The Assembly’s first year / Dawn

This article was published in Dawn on August 11, 2019 and is available at the following link

‘NAYA’ (or ‘new’) Pakistan’ has been one of the most popular slogans of the PTI as has ‘tabdeeli’ (or ‘change’). It is therefore only natural that the PTI performance in the government or as the ruling party in the National Assembly be measured against these two parameters. Aug 12 marks the completion of the first parliamentary year of the current National Assembly which is the 15th legislature in the nation’s 72-year history.

Read: Nothing for the National Assembly to boast about in its first parliamentary year

Probably the most scientific way to review tabdeeli in the National Assembly performance, if any, is to compare the Key Performance Indicators (KPIs) during the first year of the current Assembly with the first year of the previous Assembly or assemblies.

Legislation is regarded as one of the most significant KPIs of a legislature as laws are its most important output. The current National Assembly passed a total of 10 bills during its first year. Three of these were either supplementary finance bills or the finance bill. Four bills covered routine amendments to existing laws and the other two were meant to repeal two old laws. The only significant bill passed during the year was the 26th Constitutional Amendment Bill which proposed to increase the number of seats from erstwhile Fata in the National Assembly and the KP Assembly.

Irrespective of the significance of the bills passed during the year, the number compares well with 11 bills passed by the previous (14th) National Assembly. During the first year of the current Assembly, only seven bills became acts of parliament after passage through the National Assembly and Senate and on receiving presidential assent.

The Assembly experienced an delay of five months and 23 days in the formation of its standing committees.

This number also compares well with the two, four and two acts of parliament passed during the first year of the 14th, 13th and 12th National Assembly respectively. This performance however, when compared to the legislative performance of developed democracies and even with a comparable democracy like that of India, is rather weak. The Indian Lok Sabha for example, passed 36 bills in its very first session which lasted for just 50 days, although it is also true that this was one of the best legislative performances of the house.

Another KPI is the number of days and hours worked by the Assembly. The current National Assembly worked for 137 days during the first year which exceeds the minimum constitutional requirement of 130 days and compares well with 130 days worked by the previous National Assembly in its first year.

If one disregards the weekends and other off days, the National Assembly worked for 95 days compared to 98 in the previous Assembly. The current Assembly worked for around 278 hours in the first year which translates into an average of a little less than three hours per day compared to 322 hours and a little more than an average of three hours per day in the previous Assembly.

In contrast, the Indian Lok Sabha works on an average of six hours per day. The British House of Commons met for about 155 days in a year with an average of eight working hours per day.

The prime minister’s presence in the Assembly can be taken as another KPI and it improved from seven per cent or seven out of 98 sittings during the first year of the previous Assembly to around 19pc or 18 out of 95 sittings in the current Assembly. Sadly, Prime Minister Imran Khan could not keep his promise of regularly responding to parliamentarians’ questions once a fortnight following the tradition of Prime Minister’s Question Time in the British parliament.

Members’ attendance is an important KPI, and it should be commended that the National Assembly now regularly uploads members’ attendance on its website. According to the attendance records on the website, the members’ average attendance works out to be around 73pc during the first year compared to a similar figure of 65pc for the previous Assembly. Despite these reasonably high figures of reported attendance, the Assembly frequently faces quorum (25pc minimum) issues and has to adjourn its meetings.

The current Assembly experienced an extraordinary delay of five months and 23 days in the formation of its standing committees which are critical for the scrutiny of legislation and oversight of the executive. The previous Assembly had done a better job by forming the committees in two months and 20 days.

A careful review indicates that the overall performance of the current National Assembly is not very different from the previous assemblies although some parameters indicate improvement while others show deterioration. The promised ­tabdeeli, therefore, is not in sight as yet.

Finally, a matter of growing concern is the sustained tense and explosive atmosphere of the house. There have been several instances during the year when Assembly proceedings were repeatedly interrupted and members almost came to blows. This is of course, not unprecedented and the past assemblies have also witnessed similarly ugly scenes, but what is new is probably the sustained, rather escalating, ­bitterness and animosity throughout the year.

A manifestation of the degree of accumulated bitterness was the most recent two-day joint session of parliament called to debate the extremely grave situation arising out of the unilateral revocation of the special status of occupied Jammu & Kashmir by the Indian government. Despite the fact that the situation demanded complete focus on the crisis, parliamentarians from the government repeatedly clashed with their counterparts in the opposition on matters totally unrelated to the subject of the debate.

At one point, a minister had to be physically restrained by his colleagues from jumping out of his seat to assault a senior opposition member who continued to hurl insults at the minister. It is an extremely worrying prospect that parliamentarians from both sides could actually get into a serious physical free-for-all in the chamber. This is something which needs to be avoided at all costs both by the ruling party and the opposition.

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