Parliamentary reforms and select committees will be useless unless there are laws to empower them to provide effective checks and balance on the administration, writes WH Cheng.
In the most recent month, many of us were unaware of the differences between the parliamentary select committees and the shadow cabinet, the one established by the opposition front bench of the Barisan Nasional (BN).
One may ask why we really need the parliamentary select committees, when the BN already has a shadow cabinet in place to provide checks on the current Pakatan Harapan (PH) government.
The reality is there is a vast difference between having parliamentary select committees and a shadow cabinet.
In the UK, Australia, New Zealand and Ireland, parliamentary select committees exist concurrently with shadow cabinets of the opposition front bench. In the US, there is no shadow cabinet, but the existence of powerful congressional and senate committees has provided the most effective checks and balances on the government’s activities.
Parliamentary select committees are committees set up within the parliamentary framework consisting of members of Parliament from both sides of the political divide. These select committees may be chaired by an opposition MP or a government MP, depending on the composition of the select committee members and the expertise of those MPs.
The parliamentary select committees are appointed to oversee, provide checks and to scrutinise on the day-to-day affairs of government ministries, senior public appointments and budgets.
They can also organise inquiries into policy implementation and cases involving wrongdoings within the civil service. They are empowered to call for public or close-door hearings and call up any ministers, deputy ministers, senior civil servants and directors of government-linked companies about their activities within the government.
MPs from both side of the political divide serving in these parliamentary select committees perform their roles and responsibilities above party politics. They should serve in a manner that puts the public and nation’s interests above their own political inspiration or ideologies.
The major purpose of these parliamentary select committees is to ensure the government and its administration functions in accordance to the rule of law and is transparent in whatever transactions, policy implementation and expenditure undertaken in the interest of our people and the nation.
The scope and responsibilities of these parliamentary select committees are much wider compared to that of the shadow cabinet.
The establishment of the shadow cabinet by the opposition front bench has importances: in essence, these opposition leaders would be preparing themselves as the government-in-waiting, developing and providing alternative public policies, debating policy implementations, and scrutinising ministries and departmental activities and budgets.
In other words, opposition frontbenchers in the form of a shadow cabinet serve at the pleasure of the opposition party or coalition and promote the interests of the party or coalition as an effective alternative to that of the ruling party or coalition of the day.
Empowering select committees
The parliamentary Caucus on Reform and Governance under the chairmanship of Anwar Ibrahim should come up with a mechanism to empower the parliamentary select committees to provide the most effective checks and balance on the current government, its ministers and senior civil servants
If the federal constitution cannot be amended due to a lack of a two-thirds majority on the government’s side, then the government should alternatively enact laws to empower all these parliamentary select committees with wider roles, powers, resources and funding to carry out their roles and responsibilities effectively.
Such laws should also empower parliamentary select committees to impose penalties or fines on those who refuse to cooperate with inquiries, attend committee hearings or provide documentary evidence and reports for scrutiny.
Anwar should realise that the recent senior public appointments made by the prime minister bypassed the parliamentary Select Committee on Major Public Appointments. The PM had reasoned that these position needed to be filled urgently.
Such urgency, though required, should at least have had the parliamentary select committee assigned to such portfolio informed prior to the announcement. But this was not carried out due to some “technical issues” at the prime minister’s office.
In this case, we could see the ineffectiveness of the current parliamentary select committees in demanding scrutiny prior to any official implementation or appointments. This was due to an absence of laws that could empower these select committees to act against government actions that they may see unfit or unsuitable for implementation and thus endorsement.
Parliamentary reforms and its select committees will be useless unless there are laws to protect and empower them to provide effective checks and balance on the administration.