Parliament Department goes down the toilet

  • Nation
  • Sunday, 16 Oct 2005

AS THE whirlwind surrounding International Trade and Industry Minister Datuk Seri Rafidah Aziz's appearance in the Dewan Rakyat died down, many thought Parliament would return to the serenity which was the norm during fasting month. 

But hardly had the words “Rafidah” and “approved permits” left the mouths of MPs and journalists, a new controversy was already boiling over. 

Although not equal in appeal and sensation, the “Parliament Department” fiasco had the requisite ingredients for a drama – highly charged and insult-laden press conferences, a dramatic policy U-turn, making the media a scapegoat when the heat came on, and ultimately, a coup by backbenchers to put to rest the issue. 

The issue came to light on Oct 6 when Minister in the Prime Minister's Department Datuk Seri Nazri Aziz announced the Cabinet's approval for a Parliament Department to be set up, although it had been brewing much earlier without the media's notice, with the Senate debating the issue as early as May. 

Seemingly trivial matters like keeping Parliament toilets functional, the quality of food for MPs and the signing of claims were given by Nazri as reasons for the move.  

He said he had been unable to solve those problems without the creation of the department. 

MPs – both from the Opposition and Barisan Nasional – reacted negatively to it. Many saw it as an attack on the fundamental doctrine of separation of powers, which required Parliament to be free of the influence of the executive. 

Nazri strongly defended his move, saying that it was “ridiculous, frivolous and stupid” to suggest that independence of Parliament would be threatened.  

Then came the dramatic turn around. At a roundtable organised by the DAP on Tuesday, Nazri suddenly said he had never wanted to set up a department.  

He said the media misunderstood him, and – blaming his English education background – gave the now famous “big J-small J” statement. 

He claimed he had originally meant jabatan (although many later said it should have been jawatan) or “office,” and not Jabatan (with a capital J) which meant “department.” 

His director-general, who was to head the department, became a “Head of Administration”, and unfortunately, quickly acquired the nickname “director-general for toilets”. 

Many thought this would bring an end to the hoo-ha. But as it turned out, the thrill was just about to begin. 

Discussions and arguments over the matter had so far occurred outside the Dewan Rakyat. Except for a failed attempt by Lim to get it debated, the matter had not “entered” the House. 

That was until Thursday when Kemaman MP Ahmad Shabery Cheek's question came up during Question Time. 

Although his question was submitted way before the issue boiled over, his move could be said to have started the process to bring the issue to an honourable end, and effectively correct a wrong which was committed 13 years ago. 

He called for the Parliamentary Services Act 1963, which guarantees the independence of Parliament and defines the role of the Parliament Secretaries, to be reintroduced. The Act was repealed in 1992. 

While replying, Nazri said he was supportive of such a move but insisted that the matter go through the Dewan Rakyat House Committee first before he could submit a proposal to the Cabinet. 

Refusing to accept this, Backbenchers' Club chairman Datuk Shahrir Samad staged the dramatic “show of force” by getting virtually the entire House to stand in support a new Parliamentary Services Act to be enacted. 

Nazri, who said the MPs should not “get too excited by this”, insisted that he could not act, but hardly 24 hours later, Minister in the Prime Minister's Department Datuk Seri Radzi Sheikh Ahmad announced that the Government was agreeable to the Act being reintroduced. 

While all this may look unimportant to the man on the street, it was a victory – in the words of Dewan Negara President Tan Sri Dr Abdul Hamid Pawanteh whose Dewan Negara House Committee had much earlier called for the reintroduction of the Act –for the rule of law and the principles enshrined in the Constitution. 

Only time will tell if the events of the past week will bring back what Shahrir said will put Parliament in its “rightful place in a working democracy”.  

On the practical level, the Act would return the power to Parliament to hire its staff, which is now controlled by the Public Services Department. 

And hopefully, it will also ensure that Parliament toilets get repaired quickly.  

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