Speaker says members who hardly stand up should take chances

MB Subba

The fourth session of the third Parliament was largely fruitful in terms of Bills and international agreements passed. However, the need for improved representation of all the constituencies through active participation of more MPs was felt.

A close observation of Parliament debates showed that lengthy speeches are a problem, while some MPs rarely take the floor. As the trend has been, it was the same MPs who contributed to most of the debates.

Speaker Wangchuk Namgyel said that the chance to participate in the debates was generally given on a first come first serve basis. “Those MPs who hardly stand up should take chances,” he said.

One of the observations from the fourth session was the use of English in debates. The Speaker said that while the House was concerned about the use of English by some members, it was also mindful that there should be certain exceptions to enable them to articulate their arguments.),    “Things have to be conducted in a democratic manner while keeping in mind the decorum of the House,” the Speaker said.

Observers said that debates in the recently concluded session were largely issue-based. However, when it came to deliberations and voting on motions, members generally took party lines.

One such issue was the motion from Dewathang Gomdar MP Ugyen Dorji to increase the retirement age of civil servants to 60 years. A majority of the members present in the House raised hands in support of the motion during the debate, but the final voting by pressing the button ended in a tie.

The Speaker declared the motion “rejected” without casting a deciding vote. Article 10(13) of the Constitution states that in case of equal votes, the Speaker or the Chairperson shall cast the deciding vote.

Speaker Wangchuk Namgyel said that it was expected for some debates to take party lines as there are two parties in the House. “But when it comes discussions on Bills like Penal Code, that doesn’t happen,” he said, adding that he had been fair to members from both parties.

The outcome of the fourth session, he said, was “tremendous” considering the important Bills passed. He said that the quality of debates improved in the fourth session although the best was yet to come.

One of the important legislative issues discussed was the Mines and Minerals Bill, which has now become a disputed Bill. The main dispute between the two Houses is on whether or not all mines should be given to state-owned enterprises (SoEs).

The National Assembly is adamant on allowing the private sector in the non-strategic mines, while the National Council wants all mines given to SoEs.

In one of the rare incidents, one of the members seemingly forgot to vote on the Fiscal Incentives Bill 2020.

“It could means that the member was present in the House only physically. Members present should vote Yes or No, or abstain,” the Speaker remarked after the vote.

In one of the highlights of the session, Dagana’s Drujegang Tseza MP Jurmi Wangchuk found himself at the receiving end when he could not properly state in English what LGBT stood for during the debate on Penal Code (amendment) Bill. Many people took to social media to criticise him as the video clip of the slip of the tongue went viral.

The session did not take up some of the issues that had emerged due to Covid-19.

The legality of the temporary lift of the ban on the sale of tobacco without amending the Tobacco Act has been questioned by various quarters, including the People’s Democratic Party.

Foreign Minister Dr Tandi Dorji in an earlier interview said that the government was looking at how to amend the tobacco Act and that it had asked the Bhutan Narcotics Control Agency (BNCA) to look into the issue. “As per rules, such proposals has to come from BNCA.”

Similarly, the alteration of the TA/DA without amending the Pay Revision Act 2019 has also been questioned. The government through a notification in July revised the rates as a lump sum amount of Nu 15,000 per month up to 30 days irrespective of position levels.

Section 65 of the Pay Revision Act states that the amendment of this Bill shall be by the way of addition, variation or repeal effected by Parliament.

While the Opposition Party remained silent, National Council members from Gasa and Trashigang Dorji Khandu and Lhatu, respectively, in a Question Hour in the Upper House questioned the legality of tobacco sale through duty-free shops.

For the first time, members received an iPad each as part of Parliament’s digitisation programme. The initial plan was to install the device in the desk of the members.

Members said that they could make maximum use of the device if they could take home. “It has been very useful not only in House but also at committee meetings,” a member said.