JULY 10 — The country is set to have its first ever Prime Minister’s Questions (“PMQs”) in Parliament. This is a significant step towards greater accountability of the executive to the nation.
The exact format of the PMQs is presently unclear, however, we can expect the session to adopt the following broad structure. Thirty minutes in the Wednesday sittings of the Dewan Rakyat will be reserved for Members of Parliament to ask questions directly of the Prime Minister. The Prime Minister would be obliged to answer each of these questions. The questions would be posed in sequence and it would relate to any topic on the affairs of state.
In the United Kingdom, the Leader of the Opposition is given priority in the session in posing questions in that, unlike other Members of Parliament, s/he is permitted to ask up to 6 questions of the Prime Minister. The other Members of Parliament who are permitted to pose questions would have applied to do so prior to the session and are selected at random to put their questions.
An integral feature of PMQs in the UK is that the Prime Minister would not be informed of the questions in advance of the session.
The following are some of the benefits that could result from PMQs.
First, the burden falls on the Prime Minister to give an account of his government’s actions and he would have to be thoroughly briefed for this purpose since the questions would not be told in advance. This has caused some Prime Ministers in the UK to fear PMQs. In his final address to Parliament as Prime Minister, Tony Blair conceded that he “never stopped fearing” the House of Commons and PMQs even to his last day in office. Tun Dr Mahathir, who handles the press with considerable ease and is a veteran parliamentarian, would be more than equal to the task of a combative Q&A.
Second, if PMQs are well governed, it would allow for a number of important questions from constituents to be put directly to the Prime Minister. An example of this was seen in Jeremy Corbyn’s (the Leader of the Opposition in the UK) first PMQs, with former Prime Minister David Cameron across the despatch box. Each of Mr. Corbyn’s questions were from lay members of the public who had written to him prior to the session with questions they wanted asked of the Prime Minister.
Third, PMQs are likely to attract a wide audience and be well attended by the full complement of Members of Parliament. This provides the ideal setting for the Prime Minister to be held to explain and given account of the actions of his Cabinet on the issues of the day. This would also require the Prime Minister to be constantly well briefed on all matters of state.
However, having observed PMQs in the UK, there are many weaknesses in the process that we would do well to be aware of from the start.
PMQs, by its adversarial nature, has the tendency to descend into mudslinging and showboating by the parliamentarians. The level of coverage the event is likely to attract would create the temptation for parliamentarians to play to the gallery. Members of Parliament should as far as possible accord foremost importance to the substance of their statements as opposed to gaining political mileage from their questions to the Prime Minister.
Ultimately, the introduction of PMQs would not only enhance executive accountability but also enhance the importance of Parliament in the constitutional framework of responsible government.
* Gregory Das is an advocate and solicitor of the High Court of Malaya.
** This is the personal opinion of the writer or publication and does not necessarily represent the views of Malay Mail.