Procedural modernisation of Prime Minister’s question time in Parliament
Until 1997, the parliamentary questions in Bangladesh were meant exclusively for the ministers. The then Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina, however, offered an ex gratia concession by agreeing to face and answer parliamentary questions for around thirty minutes every Wednesday. Though the offer is conceded to have a great 'symbolic value', its operational implications remain unclear. Apart from an absence of the UK-style theatrical debate with the Leader of the Opposition, the mode of conducting Prime Minister's question time (hereinafter referred to as PMQT) in Bangladesh is fundamentally different from that of the UK.
The bulk of the backbench British MPs would submit their questions to the Prime Minister in advance. Some of those will be chosen through 'The Shuffle' process. This shuffle is a random draw from all submitted questions. The Leader of the Opposition would be allowed up-to six questions to the Prime Minister which are not tabled or subjected to the Shuffle process. Conducted at the discretion of the Speaker, MPs may ask substantive topical question or open engagement question that would simply ask the list of activities prime minister for the given day.
Purpose of the engagement questions is to allow the MP to ask the Prime Minister on any issue of contemporary interest. Speaker may even call out some members who are not listed in the Shuffle to ask supplementary questions which increases the elements of unpredictability and surprise for the Prime Minister. Absent of any scope to de-select any question, this impromptu and spontaneous aspect of the session allows potentially greater accountability. Current Speaker John Bercow's declared interest in making space for more backbenchers has sometimes resulted in prolonging the PMQT by fifteen to twenty minutes past the officially designated half an hour.
On the procedural level, the current set up of House of Commons PMQT is criticised for failing to deliver the level accountability expected of the process. It is levelled as a political point-scoring show for the prime minister and the leader of the opposition, while the backbench members' opportunity to participate got shrinker and yielded a sort of 'scrutiny by screech' (John Bercow, Prime Minister's Questions in the United Kingdom, The Canadian Parliamentary Review, 2012).
Additionally, the highly adversarial discourse of the session has sanctioned and politically rewarded some aggressive face-threatening activities, rowdiness and even unparliamentary languages (Peter Bull and Pam Wells, Adversarial Discourse in Prime Minister's Questions, Journal of Language and Social Psychology 2011). Seeing the accountability deficit of the session, in 2002 a Liaison Committee comprising the Chairmen from all parliamentary select committees requested the Prime Minister appear before them twice a year which is now acted upon.
The question selection process in Bangladesh's PMQT, on the other hand, is archaic, unclear and a bit whimsical. In ink and paper, the Rules of Procedure (RoP) of Bangladesh parliament does not prescribe any special rule for the PMQT. Questions are asked and answered during the first hour of every sitting over different ministry on a rotating basis. An extra half an hour of the Wednesday is allocated for the PMQT (rule 41, RoP)).
The Prime Minister's questions are exempted from balloting and other rules related to the questions to ministers in general (rule 48, RoP). Curiously, the admissibility or non-admissibility of Prime Minister's Questions are placed at the sole disposal of the Prime Minister who may select or de-select questions at her will (Nizam Ahmed, Reforming the parliament in Bangladesh: Structural constraints and political dilemmas, Journal of Commonwealth & Comparative Politics, 1998).
Prime Minister's privilege to select questions, rather than balloting, is inherently problematic. Also, though a member-in-charge of a starred question is entitled to ask a supplementary question, the element of surprise for the Prime Minister is meager. There is no scope of the speaker exercising discretion in the way the Speaker of the House of Commons would exercise. Again, the Leader of Opposition is not treated preferentially in the way his/her UK counterpart is treated.
Hence there is no possibility of at least any symbolic duel between the Prime Minister and the Leader of the Opposition. The opposition party of the Seventh Parliament continuously boycotted the PMQT. Turning to the power in the Eight Parliament, the government party systematically denied the opposition even an opportunity to table questions in PMQT.
Next, the questions asked and answered by the Prime Minister in Bangladesh so far have not caused much embarrassment to the premier. S/he has traditionally faced comfortable and desirable questions (Jalal Firoj, Forty years of Bangladesh Parliament: Trends, Achievements and Challenges Journal of the Asiatic Society of Bangladesh (Hum.), 2013).
Also, the successive Prime Ministers have lavishly taken the chance to utilize PMQT as a platform to talk on the failures of past government/s and the opposition rather than on failures or deficiencies of their administrations.
Had it been given proper attention, the PMQT in Bangladesh could have contributed substantially in bringing the parliament at the centre of public gaze and thereby increase its institutional valour.
The process as stood in 1997 at its introduction has not faced any significant call for procedural modernisation so far. Time for the call seems ripe now.
M. Jashim Ali Chowdhury is Assistant Professor of Law at University of Chittagong & PhD Candidate (Parliament Studies), King's College London