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Existing parliamentary rules ensure fair system for all MPs: Indranee

Existing parliamentary rules ensure fair system for all MPs: Indranee

Source: Straits Times
Article Date: 09 May 2023
Author: Tham Yuen-C

Leader of the House Indranee Rajah was responding to proposed changes to parliamentary processes and structures.

The current rules of Parliament give MPs enough opportunity to hold the Government to account, raise queries and debate matters, and do not need to be changed, said Leader of the House Indranee Rajah on Monday.

To better contribute to debates and show they are “deserving of the trust that voters place in them”, MPs will need to develop the skills of listening, and use the existing rules more effectively, she added.

Ms Indranee was responding to Progress Singapore Party (PSP) Non-Constituency MP Leong Mun Wai, who proposed changes to parliamentary processes and structures, which he said were hampering the development of a “serious opposition”.

In an adjournment motion on “Making Parliament a Fairer Arena for All”, he said opposition MPs are handicapped by the lack of resources.

As a result, the alternative policies of the opposition “will not have the same breadth and depth as the Government’s”, he added.

During the adjournment motion, which allows MPs to speak in depth about an issue for 20 minutes, Mr Leong noted that many MPs did not have a background in public policy or law.

He suggested that Parliament set up a research department to help MPs in their research, raise the allowance that MPs get to hire legislative and secretarial assistants – currently at $1,300 and $500 respectively – and extend this allowance to Non-Constituency MPs (NCMPs) and Nominated MPs.

To this, Ms Indranee said the absence of such a research facility has not in any way deterred the PSP from advancing its own alternative policies, such as in the party’s 2020 manifesto.

She also noted that many ruling party MPs, too, do not have public policy or legal backgrounds but have not had any problems doing their parliamentary work.

She added that People’s Action Party backbench MPs and opposition MPs are given the same allowances. As to the difference in resources that elected MPs and NCMPs receive, she said this was reasonable given that elected MPs have a much heavier workload.

Mr Leong had also called on the Government to provide all the data that MPs ask for in the format requested, suggesting that the Government was using the threat of misrepresentation to justify not releasing data.

But Ms Indranee said the Government already provides more data than in most countries, and had answered more than 7,000 parliamentary questions during the last session of Parliament.

“At the end of the day, the key to better debate in Parliament lies in understanding the main issues at hand, acknowledging our fundamental realities and constraints, and taking not just the easy decisions but also the hard ones,” she said.

“It is not through making unending requests for evermore detailed data, which are then used as an alibi for not offering more constructive ideas or better alternative policies during debates.”

Another suggestion by Mr Leong was for more time to question the Government. He proposed an “opposition hour” on the first day of every Parliament sitting to discuss issues raised by the opposition, noting that this has been done in other Westminster-style parliaments such as in Britain and Canada.

He also said that MPs should be given time to ask as many questions as they want, as long as the questions are new and substantive, and suggested that ministers give out their speeches in advance so MPs can be better prepared.

But Ms Indranee said the system is designed such that MPs can engage in debates with ministers even weeks, months and years after their speeches are delivered through a wide array of mechanisms ranging from supplementary questions to motions.

Giving MPs unlimited time for questions and clarifications would not be wise as “work will expand to fill the time allotted for its completion”, she said, quoting Parkinson’s Law.

This has already happened with the increase in question time as more time is being spent on often repetitive supplementary questions, instead of answering more parliamentary questions, she noted.

Even in Britain, where there are 650 MPs, question time is only one hour, she said.

Mr Leong also called for the Government to appoint opposition MPs to head the Public Accounts Committee (PAC), which scrutinises the use of public funds, and the Public Petitions Committee (PPC), which allows citizens to air their grievances against the Government.

He said it is important that these committees are seen as independent and impartial, noting that Singapore had opposition MPs chairing the PAC until 1968.

However, Ms Indranee said that under Parliament’s rules, the PAC and PPC are standing select committees whose compositions reflect the balance between the government benches and the opposition benches in the House.

She added that the chairmanship of the select committees is drawn from the authority of the people as Parliament rules empower the Speaker to chair the PPC and select a chair for the PAC.

She also said that opposition members on the committees are entitled to ask questions and argue their points and “there is no reason to think that they have not done their job properly”.

Source: Straits Times © SPH Media Limited. Permission required for reproduction.


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