ISLAMABAD: Despite the opposition’s best efforts, the government on Wednesday finally managed to secure the passage of the controversial inquiry commissions bill from the National Assembly.
Both sides of the aisle seemed to have a game-plan: the government was still smarting from the failure of their three previous attempts to get the bill passed, while the opposition seemed in no mood to allow the bill through. The session was specially extended beyond Nov 29 to ensure the bill’s approval.
But the government had an ace up their sleeve: National Assembly Speaker Ayaz Sadiq. Fully capable of guiding proceedings in whichever direction the government wished, the chair slowed down the pace of proceedings by first allowing lawmakers to pay tribute to the late Cuban leader Fidel Castro, then taking his time conducting Question Hour.
Conscious of the need to go slow, the speaker took to commenting on questions and reprimanding officials whose departments had not furnished replies to questions raised by legislators.Speaker ‘stalls’ proceedings to allow govt to build its numbers amid opposition boycott
Meanwhile, the house was buzzing with excitement. Pakistan Peoples Party chief whip Aijaz Hussain Jhakrani could be seen strolling hand-in-hand with his government counterpart Sheikh Aftab Ahmed.
The two men conferred first with the ministers and then made their way over to the opposition benches. The duo was joined by Law Minister Zahid Hamid and the three went one-by-one to nearly all opposition lawmakers, no doubt trying to canvass last-minute support for the bill.
The excitement in the house could be gauged by the fact that some members were not even in their seats when their names were called out during the Question Hour. Dr Nafisa Shah and Tahira Aurangzeb were elsewhere in the house when their questions came up, but the speaker — who is otherwise a stickler for decorum — did not seem to mind as this helped while away the time.
The government had to stall; their numbers were swelling, but all too slowly. Ministers such as Shahid Khaqan Abbasi sauntered in nonchalantly just as the clock struck noon.
By this time, the opposition benches had quietly emptied out. Even though a walkout had not been formally announced, opposition members waited in the lobbies around the assembly hall while Mr Jhakrani looked on through the doorway.
Before they could get down to the all-important legislation, Mr Aftab was asked to move an amendment to the rules regarding the Question Hour, while Defence Production Minister Rana Tanveer moved the Shazia Marri-drafted resolution on Fidel Castro’s death.
Ms Marri was the lone member on the opposition benches by this time. Just as the resolution was adopted, Mr Jhakrani and Dr Shah signalled to her and she pointed out quorum.
A count was ordered and everyone waited with bated breath for the result. In the meantime, government members continued to enter the assembly hall, reinforcing the treasury’s numbers.
Although the first count found that the treasury did indeed have more than the required minimum of 86 lawmakers in the house — something that was clearly visible from the press galleries, even in the absence of the opposition — Ms Marri didn’t buy it and demanded a recount. The recount only confirmed the earlier result, after which the three PPP members resorted to hooting and desk-thumping to disrupt proceedings.
But the speaker wasn’t having any; he quietly ignored the opposition’s grandstanding and forged ahead with the agenda. First to pass was the Pakistan Commissions of Inquiry Bill 2016, next came an amendment to the Income Tax Ordinance 2001, and finally it was the turn of the Public-Private Partnership Authority Bill 2016.
In between, when Mr Sadiq asked Mr Jhakrani to speak against the government bills, the PPP chief whip lambasted the ‘dictatorial’ manner in which government business was being ‘bulldozed’ through the house.
He announced a boycott by the opposition and stormed out, but the speaker remained unfazed and returned to the business at hand after asking Kashmir Affairs Minister Barjees Tahir to placate the opposition.
Mr Tahir reluctantly made his way over to the opposition lobbies and managed to convince some opposition members to return to the house to pass a resolution condemning the occupation of India-held Kashmir and the situation on the Line of Control. But the irate PPP members, who were already late for their party’s foundation day celebrations in Lahore, had already left.
The new law was drafted after Chief Justice Anwar Zaheer Jamali wrote back to Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif while refusing to constitute an inquiry commission under the old law which he termed “toothless”. The bill was introduced in the lower house, quickly cleared by the standing committee concerned and laid before the house for passage. However, the government was unable to secure its passage — despite having overwhelming numerical strength in the lower house — on three previous occasions.
The bill aims to strengthen inquiry commissions that will be formed to probe any issue in the future. The new law also makes it mandatory to publish findings of any inquiry held under it.
Under the proposed law, a commission will have the power to form international teams and seek cooperation from foreign countries or agencies to obtain information, documents, evidence and record or issue letters.
Published in Dawn, December 1st, 2016