Globally the Parliamentary Service exists to facilitate Parliament operation through the provision of support services to the House, including its committees and agencies, to ensure the extensive and effective exercise of the powers of Parliament. Furthermore, it works to enhance the dignity of the House and adequately inform the public on Parliamentary activities. With this, the Service ensures transparency, non-partisanship and a high sense of professionalism. The legislature will be then able to keep a check on the governments’ activities and spending.
Malaysian Parliament has been suffering from a negative image for decades. In 1992, the Government during Mahathir administration proposed a constitutional amendments on the provision of Article 65 and Article 132 of the Federal Constitution. The said constitutional amendments are why Parliamentary Service Act 1963 was abolished and our parliamentary staff today is considered part of the Executive body.
Historically, at least three separate efforts have been made to restore the Parliamentary Service Act in Malaysia. First, the proposed re-existence of the Parliamentary Service legislation was proposed by a Law Reform Review Committee under Dato Seri Dr. Wan Junaidi Tuanku Jaafar, former Deputy Speaker when he was the Chairman of the Committee in 2011. Then, in 2016, under Tan Sri Pandikar Amin Haji Mulia, the then Speaker of the House of Representatives had proposed that the Parliamentary Service Act to be reinstated through the House Committee Report. Another effort was when Tan Sri Dato’ Mohamad Ariff Md Yusof was the Speaker of the Dewan Rakyat. The Parliamentary Services Commission Bill proposal was sent to the Attorney General’s Chambers for reconsideration in 2020.
The CPA Recommended Benchmarks for Democratic Legislatures provide a minimum standard on how a Parliamentary Service should be constituted and how it should function. One of the standards is regarding the need to have adequate non-partisan professional staff to support the operations of Parliament and the operations of its committee. The legislature controls the Service, and they set the terms of employment. On top of that, adequate safeguards from executive interference must be in place. The proposed Parliamentary Legislation need to embed this principle.
The key advantages of having such a body are: (a) it can raise the quality of debate and scrutiny; (b) it can address the information lop-sidedness by breaking the executives’ monopoly on information; (c) the information would be available to both majority and minority parties; and (d) Parliamentary Service can provide information in a more transparent and timely manner which can enhance MPs participation in Parliament business, especially during the legislative debate process, debate on the budget and ministerial questions and answers session.
At present, MPs are facing a shortage of time to conduct fundamental research on debate subjects and prepare for debates in the House. In addition, MPs are not equipped with well-trained research staff who can provide timely and credible inputs. During budget tabling, for example, it is essential for MPs to build analytical capacity in budgetary matters in order to be able to hold the government accountable. An independent Parliamentary service can provide MPs with independent, non-partisan and quality research analysis.
The international experience of Parliamentary Service
Many countries established Parliamentary Service in many forms to suit the country needs. Certain countries, such as Ghana and India, have constitutional provisions that protect parliamentary service. Other than that, Australia and New Zealand form parliamentary services through legislation such as the Australian Parliamentary Services Act 1999 and New Zealand Parliamentary Services Act 2000. The parliamentary staff in the House of Commons is governed by the House of Commons (Administration) Act 1978.
Australia has the proper mechanism of governance of Parliamentary Service under the Australian Parliamentary Service Act (PSA) 1999. This statute provides administrative and financial matters as the obligation to be fulfilled. In maintaining its independence and integrity, the Parliament has a Parliamentary Service Commission, under Section 39 and 40 PSA 1999, which provides advice on Parliamentary Officers and made national inquiries on any matters on Parliamentary affairs, including breach of the Code of Ethics. This Code of Ethics, which includes sanctions, is crucial to ensure all Parliamentary staff, including Members of Parliaments, abide by the rules and ethics of Parliament. In addition, the Parliament of Australia also strengthened their main principles of independence, career-based services and decision-making based on merit. It should set a good example for Malaysia to follow in enacting the new Parliamentary Services Act.
In the United Kingdom, two main statutes, the House of Commons Administration Act 1978 and the House of Commons Commission Act 2015, manages Parliamentary Affairs. One unique part under the Commission set up is the involvement of four external members, including experts from the public, which is significant to deal with parliamentary governance and accountability with the public. Since Parliament is the central pillar of any country, it is crucial to include public involvement in their affairs due to increasing awareness and engagement, which benefit society. At the same time, the Parliamentary staff in the UK which independent from public service and also enjoy equal benefits as Home Service in the UK, including salary and pension. The proposed Malaysian Parliamentary Service Law may consider revisiting the benefits scheme to ensure the retention of the best staff to achieve first-class parliamentary standards.
Recently, the Institute for Political Reform and Democracy (REFORM), in collaboration with Bersih 2.0, has researched the possibility of restoring the Parliamentary Service law in Malaysia. The research, among others, identifies the need for autonomy and independence in administrative and financial aspects of the Parliament institution. The findings revealed that parliamentary administration is now dominated by officials from other public service schemes, following the repeal of the Parliamentary Services Act 1963 in 1992 and that parliamentary financial expenditure is subject to approval and alteration by the Executive through the Ministry of Finance. Restoring the abolished Article 65 will confer Parliament the power to re-enact Parliament Service legislation and restore administrative control to parliament service by establishing an independent Parliamentary Service Commission. The Commission will be equipped with the power to establish Parliament Select Committee on Parliamentary Administration and Finance. In addition, the new legislation will explicitly pronounce the values essential for officers of Parliament too.
An independent Parliamentary Service can be an effective tool for strengthening the oversight capacity of legislators. Since we are going to celebrate the 62nd anniversary of Parliament sitting on 11 September, restoring the Parliamentary Service is the best present for the brighter future of Malaysians.