The 12th session of the National Council will be remembered for many reasons. For ease of understanding and for brevity, simplistically put the National Council under took two general categories of works; (1) legislative and policy review and (2) procedural. While the legislative/policy review works are self-explanatory, the procedural works have been evolutionary in furthering our parliamentary culture. This is only to understand some of the key works and therefore, does not include many others works that the National Council as carried out.
Legislative works of the National Council
National Council supports Government in passing the supplementary budget
The National Council offered support to the Government by endorsing the supplementary budget of Nu.43,728.156 million including Nu.42,000 million Economic Stimulus Plan. While discussing, the National Council also concurred with reflections of the the ESP task-force on the need to refrain from such interventions in the future. The National Council further added that such practises would not bode well for our democracy. The discussion was taken up in the larger context and not context of the current intervention or distrust of it.
Amendment of the Tobacco Control Act
For many it will be the amendment of the Tobacco Control Act which saw Amendment Law 2012 get repealed and make amendments to the 2010 Act. It was proposed keeping in mind the perceived failure of the law in controlling consumption of tobacco products, black marketing and penalty comparative. It decriminalized the sale of tobacco in the country and instead opted to allow sale in a controlled manner through identified outlets; the idea being by reducing access it would reduce cultivation of the habit in the long term. This would also make it practical to levy the same tax or even consider raising, the absence of such a mechanism, retaining the same tax rate would encourage more black marketing with now reduced penalties (removal of fourth degree penal offence).
Amendment of the National Council Act 2008
The session also saw the re-emerge of discussion on constitutional provision of the need for the National Council to be a continuous house. While the former councillors were made to resign to re-contest as interpreted by the Election Commission of Bhutan then, the Supreme Court’s interpretation of the provision that was shared during the 12th session clearly points out its intent and the interpretation. The National Council as a continuous house among other extensions, as interpreted by the Supreme Court, lays down the condition where incumbent councillors will not have to resign to re-contest the National Council elections. Accordingly, the House also adapted an understanding that the sessions of the National Council would hereof be numbered continuously and the 2nd session was then referred to as the 12th session. This is symbolic in expanding the idea of a continuous house as envisioned in the constitution. A much debate provision has also been the insertion of a new pre-requisite for contesting National Council elections. While there were differing viewpoints, the amendment carried important changes and was therefore, passed at the end.
Policy review works in the National Council
The National Council also discussed policy issues, some of them are highlighted below which is not exhaustive and that were mostly raised during the question-hour:
- Hydropower project cost escalation concerns
- National debt management concerns, Inflationary control concerns, 11th FYP plan financing concerns (deficit), Subsidies and revenue foregone
- Youth unemployment concerns, Labour protection concerns, Overseas employment
- Continuing domestic flights operations by private operator, capacity for safety compliance
- Education policy concerns, Learning environment for in-service teachers
- Lease of government land
Procedural evolution in the National Council
Follow-up on resolutions from 11th session
A significant development in the National Council has been alignment of its review function alongside its legislative. The onus to follow-up on past resolutions in the past had been mostly the individual MP and sometimes committees. More importantly, resolutions of the National Council in the past did not really see any substantial discussion in the National Assembly, in its 2nd session this time, these resolutions were taken up and deliberated upon. In terms of parliamentary culture, this has been a very huge progress.
Follow-up on recommendations to the Government from 11th session
The National Council also saw response from the Government on various concerns submitted and recommendations made by the House. While the last National Council constituted and established the question-hour (interpellation) where members of the executive responded to questions from the people via Councillors, this new institutionalized dimension of responses on recommendations has been a very important evolution in the relationship between the house of review and the executive as enshrined in the constitution.
Mechanism to address constituency specific issues
As MPs of the National Council it has been the endeavour of the house to keep focus on national concerns, constituency specific issues too need to be addressed. While this has been dealt through the question-hour when issue is cross cutting, it was upto individual MPs to take matters up otherwise outside Parliamentary discussions. The session also saw the institution of sending these issues collectively to the Government for responses, breaking away from past practise and bringing in an institutional approach. This has also been an important progress.
Institutional linkage between Parliament and the Local Governments – a WIP
In the past local governments would share their resolutions which often required the attention of the Parliament. Sometimes these resolutions have been shared wit MPs and other-times not. The practise also differed between local governments to local governments. To bring an institutional linkage so that nothing is left out which needs parliamentary attention, the honourable chairperson of the National Council and the honourable speaker of the National Assembly will be discussing with local government leaders in the coming months. This will be yet another critical development in our parliamentary culture.
Publication of voting records (Official report and website)
The National Council starts to publish voting records in its official report and also on its website to promote greater transparency in its workings.
For these and many other reasons, the 12th session of the National Council has been a most memorable one for me personally. It has also shown great potential in evolving processes that can enable Councillors to carry out their duties more effectively. With eight more sessions in hand, I am excited as are my colleagues at the possibility of having systemic support in doing what we have all been sent here to do as representatives. This has largely been possible because of the leadership. Leadership in the Assembly, the Government and all other agencies that have rendered their support in making it happen. While without the support of colleagues these changes may have taken more time, a special mention must be made to the tireless efforts by our Chairman Dasho Sonam Kinga (Phd).
A huge challenge in terms of an economy that needs big focus and working stares us in the face; one that we can not run away from because it is HOME. I am certain I speak for all when I say that the National Council understanding the seriousness of the concern and recognizing its importance has set out to do what needs to be done as an institution of review.