Disturbing trends in legislation – Ahmed Bilal Mehboob

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SEPT 16 was another sad day in parliament when legislators from the treasury and the opposition almost came to blows while the opposition openly expressed lack of trust in the speaker who normally enjoys, or should enjoy, bipartisan respect despite his affiliation to the ruling party. The opposition strongly rejected the result of the counting of votes on controversial legislation which was passed by a thin majority of 10 in the joint session of parliament and staged a walkout which facilitated the passage of eight bills in quick succession, three of them relating to the commitments made by the government to be taken off the Financial Action Task Force (FATF) grey list.

The need for effective legislation to counter money laundering and terror financing had existed for a long time but it became urgent when the FATF placed Pakistan on the enhanced monitoring list commonly known as the grey list in June 2018. Pakistan consequently made a high-level political commitment to the Asia Pacific Group on money laundering (APG) to strengthen its anti-money laundering and countering terrorists financing (AML/CFT) regime and to address its strategic deficiencies.

Why does parliament wait until the eleventh hour to pass legislation?

It was, however, only during the past six months or, to be specific, since Babar Awan was re-inducted as the prime minister’s adviser on parliamentary affairs in April that the relevant legislative business acquired a higher level of urgency in view of the upcoming FATF review in October. Pakistan had received a serious warning in February 2020 when the official FATF announcement had noted that “All deadlines in the action plan had expired. While noting recent and notable improvements, the FATF again expresses concerns given Pakistan’s failure to complete its action plan”. It went on to add that “The FATF strongly urges Pakistan to swiftly complete its full action plan by June 2020. Otherwise, should significant and sustainable progress especially in prosecuting and penalising [terrorist financing] not be made by the next plenary, the FATF will take action, which could include the FATF calling on its members and urging all jurisdictions to advise their [financial institutions] to give special attention to business relations and transactions with Pakistan.”

This was a serious warning but the government still took months before it scrambled to take action and when finally it did, there was no time for niceties to discuss the proposed legislation threadbare with the opposition in and out of the standing committees and develop consensus. The continuing legislative trend, therefore, seems to be to not act in time and wait until the eleventh hour and then use ‘urgency’ to avoid serious debate in parliament and its committees.

This trend seems to be up for repeating in the case of IMF-related legislation that the government has committed to in its agreements with the IMF. There are specific laws relating to the State Bank of Pakistan, the National Electric Power Regulatory Authority and the Oil and Gas Regulatory Authority which the government has undertaken to amend along with passing a new law relating to state-owned enterprises). The government had also committed to introducing the related legislation in parliament following specific deadlines. All these deadlines have already expired partly because of the coronavirus pandemic but the commitments may be revived anytime. One may see legislation passed at breakneck speed in parliament once again.

The trend which one can discern from the two examples is that a number of legislative initiatives are prompted by international entities like APG/FATF and IMF. It is not precisely known how many laws will eventually be required to be passed by parliament to satisfy their requirements but so far at least 11 FATF-related laws have been passed by parliament. These laws may be legitimately required for the good of the country but why should Pakistan wait for a nudge from these international entities to spring into action, and why can’t the executive and legislature safeguard national self-respect to initiate legislation on their own rather than use the name of these agencies to steamroll legislation at the last minute?

Another example of the executive and legislature not being proactive in legislation is the case of the National Accountability Ordinance, 1999, which is in urgent need of amendment. The superior courts have repeatedly drawn the attention of the government to amend certain aspects of the law such as the unbridled powers of the NAB chairman, the extraordinary duration of remand and lack of provision for bail for the accused. The courts had also raised objections to the provisions of voluntary return and plea bargain and, at one point, the NAB chairman was even restrained by the courts to exercise the power to allow voluntary return.

The extreme resentment by civil servants and the business community to the wide powers of NAB is another reason for amending the NAB law. The government even promulgated an ordinance in January this year to address these concerns but the ordinance lapsed because it could not be passed by parliament.

Chances are that the government may eventually go into emergency mode to hurriedly pass amendments to NAO, 1999, in a reactive legislation if and when the superior courts take up the case once again.

Lastly, but critically, the perception of coercion perpetrated on legislators in passing certain laws is extremely dangerous. During the recent headcount for passing a bill in the joint sitting of parliament on Sept 16, the opposition lost by 10 votes despite the fact it had a numerical superiority of around the same number. The parliamentarians’ attendance that day indicates the absence of around 40 members of the opposition during the critical vote count. Many opposition members complained of receiving threatening telephone calls to either vote for the legislation or abstain. This is not the first time such complaints were aired. The making of such calls and the compliance of some legislators with the directives constitute a disturbing trend and should be curbed.

The writer is president of the Pakistan Institute of Legislative Development And Transparency.

president@pildat.org

Twitter: @ABMPildat

Published in Dawn, September 27th, 2020