Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Parliament's Question Time

In the light of the recent prominence given to MPs who for one reason or other did not submit questions on time to the Parliament for scheduling, I received a comment from a concerned citizen "Freer Parliament", which I thought was certainly worth publishing.

The 21-day notice for MPs to submit questions is archaic in this ICT era. The keying in and arrangement of questions can be done very quickly with a desktop or even a notebook and inserted in the Order Paper within minutes and copies printed equally fast with any high-speed printer.

In the age of the typewriter, 21 days is understandable and not an option. With computers, unless Parliament is without any, there is an option to shorten the notice period to even just days before the oral questions are asked.

In the House of Commons, the notice of questions is at least three days. The questions are then printed in the Commons Questions Book. The order in which the questions are asked is determined randomly by a computer.

An MP in Australia's Parliament may orally ask questions of a Minister without notice for immediate response.

A fundamental principle for Question Time is to empower the people, through their MPs, to question the government and hold it accountable for its action. For greater accountability to prevail, the government should always be kept on its toes. As such, Ministers are expected to know as much as possible and as wide as possible the ongoings in their respective Ministries. Ministers are essentially MPs elected by the people with the extra responsibility of ensuring that the government serves and operates to the satisfaction of the people.

So, when we have Ministers who do their work at all times, there should not be a need for longer-than-necessary notice for questions in Parliament. Lest they forget, many should recall that in their schooldays teachers would often hold surprise tests to determine if their students were actually studying. Or the spot check on hair guideline.

One clear message from the outcome of the general election is that the people want a stronger voice. A stronger voice to check the government and hold it accountable can be better realized if MPs can orally ask questions with the shortest notice period and demand an immediate response. Of course, Ministers should not quickly resort to "minta notis" to delay response.

The option to delay response by invoking "minta notis" should be subject to stricter conditions. It should not apply when a Minister who fails to keep a close watch on matters under his purview. After all, Ministries do send officers to Parliament and they are there to assist their Ministers. "Minta notis" is a triple frustration, first you don't get an immediate response, and then you get a prepared response as a written reply. Thirdly, written replies are quite often lost when they are not noticed by the media which tend to focus on today's questions and not last week's or even yesterday's.

One of the first tasks when Parliament convenes is to review the Standing Order to ensure the removal of any provision that may frustrate the will of the people for greater transparency, governance and accountability. The current 21-day notice will not serve this purpose and needs immediate review.

Today, every party is talking about change and reform. In this spirit, why not then table an emergency motion to immediately suspend the 21-day notice so that questions can be asked even as Parliament is in session. In the spirit of fulfilling the will of the people, such a motion should be allowed for debate because it meets the criteria of definite, urgent and of public importance.

Lastly, it is also time to redefine the definition of "definite, urgent and public importance" so as to empower Parliament to truly play its role as the People's Parliament. "Definite, urgent and public importance" can be better defined in the eyes of the people and not in the eyes of one person, the Speaker.

The people voted for a stronger voice in Parliament and now the MPs must respect this by freeing themselves from "restrictive" provisions of the Standing Order before they can champion a freer Malaysia.

Freer Parliament
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