Monday, 8 October 2012

Minister must be there for Question Time

Brave New World (The Star)
3 October 2012

Although not compelled by law, a Cabinet minister should turn up during parliamentary debate over matters that concern his or her job.


OVER the last two weeks, I attended a couple of forums: one was a discussion organised by a private university on the topic of civil liberties in Malaysia, and the other was the launch of a book written by Mohamad Tajuddin Mohamad Rasdi titled Why Listen to Your Vice-Chancellor.

At the former, a Cabinet minister was the main speaker and a fellow academic and myself were to provide responses for his speech.

Unfortunately, he had to leave for another engagement before our turn came, so he did not hear what we had to say.

I did not begrudge him this though because, firstly, he was apologetic and polite and, secondly, it was way past office hours and even ministers deserve their own time.

At the other event, it was my turn to play runaway. The function was launched by a chief minister but I had to scoot because I had a class to teach and so did not hear his talk.

Once again, the host and other speakers were gracious and understanding.

Sometimes, we can’t turn up for events and even when we can we have to run off early. Nothing wrong with that, especially if the event is something voluntary and not part of your job or responsibility.

However, there are occasions when one must be there. An example would be meetings between management and unions. There is no point in having these types of meetings if the boss does not attend and instead sends his underling who can’t make a decision and may not even be fully aware of the issues at hand.

Another example is the presence of the Finance Minister at the parliamentary debate over the national budget. There is no law that compels him or her to turn up, but for a matter as fundamental to your job as this there is no excuse not to be fully available throughout the debates.

To do anything less is to do a disservice to the foundations of our system of governance and that is the parliamentary system.

Parliament is not only a place where laws are made, it is also a place where debates occur and questions are asked. The reason for this is not just to give our MPs something to do but it is for the sake of transparency, a vital component to a democracy.

Now, I know nuts about economics and fiscal policies, and I would rather watch paint dry than watch a parliamentary debate on such issues, but there are those who do know and would be able to offer a rational analysis of such a debate.

Therefore, parliamentary openness is a necessary mechanism for public accountability and check and balance.

In this light, I hope that whoever is in power in the future that they try to ensure certain practices be put in place in our Parliament.

It is not just the Budget speech where it is important to have the minister in charge available – it is more far reaching than that. It should be the norm that whoever is in charge of a portfolio be available for cross-examination.

And what about the head honcho himself? The Westminster exercise of having one session specifically for Prime Minister’s Question Time is something that ought to be emulated here.

Prime Minister’s Question Time (in Britain is for half an hour every Wednesday) allows people to see and hear for themselves the issues that their elected officials think are important and to see how the premier reacts.

And think about it, such a thing as PM’s Question Time is something that can be of use to all parties. An opposition with idiotic questions can help the ruling party.

And a Prime Minister who can intelligently respond to questions can only do his or her reputation a world of good. Of course the converse is true.

Like so many things in our country, we have the institutions in place but there is a consistent misunderstanding of the spirit of these institutions. Such an understanding is what distinguishes foetal democracies from mature ones.

> (Errata: In my last article I said that the US launched a missile attack on Baghdad as a response to a threat of George Bush’s life in 1998. The actual year for that particular incident was 1993. Apologies.)

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