‘Coalition govt agreement’ a good precedent but Parliament must be empowered

‘Coalition govt agreement’ a good precedent but Parliament must be empowered
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The following is a press release by the steering committee of Bersih on Dec 17, 2022:

THE Coalition for Clean and Fair Election (Bersih) hails the coalition government’s agreement (Perjanjian Persefahaman Kerjasama) as a refreshing precedent necessary to stabilise politics in a hung Parliament but also expresses concerns that some of its intentions may weaken Parliament.

Government of parties

Bersih stresses that the two previous governments, under Tan Sri Muhyiddin Yassin and Datuk Seri Ismail Sabri Yaakob, were “governments formed by individual members of parliament” and not “coalition government formed by parties”, hence could not be sustained under pressure from partners in the coalition government. The “Malaysian Unity Government” led by Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim may now escape this trap and serve a five-year full term.

Thirty three months of political chaos since the “Sheraton Move” was caused by the flawed practice of treating the government as an adhoc collection of parliamentarians, bound not by a cohesive government programme set by parties, but by the parliamentarians’ personal allegiance to a prime ministerial candidate and even deals in the Cabinet and government-linked company jobs or impunity from court cases, all made possible by the flawed practice of “government formation by statutory declarations” (SDs), which was poisonously introduced since 2009.

Party-based negotiation in government formation and making coalition agreement public are two of the 10 proposals to stabilise post-15th general election politics made by Bersih on Nov 19, and Bersih is very pleased that the new government is taking the right steps.

Bersih is concerned on how the coalition government agreement curtails the free will of parliamentarians in voting and holds that any compromise made must be limited to what is necessary, to not result in dangerous executive dominance in our attempt to escape political instability and unaccountability.

Party-based decision on confidence and supply

To prevent confidence and supply votes from being turned into an alternative form of “SD auctioning”, Bersih finds it acceptable at this stage of Malaysia’s democratisation that voting decision is made party-based.

Bersih nevertheless refutes misinterpretation that the memorandum of understanding itself can in itself cause all of the 144 MPs from the five government blocs (Pakatan Harapan, Barisan Nasional, Gabungan Parti Sarawak, Gabungan Rakyat Sabah and Warisan) to face a by-election if they defy their party’s instructions.

Point 4(a) of the coalition government agreement only expresses its intention that all five parties must support the prime minister on matters of confidence, supply or any procedures that may constitutionally affect the government’s legitimacy. 

Point 4(b) go on to express another intention that the parties must make sure that their MPs who refuse, are reluctant or err to vote accordingly, will be treated as having resigned or ceased to be a party member, which will cause their seats to be vacant under Article 49A of the Federal Constitution.

That intention can only become a reality if the parties’ constitutions have provided for such failure, reluctance and error in confidence and supply voting to be a ground of a lawmaker ceasing to be a party member, as in the cases of DAP and Amanah. Alternatively, the parties have to have other legally-binding instruments that can cause the same effect.

Bersih is deeply alarmed by Point 4(d), which states that “[the parties to the agreement] has the sole prerogative in making sure the members of Dewan Rakyat to vote on all motions, especially confidence in and supply by the Malaysian Unity Government, based on the parties’ respective instruction”. Going on “all motions”, and not just confidence and supply matters, threatens to remove all autonomy of parliamentarians in voting. With a two-third majority government, that would be a blank cheque to constitutional amendments.

Bersih urges any party intending to amend their party constitution to confine parliamentarians’ voting freedom to limit it to only confidence and supply matters. 

To this end of preserving parliamentarians’ voting freedom, the Government’s defeats in major legal and even constitutional bills MUST NOT be seen as an expression of no-confidence towards the Government. Otherwise, parties can force their will on their parliamentarians in the pretext of avoiding a no-confidence vote against the Government.

Parliamentary committees

Bersih is pleased to learn, as implied by Point 3(b), that every ministerial portfolio would be scrutinised and checked by a parliamentary special select committee (PSSC). 

However, the Government must make clear commitment to having one PSSC for one ministerial portfolio. It must not repeat the flawed practice of having one PSSC for multiple ministries. In the worst example, four ministries (public works, transportation, housing and local government, and rural development) were tasked with one PSSC (infrastructure and development), making committee oversight a farce.

Bersih is however disturbed by intentions stated in points 3(d) and 3(e) that the chairpersonship of the PSSCs, lumped together with membership in the Cabinet, are to be allocated “proportionally with the number of parliamentarians by parties forming the Malaysian Unity Government” and any changes in such allocations will be discussed by the PM and heads of the parties.

This implies that the Government may use its two-third majority to monopolise all PSSC chairperson positions, and the selection committee and house committee in the Dewan Rakyat — which have both representatives from the Government and the Opposition and decide the allocation of committee membership and leadership — would be completely bypassed. This would be a terrible regression from the practice under Mahathir, Muhyiddin and Ismail Sabri, when some committee chair positions went to Opposition members.

Bersih urges Prime Minister Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim and Minister for Law and Institutional Reforms Datuk Seri Azalina Othman Said to ensure the following best practices are implemented:

  1. Committee membership is allocated across coalitions parties based on the number of private MPs (who are not ministers, the speaker or deputy speakers), not all MPs. Allocation based on the number of all MPs unfairly over-represents parties with many ministers.
  2. Committee membership should be allocated taking into account the MPs’ interest and expertise, not arbitrarily assigned by their party leaders.
  3. Committee chairpersonship should be allocated parties based on their proportion of private MPs.
  4. The chair and vice chair must come from different sides of the political divide — one from the Government bench and one from the Opposition bench — to ensure check and balance within the committees.
  5. Both committee chairs and vice chairs should be reasonably paid with additional allowances, as committees are expected to operate all years long, even when Parliament is in recess.

Meeting with PM, law minister and parliamentary Opposition leader

Bersih looks forward to meeting with PM Anwar and minister Azalina, as well as parliamentary Opposition leader designate Datuk Seri Hamzah Zainudin, to further discuss the strengthening of multi-party democracy and Parliament.