Parliamentary performance – Ahmed Bilal Mehboob

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THE 15th National Assembly completed two years on Aug 17. Its performance during this period has been the subject of discussion in the past few days.

The most promising aspect of the performance during the second year has been the relative improvement in the pace of legislation as the National Assembly passed 30 bills during the year compared to just 10 in the first year. The number of both government and private members’ bills introduced during the year also registered a significant increase. Historically, the legislative performance of a National Assembly during its first year is rather slow because the government takes time to draw up its legislative agenda, and the formation of standing committees, which play a key role in legislation, is also generally delayed.

The rather weak performance during the first year is, therefore, not unusual, and any optimism about the improvement during the second year against the weak benchmark of the first would be a little misplaced. In any case, whatever improvement is registered in legislation by the National Assembly has been more than countered by the almost 350 per cent increase in presidential ordinances — legislation by decree.

The most telling feature of the legislative performance of the Assembly is that the number of ordinances (31) promulgated exceed the number of bills passed in the Assembly during the year. The ruling coalition can’t defend this performance for not having the majority in the Senate because we are comparing just the bills passed by the National Assembly where the PTI and its allies have a majority.

Another positive aspect of the Assembly performance pertained to the 15pc higher number of hours put in during the sessions in the second year compared to the first. The Assembly, which at one time appeared to be struggling to meet the constitutionally required minimum target of 130 working days, was ultimately able to slightly exceed the target by working for 140 days.

Then presumptive prime minister Imran Khan had received almost universal admiration when he announced his intention a few days before taking oath to regularly attend parliamentary sittings and personally answer questions in line with the British parliamentary tradition. Sadly, two years down the road, this promise remains unfulfilled though this is something that he could have easily managed given his excellent communication skills.

The performance statistics tell only a part of the story. Parliamentary performance, in general, has been declining even beyond these numbers. There are some fundamental reasons for parliament not performing the way its counterparts do in developed democracies.

The first and fundamental reason is the huge divergence in the way the vast majority of ordinary people and textbooks define the performance of parliament and parliamentarians. Ordinary folk expect their elected representatives to intercede on their behalf with the administration and solve their personal issues like jobs, transfer from one job to another or one place to the other, police cases — all those things which should get routinely done in a well-governed society without any intervention.

Our elected representatives are not sitting idle in their farmhouses; they are working overtime, moving from one office to the other, or calling the decision-makers trying to get things done for their voters and supporters. They spend a huge amount of time attending weddings and funerals in their constituencies. These two functions taken together consume somewhere between 60pc and 70pc of their time and mainly it is this time which, if productively employed, determines their re-election prospects. The reality is that these are the most important key performance indicators for our parliamentarians.

Absence or ineffectiveness of the elected local governments further exacerbates the pressure on legislators, because local development and civic issues like sanitation and water supply also land in their lap. Till the time our governance improves and we have functional and effective local governments, it is hard to expect our legislatures to focus on classic parliamentary duties such as legislation and oversight.

A further extension of the prevailing culture explained here is that legislators have hardly any incentive to devote time to such intellectual, analytical and time-consuming functions as an in-depth study of legislation, scrutiny of the government’s budgetary proposals and engaging in policy debates. The result is that not only the quantity but the quality of legislation too suffers. Recently, when a bill was unanimously passed by the Punjab Assembly and media and public criticism almost instantly ensued, many members publicly admitted they had not even read the text of the bill, let alone analysed it or held consultations on it within their parties. The 18th Amendment, which had impacted one-third of the Constitution, was debated for just two days in the National Assembly and four days in the Senate.

Another key factor that is undermining parliamentary performance is the exceedingly polarised politics within the country, which is reflected with enhanced intensity in parliamentary conduct. In a normal democracy, the ruling and opposition parties do have serious differences and intellectual clashes, but hardly do they refuse to engage with each other on policy issues including critical legislation.

We wasted one full year without a complete Election Commission, and the prime minister refused to meet and consult the leader of the opposition on the appointments as required by the Constitution. Recently, the prime minister publicly expressed displeasure and disappointment on the way his chief minister of the largest province was summoned before NAB — but his party is not ready to seriously engage and agree on amending the National Accountability Ordinance because it might hurt their politics. Why should only our security establishment or an external agency make it possible for the government and opposition to agree on legislation?

These are serious issues which impact the performance of our elected houses in a profound way. Even more serious is the absence of any thoughtful dialogue to address these and similar grave issues.