Decisions in which people participate are decisions they are likely to respect.
RECENTLY, no less a person than the Speaker of the Dewan Rakyat, Tan Sri Pandikar Amin Mulia, expressed anguish at public perceptions of the state of affairs in our premier legislative institution.
Role: To begin with, what are the functions of a democratic legislature? From a long gilt-edged list, one can specify four premier functions:
> Enacting appropriate laws;
> Overseeing executive policy and performance to ensure responsibility and accountability;
> Allocating finances in an optimum manner and keeping tabs on how money is spent; and
> Improving the well-being of citizens by engaging with them and redressing their grievances.
To improve Parliament’s institutional efficacy in these areas, some suggestions can be easily made.
Training and professionalism: An Institute of Parliamentary Affairs must be established to train Members of Parliament in the Federal Constitution, Standing Orders, drafting and interpretation of laws and economic data.
Each MP should be assigned research staff, legislative assistants and office space. Parliament should have its own, independent legal counsel.
Legislation: Regrettably, Parliament legitimates; it does not legislate. In the law-making sphere the government has become more important than Parliament. To mitigate this unconstitutional shift of power, MPs must be supplied with draft Bills at least two weeks before the beginning of the session.
The secrecy that surrounds Bills should be lifted.
The sponsoring departments must be duty-bound to prepare policy papers on proposed Bills to enable non-governmental organisations and the rakyat to participate in a dialogue at the pre-parliamentary stage. Decisions in which people participate are decisions they are likely to respect.
Select Committees for scrutiny of Bills either before the second or after the second reading are common in most democracies. Regrettably, in Malaysia there is a dismal record of appointing them less than 10 times in 57 years!
To lighten the load of the Dewan Rakyat, some politically non-controversial Bills could originate in the Dewan Negara. The Houses should set up a Joint Committee to vet subsidiary legislation which outnumbers parliamentary legislation by 20:1.
MPs should be encouraged to draft Private Members’ Bills on issues which the government, for political expediency, wishes to shun. In Malaysia, no private Bill has ever passed Parliament though many were proposed.
Oversight of government: A system of well-serviced investigatory committees holds the key to enabling Parliament to become an effective check and balance institution. The number of Sessional Select Committees should be increased to include one Departmental Committee for each ministry as in Britain. This way MPs can generate public policy proposals through committees.
The Human Rights Commission of Malaysia and the Public Complaints Bureau should be linked to Parliament through one Joint Committee on each of these noble but ineffective institutions.
Expert witness participation in Select Committees should become a routine practice. The government does not always know best and must tap the expertise of ordinary citizens.
Parliament should use its power to punish for contempt to compel ministers, civil servants and citizens to appear before committees and to supply information. Refer to the New South Wales case of Egan v Willis & Cahill (1996) in which a minister was found guilty of contempt of the House for non-cooperation.
Question Time: Better procedures need to be evolved to satisfy MPs whose questions could not be reached due to shortage of time. Once a week the PM must face the House for 30 minutes.
Scrutiny of finances: Today there is a wide disconnect between planned and actual spending, which is reconciled with supplementary estimates. Ways need to be devised to limit the executive’s power to seek post-budget allocations.
The jurisdiction of the Public Accounts Committee should be expanded to cover all institutions that receive public funds. On another note, the concept of Non-Financial Public Enterprises or “Off-Budget Agencies” that are exempted from submitting their accounts to the Auditor-General and to the PAC should be abolished.
Constituency Work: Aid and assistance ought to be given to every MP to pay for a Service Centre in his constituency. MPs should use technology-based means to solicit the views of constituents. Constituencies are often good laboratories to measure concerns about programmes and service delivery.
Conclusion: The starting point for any reform is recognition that there are problems, and then to devise principles, institutions and methods to tackle them. Along with the above proposals we need to develop a tool kit. There are many recognised benchmarks for democratic legislatures.
The Commonwealth Parliamentary Association, the World Bank Institute and the Inter-Parliamentary Union have established a number of parameters that could be used to measure the effectiveness of Parliament.
For example, one could measure the amount of time spent by MPs to debate a Bill; the number of amendments proposed by backbenchers and how many were passed; the ratio of private members’ Bills to government Bills; percentage of Bills struck down by the courts; and percentage of laws amended subsequently by Parliament within three years.
There is no shortage of metrics to develop a framework for measuring the effectiveness of Parliament. What is needed is political will by the executive.
Shad Faruqi, Emeritus Professor of Law at UiTM, is a passionate student and teacher of the law who aspires to make difficult things look simple and simple things look rich. Through this column, he seeks to inspire change for the better as every political, social and economic issue ultimately has constitutional law implications. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. The views expressed here are entirely his own.