January issue 2019
Prime Minister Imran Khan has conceded the chairmanship of the Public Accounts Committee (PAC) to the Opposition Leader in the National Assembly Shehbaz Sharif, ending a months-long impasse between the government and the opposition.
The assumption of this post by the opposition leader is not unprecedented. As per parliamentary tradition, the head of the opposition in the House is usually at the helm of the PAC, even though this is not mandatory. Foreign Minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi said the premier had taken the decision “in the larger interest of democracy and in order to make the parliament functional.” He said the government had earlier offered the opposition a candidate of their choice for this post, but they did not avail of it.
Shehbaz Sharif lauded the decision and said by making parliament functional, the government would be able to pass important legislation in the larger interest of the public. The opposition leader is currently under investigation for alleged misuse of authority in the 14 billion rupee Ashiana-e-Iqbal Housing Scheme case.
Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) leader and former National Assembly speaker Sardar Ayaz Sadiq congratulated the premier on the concession regarding PAC, terming the decision as Khan’s “most positive U-turn.” However, he also pointed out that the PAC chairmanship would only count as one vote in the committee, in which government members would still be in majority.
PAC is the apex parliamentary watchdog that oversees the audit of revenue and expenditure by the government and is considered to be the parliament’s most powerful and important committee. Previously, the committee comprised only members of the National Assembly, but recently members of the Senate have also been made part of it.
The committee’s primary task is to study public audits and conduct the required enquiries with regard to a government budget audit. The PAC’s recommendations are submitted to the government, which has to report back to Parliament within a given time frame.
The Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) government’s earlier reluctance to hand over the PAC chairmanship to Shehbaz Sharif owed to the fact that the former Punjab chief minister is currently under investigation by the National Accountability Bureau (NAB). Another objection raised by the government to his assumption of this post was that it would mean Sharif initially chairing a PAC that would be examining spending by the previous PML-N government.
Prior to Sharif being awarded the PAC leadership, the opposition had threatened a boycott of all parliamentary committees, effectively preventing the Speaker from notifying the new National Assembly committees. This, in turn, had frozen all legislative work as bills cannot be debated in the relevant committees before being sent to the full house for a vote.
In reaction to the opposition’s warning, Prime Minister Imran Khan had announced that in those circumstances, legislative business would be run through presidential ordinances to overcome the parliamentary challenge. He said that the government would not consider any settlement with the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) and the PML-N for their support, because entering such a settlement with the opposition would tacitly mean that the ongoing corruption cases against their leaders would be dropped. Khan maintained this was not acceptable, since ensuring accountability was one of the primary objectives listed in his party’s manifesto. “How can I ignore the fact that the former rulers have brought the country under the burden of a 30,000 billion rupee foreign debt, while filling their own pockets through money laundering?” he said, while talking to a delegation of TV anchors.
While the Prime Minister could resort to presidential ordinances, the reality is that the ability of governments to use these to circumvent parliament has been curtailed, and after the 18th Amendment the lifespan of an ordinance can extend no longer than two 120-day periods, the second 120 days requiring approval by one of the houses of parliament.
Not surprisingly, Khan’s statement drew strong criticism from the opposition, which contended the prime minister talked about midterm elections and running legislative business through presidential ordinances due to despair, after failing to deliver to the masses.
PTI MNA Ataullah Khan responded to the criticism saying, “Everyone in our party has their own opinion, and we work on generating consensus before taking any major decision. I think this is a great decision – one that is in the best interests of the country. This has reaffirmed the prestige of the Parliament.” He added, “Our primary point of deliberation was that this move shouldn’t impact the ongoing actions for accountability. Now a sub-committee has been formed, which will look into the actions of the previous government.”
Ataullah Khan is also dismissive of the criticism levelled by the opposition that NAB and the ongoing accountability process are victimising the PML-N and benefiting the PTI. “The allegations that NAB is targeting specific parties or isn’t competent means that the previous government failed to create a robust accountability mechanism. Perhaps they now expect the PTI to fix that, which of course we take as a compliment,” he contended.
PML-N’s Senator Javed Abbasi meanwhile, maintains that the PTI government should pay more regard to parliamentary traditions. “The Parliament has its traditions, and they can’t be discarded every other day. We have had a tradition that the opposition leader assumes the post of PAC chairman, and this tradition has been honoured by both the PML-N and the PPP governments, federally and provincially. The PTI government was always going to come around to accepting this, but unfortunately they wasted a lot of time,” he stated
Abbasi also accused the PTI of hurling accusations against the PML-N in regard to matters that are still in court, maintaining that the party needs to start acting like it’s actually in power. “The allegations (against Shehbaz Sharif) are just (the PTI government’s)biased perceptions. No court in the country has yet given any verdict against him. This matter is still in court,” he maintained.
Observers maintain that the government’s decision to concede the PAC chairmanship to the opposition has averted a major parliamentary crisis as the speaker can now notify committees that do much of the core parliamentary work. This has paved the way for the parliament to pass judicious legislation in line with public interest and structural reforms.