IN the post GE14 milieu, freedom is in the air and many citizens are demanding reforms to our system of governance. Out of the hundreds of proposals that have been submitted, some relate to improving the institutional efficacy of our elected legislature.
In our system of parliamentary democracy, the legislature is supposed to perform the following main functions:
● The enacting, amending and repealing of laws. This includes the monitoring of subsidiary legislation.
● Oversight function to ensure accountability, answerability and responsibility of the political executive to parliament.
● Control over national finance. This includes oversight of financial policy, allocation of the budget, examination of the use of financial resources optimally and whether money was spent for the purpose allocated.
● Redress of constituents’ grievances.
Regrettably, Parliament fails to perform the first three functions satisfactorily due to a number of debilitating factors.
Making of laws: The political executive dominates the legislative agenda. Parliament legitimates; it does not legislate.
To strengthen Parliament’s legislative role, the Government must issue policy papers on proposed Bills to enable citizens to provide feedback. Draft copies of Bills must be supplied to all MPs at least two weeks before the first reading.
Bipartisan parliamentary committees to examine Bills before or after their second reading must be appointed as is permitted by the Standing Orders of Parliament.
The committees should invite experts to give evidence. Private Members’ Bills should be encouraged as these may involve participation by NGOs and reflect the democratic impulses of society.
A Select Committee on Subsidiary Legislation must be appointed to advise parliament on whether to accept or annul a subsidiary law. The two Houses should set up a Joint Select Committee on Law Reform. An independent Law Reform Commission should report to this committee to ensure that the elected representatives have a say in keeping the law responsive to the felt necessities of the times.
Oversight of the executive: In our system of “responsible government,” the political executive is part of parliament and is required to answer questions, supply information and justify policies. However, due to time constraints, not all questions listed on the Daily Order Paper are answered.
To strengthen Parliament’s oversight function, procedures need to be developed to determine the order of questions to allay the suspicion that controversial questions are deliberately placed towards the end of the Daily Order Paper. If questions are not reached, there should be written replies to these questions within a specified time limit. Once a week the PM must be required to face the House.
Departmental Committees to evaluate the performance of each federal ministry must be set up.
A Special Standing Committee on Executive Appointments must be created to scrutinise the PM’s nominees for all key institutions. Alternatively, a Special Commission on Executive Appointments must be established to vet the nominees and to ensure that only those with ability and integrity are appointed.
The Speaker and Deputy Speakers should retire from party membership once they are elected to the posts. One of the Deputy Speakers should be from among the members of the Opposition.
Opposition business and Private Members’ Bills must be allocated time one day a week.
Control over national finance: Despite the formality of budget debates, the executive monopolises economic policies and determines how much tax is to be raised and how it is to be spent. Supplementary budgets are common.
To strengthen Parliament’s scrutiny, a Select Committee on Financial Policy and Expenditure must be set up to examine the thrust of government’s monetary policies. The jurisdiction of the Public Accounts Committee must cover all institutions receiving or generating funds, whether a Ministry, a statutory body, a government-linked company, a syariah authority like Jakim or an “off-budget agency”. No audit reports should be withheld from Parliament under the Official Secrets Act 1972.
Citizens’ grievances: Most MPs return to their constituencies often to remain in touch with the pulse beats of their constituents. Individual MPs run service centres.
However, MPs, especially opposition MPs, are hampered in their constituency function because of lack of funds, lack of office space and lack of legislative assistants. These should be made available.
The existing Public Complaints Bureau should be replaced by an independent ombudsman to investigate maladministration by the executive. The ombudsman should report to a Select Parliamentary Committee.
Committee system: The key to parliament’s institutional efficacy lies in a strong committee system. All committees should be bipartisan. A Committee on Selection should allocate each MP to at least one committee. The PAC must be chaired by the Opposition. Chairpersons of other committees should be selected by the members through secret ballot.
The committees must be assisted by experts and empowered to hold public hearings. The committees should invoke their privilege to compel ministers and civil servants to appear before committees.
Other reforms: Parliament should have the power to hire its own staff under a re-enacted Parliamentary Services Act. An Institute of Parliamentary Affairs should be established to train MPs in the Constitution and laws of parliament. The proceedings of Parliament should be broadcast on a dedicated television channel.
As in modern England, the PM’s power to dissolve parliament prematurely must be replaced by a fixed term Parliament (unless there is a successful vote of no-confidence or a two-thirds majority on the floor requests early election). Anti-hopping laws should be enacted to discourage party-hopping.
To promote fair and free elections, a remarkable (but now repealed) innovation from Bangladesh deserves our consideration.
During a dissolution pending a general election, the PM must resign and the King must appoint an impartial, serving or retired luminary to lead the country during the electoral contest.
With these reforms, the legitimacy and institutional efficacy of parliament can be enhanced and parliament can act as a check and balance against the omnipotent executive.
Emeritus Professor Dr Shad Saleem Faruqi is Tunku Abdul Rahman Professor at the Faculty of Law, University of Malaya. He wishes all readers the blessings of Eid.