Unanimous support

Banking on RMA

Support for the Royal Monetary Authority Bill was unanimous. Every one of the 66 MPs present in the Parliament today endorsed the Bill.

But if the Bill is so popular, why hadn’t the two Houses each passed it on its own? Why was a joint sitting needed?

In fact, there were differences. And the most critical one concerned the chairperson of the RMA Board.

The RMA Board comprises of seven members – the governor, two deputy governors, and four other members. The governor is appointed by His Majesty the King at the recommendation of the prime minister. The two deputy governors are full-time staff from the RMA secretariat. And the four other members are appointed by the government.

Most MPs, especially those in the National Council and the two in the opposition, expected that the governor would automatically become the chairperson of the Board. This was also the recommendation of the Joint Committee that had been established to iron out the differences between the two Houses.

The government, however, argued that the Chairperson should be from among the four other members it appoints, and not the governor.

A debate looked promising. But there wasn’t to be one. Instead, a couple of MPs explained why the governor should be the chairperson of the Board. Then, three ministers in quick succession justified why the governor should not be made the chairperson. And then, the speaker decided, quite suddenly, that the recommendation of the Joint Committee would prevail. No one challenged the speaker. And just like that, the otherwise most contentious issue was resolved.

After that, there were hardly any disagreements. The Joint Committee’s recommendations were mostly accepted; the government’s positions in some other areas were incorporated; and, despite my earlier misgivings, the RMA Bill sailed through unanimously.

Parliament passes Tobacco Control Bill

Yesterday, as expected, the joint sitting of the Parliament passed the Tobacco Control Bill. Support for the Bill was almost unanimous. 61 of the 65 MPs present and voting endorsed the Bill, whereas only 4 of them rejected it.

I was in the minority.

Tobacco control is a good idea. But the Bill that we just passed is not.

The main principle in the Bill does not make sense: that people are permitted to consume tobacco, but that the sale of tobacco products is illegal. And that the sale of tobacco is illegal, but that tobacco consumers are permitted to import tobacco products.

The penalties in the Bill are draconian: selling tobacco will get you a misdemeanor (one to three years in jail); and smuggling will land you a felony of the fourth degree (three to five years of mandatory jail sentence). But that will not deter the black market. So either our jails will crowd. Or the law will be ignored. Obviously neither is good for us.

Tobacco control is a good idea. But the Bill that we just passed is not.

I hope I am wrong. I hope that the wisdom of my colleagues, the majority, will prevail. And that we will be able to control, reduce and eventually eradicate tobacco consumption.

Tobacco control

Today is world no tobacco day. And, not coincidentally, the Parliament, in a joint sitting, discussed the Tobacco Control Bill. The bill had already been debated in both the Houses last year – today’s discussions were to iron out the differences between the two Houses.

Parliament will probably pass the Tobacco Control Bill tomorrow. And I am concerned.

I’m concerned that we will pass a law that the government will not be able to enforce: a law that criminalizes the sale of cigarettes, but permits smoking, even in designated public spaces.

The proposed law imposes hefty penalties on people who sell tobacco and tobacco products – “punishable with misdemeanor”. And it imposes heftier penalties for those who smuggle tobacco – “punishable with a minimum sentence of felony of fourth degree”. But still, rest assured, a black market for cigarettes and, more so, for the ubiquitous khaini with thrive.

I repeat: I support the Government’s initiatives to develop tobacco control legislation. But, the proposed laws must be realistic and enforceable. And the Tobacco Control Bill is neither.

Thanking His Majesty

Earlier today, His Majesty the King was received in a traditional chipdrel procession to the inaugural ceremony of the fifth session of the Parliament.

My statement, expressing the opposition party’s gratitude to His Majesty, is available here.

Public business

Members of the National Assembly met last week to consider points submitted by the local governments and MNAs for inclusion in the Parliament’s 5th session.

The so-called “pre-agenda” meeting is an important conduit for issues of national importance to receive the National Assembly’s attention. We must take the issues seriously as they are an important part of our responsibilities. Article 10.2 of the Constitution requires that:

Parliament shall ensure that the Government safeguards the interests of the nation and fulfils the aspirations of the people through public review of policies and issues, Bills and other legislations, and scrutiny of State functions.

During the meeting, the opposition party proposed four issues to be included in the forthcoming session. They are:

  • Review of the recently approved Economic Development Policy;
  • Review of the government’s proposed reform measures for the construction sector;
  • Review of McKinsey, especially to consider how and why they were recruited, and the work that they are doing.
  • Review of the Punatsangchhu hydropower project and especially to consider why work that can be done by nationals are being awarded to foreign contractors.

The meeting decided against including these points in the agenda, arguing that the MPs would require a lot more time to study the issues carefully.

Since the opposition party feels that these issues are both important and urgent, we have decided not to wait for future sessions. Instead, the opposition party will file motions to discuss these issues during the Parliament’s fifth session itself.

The opposition party also appealed to the Honourable Speaker to permit live TV broadcast of the entire proceedings. The speaker reiterated that live TV broadcast would be allowed for all important sittings, but not for the entire session.

Update on fifth session

The National Assembly’s draft agenda for the fifth session of the Parliament was distributed yesterday. The Assembly will discuss the Water Bill, Financial Services Bill, Disaster Management Bill, and the Annual Budget 2010-2011.

The joint sitting of the Parliament will meet to discuss and endorse the Tobacco Control Bill, RMA (Ammendment) Bill, Standards Bill, and Service Conditions Bill for Constitutional Offices. In addition, the prime minister will report on the State of the Nation.

Please keep sharing your comments on these bills. And, don’t forget to check the National Assembly’s website periodically to see if new bills have been uploaded.

Parliament’s fifth session

The National Assembly has announced that the fifth session of the Parliament will begin on 28th May. That’s in about three weeks.

But, I still don’t know what will be discussed. And I still haven’t received the bills, if any, that will be introduced in the fifth session. So I’m at a loss about how to prepare for the Parliament’s imminent session.

It appears that the government has recently submitted four bills to the National Assembly. They are the Childcare and Protection Bill; the Child Adoption Bill; Water Bill; and the Financial Services Bill. The first three are on the National Assembly’s website.

I’m assuming that these bills will be introduced in the National Assembly’s fifth session. So please send me your comments.

Excavating dirt

Dirty business

Two weeks ago, I accidentally telephoned Passang Dorji, the chief reporter at The Journalist. I’d meant to call someone else. But somehow, I dialed Passang’s number instead. So we made use of the unforeseen opportunity to catch up.

I asked how he was doing. And how their new company, The Journalist, was faring. He replied that the times were difficult; and that they weren’t making enough money; but that, with support from friends and relatives, they were pulling through.

Passang also confided in me. He told me that they were working on a scoop – a story about members of parliament and ministers buying excavators; and about them leasing the equipment to the Punatshangchu Hydropower Authority.

He asked me for my opinion. I told him that our laws forbid members of parliament from engaging in commercial activities. And I told him that, as far as I knew, no law prevented family members, including spouses, of parliamentarians from doing business. But I encouraged him to work on his “scoop”, especially to investigate for political corruption and conflicts of interest in the Punatshangchu case.

Then I told him that it might interest him to know that my wife also owns two excavators; that both of them were bought on loan; that one of them was working for a Bhutanese contractor involved in the Punatshangchu project; and that the other was lying idle.

I suggested that he should talk to my wife. I advised him that he might want to ask to see the business income tax returns that she would soon have to file.  And I informed him that my wife and daughter were accompanying me to my constituency in a few days.

Passang Dorji didn’t contact me. Nor did he contact my wife. And this is what The Journalist had written:

The opposition leader, Tshering Tobgay, also confessed to having two excavators in this wife’s name and that one was already deployed at the PHPA site. He could not be contacted for further details. He was in Haa and was unreachable through cell phone.

Yes, the excavators are in my wife’s name. And I cannot deny that they belong to our family. But to insinuate that I had tried to avoid detection; that I was made to confess; that my wife was just a front; and that I was actually doing the work is irresponsible.

So I telephoned Passang Dorji again. He confirmed that he didn’t know about my wife’s excavators before I volunteered that information. He claimed that he didn’t write the article. And he admitted that the part about the opposition leader could be misleading.

I’m not making excuses. I’m just setting the record straight.

My wife’s company is called GT Hiring. She owns two excavators, each worth about 47 lakhs, that she bought in September 209.  She owes the Bhutan National Bank about 90 lakhs. One machine works for Ringdol Construction, a local contractor. And the other is idle.

I encourage The Journalist to meet my wife. She will convince them that GT Hiring is her business; that she’s not fronting; and that her husband is forbidden from interfering in her company’s matters. But that said, it does not mean that I bear no accountability. I will accept full responsibility for my wife’s business, if what she does is illegal. Or if it interferes, in anyway, with my work as a parliamentarian and the opposition leader.

The Journalist promised to investigate the excavator stories in detail. I encourage them to do so. We must not allow MPs to use their influence to get into business. We must take conflicts of interest seriously. And we must not allow political corruption to breed.

Adverse opinions

Should civil servants be allowed to express adverse opinions about the Government? 93% of those that took the the last poll answered with a resounding “Yes!”

Now our polls are not scientific, and their results may not necessarily represent popular opinion. Still, and particularly on this issue, legislators, the Government and the RCSC would do well to reflect on the results.

The Constitution grants every Bhutanese citizen with the fundamental right to “…freedom of speech, opinion and expression.” And yet, the Civil Service Bill, which the National Assembly passed last year, requires civil servants to “Refrain from publically expressing adverse opinion against the Royal Government.”

The Civil Service Bill will be discussed in the National Council during its next session, sometime in May this year. So if you feel strongly about this issue and if you want to protect the “freedom of speech, opinion ad expression” of civil servants, talk about it to senior civil servants. And tell them to discuss the matter with the Royal Civil Service Commission.

But, more importantly, talk to your representatives in the National Council. And tell the how you feel. Telephone them. Write to them. Meet them.

On my part, I will request the Human Rights Committee to review if the Civil Service Bill undermines the fundamental rights of civil servants.

Civil liberties

Yesterday’s workshop on human rights awareness confirmed what most of us already suspect: that we don’t have serious human rights violations, but that, occasionally, human rights do get inadvertently sidelined.

Dasho Damcho Dorji, who is the Chairman of the National Assembly’s Human Rights Committee, explained that instances of human rights violations were isolated and that they were: “not intentional” and resulted from either “ambiguity in laws” or “over enthusiasm by young officials.”

But, intentional or not, the Human Rights Committee has decided to investigate all complaints they receive. They will also review legislation and government policies to ensure that our citizens are guaranteed basic human rights, guarantees that are enshrined in the Constitution as “Fundamental Rights”.

One fundamental right is that: A Bhutanese citizen shall have the right to freedom of speech, opinion and expression.

Yet, the Civil Service Bill that the National Assembly passed last year states that civil servants shall: Refrain from publically expressing adverse opinion against the Royal Government.

The Constitution guarantees the freedom of speech, opinion and expression, and yet a law is passed that would undermine that freedom for the more than 20,000 civil servants.

So I agree with the Human Rights Committee’s decision to review legislation to prevent “ambiguity in laws”. The review could also stop any intentional violation of human rights.

Our poll asks if civil servants should be allowed to express adverse opinions about the Government.