Sunday, June 07, 2015

Our Public Accounts Committee (PAC) Needs a Serious Reform

Reform the Public Accounts Committee (PAC) in line with the best global parliamentary practices.

I have just completed the 5th Westminister’s Workshop organised by the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association for Public Accounts Committees in Malta over the past week.

It was a highly fruitful session where PAC members from across the Commonwealth discussed best practices to ensure greater effectiveness, particularly towards the objective of making the Government more transparent and accountable when spending public funds.

There were several key take aways which I thought was highly relevant for Malaysia as I’ve discovered how Malaysia’s PAC lags behind many of our peers in terms of reforms and effectiveness.

For a start, 67% of the Commonwealth PACs were chaired by members of the Opposition, as opposed to members of the governing party. Some of these countries practise this rule as a convention, while others have that clearly stated in the Standing Order or the law.

The obvious reason for this practice is to ensure that there will be greater scrutiny of Government expenditure. An elected representative of the governing party will naturally and inevitably be saddled with the conflict of interest of not wanting to make the ruling coalition look bad. On the other hand, the PAC chaired by an Opposition member will offer the necessary check and balance for the committee where the majority remains with the ruling party.

Unfortunately for the Malaysian Parliament, the historical convention has been for the Barisan Nasional (BN) coalition to elect one of its own to chair the committee despite frequent pleas by the Opposition to adopt the global best practice. It appears that while the BN government is happy to cite global practices as a reason to adopt a policy like the Goods and Services Tax, when it comes to issues relating to democratic norms, it would prefer to turn a blind eye.

Fortunately in Selangor, we even passed a Bill to automatically appoint the Opposition leader as the PAC Chairman. But we were left stunned when the then Opposition Leader then resigned from his position, leaving the Opposition bench in a limbo. It is hence clear that BN would rather sacrifice any role to check and balance the Government, than to take part in any proceedings to ensure transparency and accountability in the governing administration.

Secondly, I have discovered that some three quarters of Commonwealth countries hold their Public Accounts Committee hearings in public today, in full presence of the media. Ironically, nearly all of the African Commonwealth contingent practised public hearings despite their often derided “less developed” status.

If the Parliament proceedings today can be open to the public, why should the hearings of a committee within the Parliament be conducted in closed doors. Exceptions are granted when sensitive national security matters are discussed but that is certainly not be the norm.

For example, why should the hearings relating to the 1BestariNet, the National Feedlot Corporation, the KLIA2 project or the on-going 1MDB inquiry not be made public because they do not touch on any national security matter. They could of course turn out to be highly embarrassing and detrimental to the reputation of particular Ministers, but that should not be the concern of the PAC.

In addition, the public scrutiny of the proceedings will ensure that the appointed members of the PAC will be more diligent in carrying out their duties.

Finally, as I’ve argued in my statement earlier this week, we should make the National Audit Department an independent office under the auspices of the Parliament and not a Department reporting to the Finance Minister. This will ensure and protect the independence of the Department regardless of which party is in Government, and who are the Ministers.

The UK National Audit Office for example, is fiercely protective of its independence, asserting that “we are not civil servants and do not report to any Minister”.

The Auditor-General of Malta on the other hand, is not only an “officer of the House of Representatives”. He is “appointed by the President acting in accordance with a resolution of the House of Representatives supported by the votes of not less than two-thirds of all the
members in the House”.

In line with the discussions of proposed reforms led by the Dewan Rakyat Speaker, I would like to call upon the House Committee which is meeting tomorrow on 8 June 2015 to also adopt the above reforms to the PAC. This is to ensure that we become a truly world class parliament, and not a rubber stamp, where Malaysian democratic rights are oppressed by the Executive which tramples on the sanctity and role of the Parliament.

Tony Pua

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