Thursday, June 17, 2021

I’m not all-powerful, speaker tells critics on challenging road to hybrid Dewan debates

Azhar Harun says approval must be given by two separate committees and points out procedural complications to the call for hybrid Parliament sittings.

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Dewan Rakyat Speaker Azhar Harun says some critics who are pressing him to re-open Parliament have ignored the procedures and processes involved as well as the constitutional framework, adding that many of the calls directed at him are premised on the assumption that he wields great power as the chairman of the house.

He said similar claims were made in the wake of the recent announcement that the government was studying the implementation of hybrid sittings during the pandemic, a move which received a positive response from both him and his counterpart in the Dewan Negara, Rais Yatim.

“Apparently I can advise the king and also the prime minister,” Azhar, better known as Art Harun, told MalaysiaNow.

“All the narratives seem to imply that I am the most powerful man,” he added.

He said a key process in the implementation of hybrid proceedings would take place at the level of two bi-partisan committees, the House Committee and the Rules Committee.

Both comprise MPs from the government and opposition.

He said although he is the chairman of these committees, he has no voting right as he is not an elected MP.

“It’s just not my decision, I cannot just snap my fingers and expect it to be done. I can only bring it to the committee but the members, the MPs, have to discuss.

“For that matter, any member of the committee can bring a proposal, not just me,” he said.

He said any proposal must be brought to these two committees for approval.

“Once these committees approve it, it will have to be presented to and approved by the Dewan Rakyat.

“But in the first place, the two committees must be able to meet. Under the emergency ordinance, they cannot meet. So it has to be amended,” said Azhar.

“I cannot just snap my fingers and expect it to be done.”

Last week, Takiyuddin Hassan, the minister in charge of law, said a hybrid system for Parliament proceedings was being considered, and that he had held a meeting with both Azhar and Rais to discuss the issue.

A committee has also been formed to study the details of hybrid proceedings.

Parliament has been suspended since a state of emergency to fight the Covid-19 pandemic was declared in January.

There have been calls by some MPs, including deputy speaker Azalina Othman Said from Umno, to have Parliament convene virtually.

Hybrid challenges

Azhar said there are many challenges in a hybrid parliamentary debate, such as the tradition of scrutinising during a debate, as is the case in a Westminster system such as Malaysia’s.

He said while the technical part of a hybrid proceeding – where MPs are present both virtually and physically during a Dewan Rakyat session – might be straightforward, there are other details that require careful deliberation.

These include legal as well as procedural aspects of a virtual Dewan Rakyat sitting, where not all of the manner in which debates are held might continue to apply.

“For example, in Australia you cannot intervene during a debate speech. Instead, you are required to give 15 minutes’ notice in order to do so.”

Even more crucial is the fact that MPs attending the Australian parliament virtually have no right to vote, or to be counted as part of the quorum, he said.

“So when some of them say it’s a simple thing, the truth is it’s not as simple as that,” he added.

Azhar also said there appeared to be confusion about the number of MPs allowed to be physically present at the Dewan Rakyat during a hybrid proceeding.

“Some seem to think that only 26 MPs are allowed to be present physically while the rest are required to join virtually,” he said.

He said the 26 MPs who are required to be present physically are to fulfil the quorum requirement.

“The rest may opt to be present either physically or virtually, subject of course to any SOPs in force at the relevant time.”

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