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Parliament Crisis - MGG Pillai
By web aNtu

22/12/1999 2:49 am Wed

Fracas in Parliament: The Prime Minister Bungles Again

The Prime Minister asked, at a press conference after the contentious swearing-in of MPs in the Dewan Rakyat yesterday (Dec 20), that, as caretaker prime minister, if he could not advise the King what the "point" was of being a caretaker prime minister. Of course, he has. But that is not the issue. It is if he could, as caretaker prime minister, advise the King to summon the new Parliament after elections are completed. If his arguments are accepted, by extension the caretaker prime minister could advise the King to summon parliament even if the opposition had defeated the governing party. That surely he cannot. Nor can he now. Especially when his new cabinet is sworn in the next day. Is it the Prime Minister's contention that he could have summoned parliament as caretaker even if he or his party had lost the general elections? He cannot. But that is the import of his actions. Like the Devil quoting the Scriptures, he relies on the letter, not the intention, of the Constitution to make out his flawed case. The caretaker cabinet holds office for the duration between dissolution of parliament and the swearing in of the new administration. (Even if the Prime Minister is into his fifth administration, constitutionally he formed a separate administration after each elections.) The duration can be a maximum, as in India, of six months or, to in Malaysia, 120 days. In practice, in Malaysia, it is rushed through and completed within four or five weeks. The caretaker cabinet does not have all the rights that a prime minister is invested with, even if both holders of the office are the same person.

The caretaker cabinet cannot announce policies or decisions that could benefit the governing political party. Once the new parliament is elected, he loses his right to advise the King except in an emergency. The Indian prime minister, Mr A.B. Vajpayee, was caretaker when the Kashmir imbroglio broke out, and he pursed the war with a vigour, and the opposition backed him. But if he had announced a new education policy in the electoral hustings, the Supreme Court and the Elections Commission would have stopped him in his tracks. This does not apply in Malaysia because of a subservient Elections Commission, a weak parliamentary opposition, an obtuse judicial procedure that delays proceedings long enough to make it moot, and a deliberate prime ministerial devaluation of the importance of parliament. Otherwise, the election of the Speaker would have been put to a vote, instead of being rushed through. There is no danger of the opposition, not in this Parliament, of challenging the Speaker. In the Westminster tradition which forms the basis of our parliamentary procedure, the government and opposition agree on the speaker and unanimously vote him in. That is not followed here. The swearing-in would have proceeded either alphabetically or according to the constituencies, not as happened with the Prime Minister and his team sworn in first and then the opposition. The former Leader of the Opposition, Mr Lim Kit Siang, who lost his seat in the recent general elections, pointed out the inconsistencies in the early summons to convene parliament. He is right. The opposition walked out in protest. Not that, in the present context, it amounted to anything concrete. Whether, as the Prime Minister alleges, the walkout is orchestrated by Mr Lim is not the issue. If he did, it is within his rights, as a leader of a coalition that formes the majority of MPs on the opposition benches. The underlying constitutional mistakes the Prime Minister made in convening Parliament remains, despite his outburst.

The Prime Minister says the Opposition should have proceeded according to procedure, as he does not, and let it be decided, in due course and in the fullness of time, with proper form and respect for the workings of Parliament. He is upset at this because he believes the Opposition must give its support to the government "because we have reached the end of the year and need to approve a Budget for the next year". That is not a good enough reason to rush things through and break the rules governing the summoning of Parliament. Indeed, it is not good enough reasons to devalue parliament. I can argue that once the new parliament is in place, the King has the absolute authority to summon Parliament. There is no need for the caretaker prime minister to advise him to. This is the power the head of state holds in reserve; a referee who comes in with real powers in the interim between elections. The King rarely exercised in Malaysia, where the governing coalition is always returned with a huge majority. But the theoretical power is there. The Speaker holds office until the new parliament sits, unless he is re-elected. But the National Front decided otherwise and voted Tan Sri Zahir Ismail, a former judge and a friend of the Prime Minister from their childhood, in, and insisted the two deputy speakers should also be from the National Front, when one should have been offered to the Opposition. All told, it was a needless confrontation. But the fracas in Parliament undermines yet again the Prime Minister's authority. He is diminished yet again by what happened yesterday. But the combined arrogance is such that the National Front MPs looked upon this confrontation with undisguised glee. The Speaker's disappointment with the walkout is irrelevant in this context.

M.G.G. Pillai

Link Reference : Proxy List Dec 1999