of which 1,022 were starred and 45 un-starred, while 918 supplementary queries were also raised. As many as 588 points of order were raised, consuming 19 percent of the total session time.


The Daily Times

12 April 2014