Parliamentary Speaker Abdulla Shahid believes the People’s Majlis has had success in passing legislation, at least statistically, yet he concedes parliament has still failed to meet the public’s expectations in terms of its conduct.
Speaking to Minivan News, Shahid – a member of the opposition Dhivehi Rayyithunge Party (DRP) – claimed that since constitutional amendments were introduced in 2008 to try and transform parliament from a “ceremonial” institution to a functioning national body, vital regulation was beginning to be passed. He conceded though that changes were not necessarily occurring in line with public sentiment.
“The three branches of government are trying to deal with a situation where, as in any transition, the expectations of the public are at a very high level. When you have a new democracy come in, citizens will be wanting things to change overnight. [These expectations] have been seen in many countries,” the Speaker said. “The challenges that we have here – with the judiciary and parliament – are not because we are unable to perform, but that we are unable to perform to the expectations of the people.”
Shahid said that after living for decades under a non-democratic system, he believed peoples’ demands for political reform have been “suppressed” for such a long period of time that their sudden release created a “huge burst” of energy to ensure change that the Majlis was not always succeeding in providing.
“These expectations have been let out, so the public wants changes not today or tomorrow, but amendments that should have perhaps occurred yesterday and the day before,” he claimed, adding that parliament has in recent years undertaken a much more prolific workload regards to passing legislation.
However, Shahid, who is also a member of the opposition Dhivehi Rayyithunge Party (DRP), stressed that he was optimistic that, despite recent criticisms of judicial reform and even government economic policy, parliament would be able to catch up in meeting these expectations.
“To give a feel of how much work has been done in the parliament, when you look at the statistics, in 2000 for example, there were four bills submitted to the parliament and these were all completed. In 2001, seven bills were submitted and two of them were completed. In 2004, eight were submitted, four were completed,” he said.
By 2005, Shahid added that official statistics showed 17 bills were proposed and five were completed, followed a year later by another five bills being completed from a total number of 30 that were put forward. The Speaker claimed that there was limited media experience among the various outlets to detail the work being conducted in parliament.
“No one was talking to the public that 30 bills had been submitted to parliament and only five were completed. No one was talking about this,” he said.
By 2008 – the year that the current Maldivian constitution was put in place -the same parliament-supplied figures showed that out of a total of 25 bills submitted, 15 were put into practice.
By the formation of the currently serving 17th national parliament in May 2009, Shahid said that over the second half of the year, a total of 55 bills, including a number of outstanding pieces of legislation, were all passed.
“The government sent everything back, they just changed the covering note and submitted it, so 55 bills were passed. That year, when the 17th parliament came in with the new constitution, we were faced with the challenge of devising the standing orders and the broader mandate of how to cope with the constitution,” he said. “When the constitution was drafted and adapted, there was no work done to get [parliament] to catch up with constitutional demands. The [Majlis] was just as it was in the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s. It was just a ceremonial set up here. But the new constitution demanded more constructive development needed to be done.”
As a result of trying to implement these changes, by last year Shahid said that the statistics showed 42 bills had been passed out of a total of 52 submitted.
Amidst this seeming rise in the output of parliament during recent years, the parliamentary speaker said that private and public media, as well as new rights protecting freedom of expression in the country, were responsible for furthering debate between people over whether parliament was functioning properly.
However, the Speaker accepted that subjects such as outlining a clear and clarified penal code, as well as an Evidence Bill to support judicial reform and policing, partisan behaviour between rival parties within the Majlis was creating the impression that there was no interest in having such bills passed.
In order to facilitate a faster moving reform of criminal legislation, Shahid claimed that talks had been opened between the various political stakeholders required to finalise any agreements.
“I met with party leaders and also the chair of all the committees yesterday. There is the general desire amongst the leadership to find ways of increasing the productivity rate of the house. We feel even though we continue to do work ahead of what any other parliament had done, still we are far behind in meeting the public’s expectations,” he said. “The reality is that we need to meet these public expectations. The committee chairs have given me an agreement that they will try and finds ways of fast tracking many of the bills, while political parties supplied an agreement that on issues on which they may disagree, they will endeavour to deal with the technical and more mundane bills faster.”
Aside from MPs working along partisan lines, Shahid said that the issue of language was another significant challenge for MPs to overcome, especially in translating very technical proposals relating to legal definitions into Dhivehi from other languages. While other Commonwealth countries were able to take existing legislation and adapt the document accordingly, the Speaker took the example of the Penal Code. In its original English draft, put together by Professor Paul Robinson at the University of Pennsylvania Law School, the code was said to have perfect sense, yet the Speaker said it did not translate directly into the Dhivehi language.
In the previous parliament, Shahid said that the question had therefore arisen as to whether the text should be adopted as it was or be amended.
“If we adopt something that we ourselves [parliament] can’t make sense of, can the Appeal Court, which is going to punish the average person on the street, use it?”
Under the current parliament, a committee was now said to be reviewing every individual article in the document to ensure it was to the satisfaction of parliamentarians.
Shahid added that similar issues had also been raised in relation to an evidence bill that had been adapted, originally from a Malaysian document.
With the bills now in the process of engagement with the Attorney General and Prosecutor General’s office, both of which the speaker acknowledged parliament had not had “the best of relationships with” during the previous year, there was optimism they could be passed.
“The Attorney General has taken the bill back for redrafting and I understand that it will be submitted back to the committee very soon,” he said. “The process of ‘throwing it out’ or rejecting the bill has not taken place because if we reject the bill, then the message again to the public is mixed: ‘We don’t want the evidence bill’. This is the message if we reject it, but if we accept the bill and approve it, along with the assistance and cooperation of the government and then submit it, then the process is starting to move.”
Shahid claimed he had already seen more engagement between the executive and parliament and was confident the bills would be passed.
Not all of the proposals put before parliament, have been welcomed by the public though. This has been seen, perhaps most noticeably, in the Privileges Bill that led to protests outside the Majlis at the end of last year to try and highlight public dissatisfaction with proposed pay rises and other benefits for MPs.
Although the speaker said that he believed there were “issues” with the Privileges Bill, he claimed these did not detract from its importance for both MPs and judges.
“The members of parliament have certain functions entrusted by the people who elected them. For example the privileges bill in many countries would give the right for the MP to have the right access to parliament. So he cannot be arrested on his way to the parliament for certain offences,” he said. “If there is an important vote in the parliament and the MP is on his way, say there is a narrow margin and the guy gets stopped for traffic offences. The constitution allows him to be held in custody for 24 hours and the vote is then done. I’m not saying that the current government would act like this, but what if we have a government that would?”
The Speaker took the example of the drafting of the new constitution and electing a Speaker for the constitutional assembly back in 2004 as an indication of what could happen.
“One just needs to find out how many members were included when they elected a Speaker. So thinking that the current government would [not act this way] just because of journalists is not right. We have to have the rights of MPs to defend the constitution described in the bill,” he said. “I do not agree with the tax free cars for the members for parliament and I do not agree with many other things, but the international standards have to be respected.”
The bill has recently been returned by the president to be redrafted, with Shahid claiming that he has recommended that they be sent to the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association in order to be adapted in line with international standards.
When dealing with public perceptions of parliamentarians, particularly with how they are dealt within the media, the parliamentary speaker said that he believed in light of recent, yet rare controversies surrounding journalists being summoned before the Majlis, politicians needed to adapt their attitudes rather than restricting media coverage.
Local media bodies like the Maldives Journalist Association (MJA) hit out at the Majlis earlier this month after parliament cut a live feed to private radio station DhiFM and ordered two of its reporters before a committee over allegations it was in contempt.
No clarification has been given over the exact offense caused during an edition of the broadcaster’s “Breakfast Club” show, though Shahid said he agreed that occasional suggestions of media censorship in the Majlis should be opposed to prevent creating a fear of using free speech.
“I think because we are at the infant stage of democracy, we need the public and especially politicians to develop a thick skin. Because we are public figures, of course we will be attacked and scrutinised – that is the beauty of democracy,” he said. “If you do something right or do something wrong they will talk about you. That is what has happened.”
In addressing media conduct, the speaker said that after years of being restricted or “guided”, journalists had now been “let loose”, yet there was no indication of how many trained reporters were currently operating in the country.
“What I know is that the institutions that are supposed to be regulating or promoting independent media have still not started functioning,” he said.
Shahid claimed that any restrictions emplaced on the media would be a step in the wrong direction for democracy and ensuring people had the right to express thoughts and discuss them – even when this may difficult for the population at large.
The speaker claimed that if a culture developed where MPs resorted en masse to take up litigation against journalists and commentators, then freedoms that had been won in the Maldives would in essence, be retracted.
“My vision is that five years, 10 years, 15 years from now, we will be developed. Our minds, the minds of our children, will be more developed and more tolerant. I have experienced this when we began parliament,” he claimed. “In 2009, when the 17th parliament was formed, the first day the amount of abuse I got as a Speaker on the floor itself was tremendous. A lot of people asked why I took it. But I firmly believed we had a young and new group of people becoming parliamentarians and they hadn’t had experience.”
However, the Speaker said he believed that a lot of members had now grown and learnt to be more responsible parliamentarians, even despite occasions where tempers flared.
Shahid said that the scale of changes within society, as well as the nation’s parliamentary system should not be underestimated though; claiming that the two years that have passed since the current constitution has come into place was still too short a period of time to expect a total democratic transition.
“Things have changed, on paper, overnight. But up here, mentally, are we prepared? Are we able to cope with the change?” he asked. “I firmly believe that if we are able to sustain and consolidate the situation, ultimately, the desired democratic system will be in place. But we have to be very careful not to let the public trust deteriorate to a level whereby the entire system fails and we again slide back into dictatorship.”