Budget debate to be telecast live
ISLAMABAD: An opposition walkout from the National Assembly and hard bargaining on Monday won the facility of a live telecast of parliament’s budget debate for the first time in Pakistan beginning on Tuesday.
Leader of the Opposition Khurshid Ahmed Shah refused to open the general debate in the National Assembly on the budget for 2015-16 unless the government agreed to set a new precedent to arrange live television coverage of the discussion.
In what seemed to be a pre-arranged pact, the demand was supported by all opposition parties and got a nod even from the government-allied PakhtunkhwaMilliAwami Party.
While a similar demand in the Senate about the same time by Leader of the Opposition ChaudhryAitzaz Ahsan forced a brief suspension of the house, all opposition parties walked out of the National Assembly in protest after three government ministers expressed inability to meet the demand immediately.
That happened after Information and Broadcasting Minister Pervaiz Rashid assured the opposition leader that the salient features of his speech would get a detailed coverage by the state-run Pakistan Television and Finance Minister Ishaq Dar had promised financial help to start a new dedicated PTV channel for live parliamentary coverage in the future.
That did not satisfy Mr Shah and leaders of other parliamentary groups, who said they wanted live coverage of speeches of lawmakers from both the opposition and government benches as had happened during the joint session of parliament held last year to counter a prolonged sit-in, by tens of thousands of followers of opposition Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf (PTI) and non-parliamentary Pakistan AwamiTehreek.
After the opposition walkout, Speaker AyazSadiq suspended the proceedings for 15 minutes to allow the two sides to reach an agreement.
But it took more than two and a half hours – a few government ministers present seeming unable to take a decision on their own – before the information and broadcasting minister told a reassembled house that the PTV would arrange live coverage of the budget debate from Tuesday, when the house will meet at 10am, and will give feed to private television channels for use by them according their own choice.
The minister also assured the house that the government would facilitate the start of a dedicated state-run channel for parliamentary coverage in light of any agreement between the two sides, though it was not clear from his early remarks whether the PTV itself would telecast the entire debate besides providing freed to private channels.
However, these assurances turned the previous tension in the house into an unusual cordiality with special plaudits from Mr Shah and PTI vice-chairman Shah MahmoodQureshi for the finance minister’s role in getting the agreement and with their own assurances that the opposition would not try to exploit the opportunity of live broadcast to make things difficult for the government.
“This will rather enhance the prestige of the house,” Mr Shah said.
“Parliament’s debate is going to take a new direction from today with its responsible attitude being
more prominent,” said MrQureshi.
But the information minister did not receive the same warmth in the Senate, when he went there later to inform it of the decision to provide live “feed” to private television channels, without explaining whether the live coverage would be seen also on PTV itself.
While opposition leader Ahsan was not present in the Senate at the time – and amid an apparent impression that the upper house parties were not consulted – a word of warning came from Senate Chairman RazaRabbani that Article 50 of the Constitution about the two houses forming parliament would not allow any discrimination against either.