Panama Inquiry Impasse

It took a herculean effort and a fair bit of parliamentary trickery from the government to get the Inquiry Commission Bill passed by the National Assembly, that too on its fourth attempt. Now the bill has to jump another hurdle, the Senate, and considering that the opposition has already tabled and passed its own version of the bill a few days ago, the government will have to fight against the odds – a battle it seems it might not win. This seems all the more likely since the theme surrounding these bills is confrontation, not engagement.

The two versions of the bill, both essentially dealing with the Panama Papers scandal, have been around since the issue broke first broke surface. After the refusal by the Chief Justice to form a “toothless” judicial commission to probe the matter, the parliament has tried to update the Pakistan Commissions of Inquiry Act 1956 to fix this problem.

As you can expect, while the government’s version empowers future judicial commissions, the increment in powers is a nominal one – which, according to the opposition, is not enough to properly investigate the matter. Their own bill, entitled the Panama Papers Inquiry Bill, not only increases the power of the commission but names the Prime Minister as the prime target of the investigation, and the Terms Of Reference under which such an investigation should take place. The government contends – perhaps rightly so – that this is less an inquiry commission bill and more a targeted attack at the Prime Minister, and would be unhelpful in curbing future illegal practices as its scope is very limited.

One would expect that when the government and opposition are at such cross purposes they would sit down to compromise and come up with a unified version of the bill that both can agree upon. However, the Panama Papers scandal seems to bring out special antagonism in both sides, and so far the game plan has been to sabotage the other’s bill while racing to get your own over the line.

This is not only a great waste of parliamentary time, it also sets a bad precedent for future lawmaking – as can be witnessed by the the state of affairs in the Senate. A few days after the opposition passed their bill, the Senate will now spend time considering – and rejecting – the government’s bill, which we must remember has already spent months on the National Assembly floor.

It will take a joint sitting of both houses to solve this impasse. But don’t be fooled by the name, there will be nothing joint about the sitting – both sides are set to stick to their guns.

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