In January this year during the 12th session of the National Council, 3 written questions went to the Government. These questions had to go through a rigorous process of approval by the House before being sent out as per parliamentary privilege and functionary practices. The Government eventually complied with 2 of the questions stretching over two sessions of Parliament; however a question remains unanswered even today.
The focus concerns this one question, that not only remains UNANSWERED but the Government’s persistent REFUSAL to recognize and acknowledge the need for the Government to share expenses made from public money with Parliament and the public. The question sought information on expenditures made by the Ministers (the Executive) on their official travels from 2008 to date, both domestic and foreign. The Government’s failure to answer during the 12th session (as per existing law the National Council should receive response within 10 days) resulted in an oral question to the Government that sought an explanation and a supplementary question seeking the same information on the travel expenses made by Ministers from 2008 to date during the 13th session of Parliament. The response was vague, unconvincing and most importantly worrying.
The Government refused to share any information by stating that there was no need to as all expenses were legal. The Royal Audit Authority checked for illegal expenses. It also stated that complying with the question meant sharing information on travel expenses by the previous Government too (now in the opposition in the National Assembly) and therefore, the Government risked being seen as trying to attack them. It was also stated that the Annual Financial Statement (AFS) published by the Ministry of Finance contained the required information. Finally that it was not the job of the National Council (one of the two Houses of Parliament) to seek such information. The Prime Minister expressed the same message during his appearance in the National Council to respond to an oral question about Business Opportunity and Information Centre (BOIC). It was also reiterated by the Home Minister during a joint sitting of the two Houses while discussing the Public Accounts Committee report.
First, the question sought information on travel expenses and did NOT question expenses made. Therefore to end that so long as expenses are legal, information need NOT be shared seems wrong.
Second, using public perception as pretext as attacking the former government also appears misleading as discussions in parliament have witnessed decisions taken by the past government being questioned and even changed by the Government. So to choose and limit Government concerns of public perception over ONLY this SINGLE question seem far from being convincing and a convenience.
Third, the Annual Financial Statement only shares an expenditure figure for the entire government functionary and therefore, DOES NOT answer the question specifically. I had raised this with the Honourable Speaker during discussions on the Public Accounts Committee report but unfortunately failed to get any meaningful outcome.
Finally, the mandate of the National Council as per the Constitution requires ‘scrutiny of state functions’ in addition to many others. All these arguments not only seem wrong but they seem very defensive and challenge the idea of a Government (Executive) being accountable to Parliament (representing public) as enshrined in our Constitution.
How much have our Ministers spent on official travels from 2008 to date still REMAINS unanswered and REFUSED acknowledgement as a LEGITIMATE question that the National Council can ask Government(s). In many democracies response to such a question by a citizen would also need compliance. To share an experience, some people asked for my expenditure on official travels as a MP and I happily complied because it is only right. In Bhutan, as we like to say, being new we are still learning and I hope we learn to do what is right. After all accounting for public money we spend should come naturally; it is not ours to spend. So for now the question on how much a Government Minister spends on official travels remains UNANSWERED. There is need for transparency on expenses made from public money. With such strong resistance to a basic question, I wonder how committed the Government is on bringing in a Right to Information Law in the country. I wish I knew how much my leaders spend out of public money on travels even as a citizen, do you? Share your thoughts.