Make use of parliamentary committees

Editorial, Normal

TELEFOMIN MP and Deputy Governor of Sandaun, Peter Iwei, is also chairman of the parliamentary committee on health and family welfare.
On Tuesday, when debate was heating up during question time on health issues, Mr Iwei told Parliament that his committee had not sat once in this term of Parliament to investigate health and welfare issues of which there are numerous.
Mr Iwei had tried repeatedly to conduct inquiries into the health care issues of the country only to be told there was limited funding.
He asked Finance Minister Patrick Pruaitch why important committees could not operate as they should because of funding constraints and whether or not Finance could release the necessary funds to Parliament for the work of committees.
Mr Pruaitch said committees were the responsibility of Parliament and that Parliament had its own budget every year to carry out such work as that of its committees.
This exchange brings to the public domain a little realised but very important function of Parliament that has lain dormant for decades: The parliamentary committee system.
Very few people in Papua New Guinea outside of parliamentary services know there are 38 parliamentary committees. Each committee comprises a chairman and members, none of whom are ministers.
Since there are only 28 ministers, the remaining 81 out of 109 MPs are members of committees. This gives the combined membership of parliamentary committees absolute majority and, hence, the most powerful mechanism in the land to affect policies and laws, including budgets since all of these have to come before Parliament for approval or ratification.
Yet this power is hardly exercised and it has been found wanting for precisely the reasons that were explained on Tuesday. Committees have been starved of funds.
There is a tremendous need to involve the parliamentary committees in the daily lives of the people. Presently, MPs hardly have anything to do outside of Parliament sittings. Most of the time they are called upon to engage in matters that are well outside the duties and responsibilities of a politician, such as delivering goods and services down to the people. MPs are essentially usurping the duties and responsibilities of the public service.
A functional and effective committee system would involve members in all facets of people’s lives, investigating problems, alert to the pressing needs of the community, reporting such findings and needs back to Parliament and interacting with the people in such a way that they have a handle on the heart beat of the nation.
This is the crucial function that is missing and one that could bridge the distance between the people and their leaders. Presently, there is a perception – quite wrong and created by the ineffectiveness of the public service – that politician should be the bearer of goods and services to the electorate. That is the role of the public service, not the politician.
The politician has neither the system nor the resources to deliver effectively to his or her electorate. A politician’s chief function is to make laws and policies to ensure that the Government functions as a coordinated, effective and efficient body that caters for the diversified needs of a modern nation.
Over time this crucial role has been eroded by the growing needs of a starved electorate and since the politician must bow to the people’s wishes for his continued existence, a frightening prospect that does not face the public servant, he has had to give in to the pressures.
Since Parliament determines the budget for each MP, it has steadily grown from a mere K10,000 per MP in 1982 to K2 million each today. This is not enough. It will never be enough and this is the high road to corruption.
There needs to be a fundamental shift away from this dangerous trend and that is to give each MP something substantial to do. Those jobs are already designed in the committee system. They only need to be effected, to breathe life into them by funding them properly.
As it is, the executive branch of Government (Cabinet or the Group of 28) has become all too powerful. What the members of committees must appreciate is that Parliament approves the budget. And in that Parliament, members of committees control the numbers by an absolute majority of 81 to 28!