In the midst of a small discourse on whether select committees should proceed with their work, Prof. Wong Chin Huat messaged me, urging me to put in my thoughts.
He also kindly plugged a policy paper written in Oct/Nov 2019 by my office on the issue of select committees. I have decided to revise the paper and we will re-publish in about a month’s time.
Here is a primer on Parliament and the roles and powers of select committees.
Let’s start with the most basic; Parliament and MPs have three fundamental functions:
1. Debate and pass laws;
2. Debate and develop policies; and
3. Scrutinise and approve the federal budget.
Item 1 is generally what you see in a Parliament sitting, MPs debating (and shouting) to pass laws. We still have a lot of structural reforms and improvements to carry out on the lawmaking process.
Item 2 can appear during Parliament debates; I try my best to incorporate policy points when debating, but the real heavy work of policy making is actually found in select committee work. Will explain a bit more later.
Item 3 is dealt with in the October-December Parliament sitting, where MPs debate and approve the RM300 billion federal budget. When MPs are not in the said October-December budget sitting, the Public Accounts Committee is then tasked with scrutinising government accounts/spending/wastage/corruption on behalf of Parliament.
So when we talk about the role and powers of select committees, we are really talking about the function of POLICY MAKING WORK.
Other than the permanent house committees, there are two types of select committees; (a) ministerial committees and (b) thematic committees.
A ministerial committee shadows specific ministries, for instance my committee of International Relations and Trade shadows two ministries, MITI and Foreign Affairs. My committee will “develop” policies by way of conducting hearings and inquiries, then recommending policy ideas and solutions.
A thematic committee on the other hand cuts across many ministries, such as the committee for Public Appointments, chaired by YB William Leong. YB William’s committee will vet candidates for senior public positions, and in the process create a set of policy rules on accountability and transparency of such appointments.
Prior to Pakatan Harapan’s rule after GE14, committees were more or less inactive. To Pakatan Harapan’s credit, the Speaker with the support of MPs, created 10 new committees from June 2018 to December 2019. The current state of committees and their work, is at an infancy and developing level. The substance, rules and procedures were being developed, tested and improved when we lost power.
Now back to the issue regarding the suspension of committees.
On 9th April 2020, the Speaker issued a letter suspending all committee activities on the grounds of the MCO. Until lifted, all select committees are to stand down. Note that the committee may be constituted by just a few MPs (between 7 to 14 MPs), but the Parliament machinery, administration, research, recording and reporting involves a lot more officers. So we too have to consider the safety and health of support officers to the committees.
In addition, with the change of government in March, the house committees will be reconstituted again to reflect the majority government (albeit thin majority). In particular, the selection committee will then set to revamp all the select committees. Note that one crucial reason for revamping the select committees, is the fact that several MPs have de facto vacated their committee posts to become ministers and deputy ministers.
Since there are no specific laws/rules in the standing orders and/or the Federal Constitution, on whom should chair these committees, the political reality and expectations are all the committees (with the exception of the PAC, this may be chaired by an opposition MP) will be headed by MPs of the ruling government. The committees will also be “stacked” with the majority of members from the ruling government.
Noting that with the MCO still in place, and the political situation and reality will soon result in a major revamp of all committees (most likely in July), the suspension of committee activities by the Speaker in early April was actually the right thing to do.