If it is important to see how our representatives are elected, it is equally important to see what happens between two elections. While we have been debating quite religiously on the electoral reforms, one misses an equally robust debate on the parliamentary reforms. Without a representative and well-functioning parliament, it is impossible to enjoy the fruits of democracy.

The triangular function of the parliament – legislation, oversight of the executive and representation of the constituent – warrants it to get engaged consistently with not only the state institutions and the government ministries, but also with the public. Any reforms agenda for the parliament would consider these important aspects of parliamentary functions, and would aim at institutionally strengthening the parliament to perform these functions freely and effectively.

The main areas where we need to improve the parliament would thus be representation, transparency and effectiveness. On the contrary, one witnesses an uninformed bickering in the media about how much salaries parliamentarians get. Technocrats (that’s a euphemism for talking heads on TV) sound more concerned about how could the Members of Parliament (MPs) revise their own salaries.

Yesterday I received a message (titled Reforms Agenda 2015) that implied our MPs get lifelong pension (which they don’t), they are entitled to a special health care system different from anyone else in the country, MPs and people are inherently adversarial entities (which they are not, people elect their representatives to parliament), MPs get a contract, which continues even after their tenure in parliament (no, an MP does not get a ‘contract’ unless their oath is being taken as a contract).

Another ridiculous point that this so called ‘Reforms Agenda 2015’ carried was a proposal that citizens should stop surrendering their LPG subsidies unless all subsidies available to MPs are withdrawn including subsidized food in Parliament canteen.

The fact is, in Pakistan people are not receiving any LPG subsidy. Nor are they being asked to surrender that subsidy. And there is no subsidized food in ‘parliament canteen’ for MPs. All of this is from India where people get LPG subsidy and it’s the Indian government that is campaigning for the surrender of this subsidy.

There is another similar email that has been endlessly circulated since last many years. It carries the copies of menu of ‘parliament canteen’ with subsidized rates. As subsidized that a cup of tea was shown for just Rs 2. First time when I received that email, it was in 2004. The menu included idli, dosa and saamber. Food items that many have only heard of, that too, thanks to Bollywood films.

Just when I was wondering on the disinformation that this particular message was spreading about the parliament, a national daily published a full fledge article by a senior ‘technocrat’. The article based its entire argument on that factually incorrect message. We are indeed living in a slaughterhouse of fact checking!

But this trend of disinformation campaigns necessitates an SOS call for more civic education about the parliament as well as other robust parliamentary reforms to make this institution deliver and contribute to the quality of democracy. Ever since the parliament came into existence in 1973, it has been struggling for its survival. There have been, however, some half–baked and insufficient but very important reforms attempts since then.

During Mr. Bhutto’s parliament back in early 1970s, we saw largest number of laws passed by the assembly and most superior quality of the debate in House. However, this superior quality of debate could not ensure equal rights for all citizens and we got the Second Amendment Council of Islamic Ideology alongside the parliament adamant to determine the religion of the very people who elected it.

After this glorious tenure of parliament in terms of the quality of debate and outcome (more than 350 laws were passed, which to date is a record), we got a non-party based parliament with very limited powers. This affected considerably on the quality of debates in the House and badly hit the entire concept of parliamentary checks and balances. The executive branch became more powerful than the parliament thus usurping latter’s right to oversee the former.

Throughout the 1990s, parliament kept struggling for survival with sporadic efforts to empower itself. The main problem was that the executive branch, in the Westminster style parliaments that we follow, was part of the legislature. Since the treasury benches are more in number, they are able to influence not only the agenda-setting powers but also the oversight mandate of the parliament. Ministers won’t accept the supremacy of parliament. They won’t consider themselves to be subservient to the oversight of parliamentary committees. They won’t present themselves to the House for questions.

It was that period of parliamentary debility that Ms. Benazir Bhutto introduced the office of Parliamentary Secretaries from within the Treasury, who would answer the questions in the absence of Ministers. She also tried her best to strengthen the institution of parliamentary parties. I remember those days in mid 1990s when she would make it sure that parliamentary party meetings are held, agenda is set in Business Advisory Committee and MPs partake in the discussions on party’s legislative planning.

In 1997, that changed. The centrist government of Mr. Nawaz Sharif carrying a heavy mandate was too busy in exercising executive powers to pay any attention to the reforms process to empower the parliament. The decade under the ‘clean’ regime of enlightened moderation destroyed every gain that the parliament had earned for itself so far. Committee system went down the drain. A large number of women, thanks to their decades long struggle to get representation, came to the House but remain devoid of any voice throughout that tenure.

In 2008 finally, parliament started moving towards the reforms for empowering itself albeit very carefully. The first woman Speaker of the House ensured that parliament is able to play its functions as effectively as possible. Committees were empowered and it was made obligatory upon the government to share ministry-wise budgetary proposals with Committees and get their feedback. The opposition’s role was strengthened by appointing Leader of Opposition as the Chair of Public Accounts Committee.

An unwritten rule of ample representation of the opposition in Committees was also followed and after a long time Committees got treasury-opposition representative proportion at 60-40. Women got voice and organised themselves in a Caucus after the Chair empowered them for speaking during the debate at par with their male colleagues.

In the current parliament, we have a committed democrat and federalist as the Senate Chair and an experienced parliamentarian in the chair of Speaker in National Assembly. Both of them have initiated some very important reforms that qualify comprehensive review some other time. For now, it would suffice to expect more empowerment and institutional strengthening of the parliament.

Not only the chairs of both Houses, it is the responsibility of every parliamentary leader to ensure their party takes parliamentary business seriously and fulfill the promise that they made with the constituent. Remember, we vote you in on the promise of effective oversight on the government and of voicing our concerns on the floor of the House.