Day before yesterday, when members of the National Assembly met to discuss the preliminary agenda for the Assembly’s next session, the opposition party proposed that a bill to amend the Tobacco Control Act be considered.

It has not yet been one year since the Tobacco Control Act was adopted, but according to Section 193 of the National Assembly Act:

When a Bill has been passed or has been rejected during a session in any year, no Bill of the same substance may be introduced in the Assembly in that year except by leave of the Assembly.

Regretfully, the members of the National Assembly did not grant permission to introduce a bill to amend the Tobacco Control Act.

Meanwhile, indignation spreads: four people have been detained for handling 9 packets of chewing tobacco!

And a woman has been arrested for possessing 5 sticks of cigarettes. This clip is from Bhutan Today:

Walk out

I’ve walked out of the National Assembly hall on many occasions. Mostly, they have been to visit the men’s room. And occasionally, to retrieve documents or to consult experts on issues being discussed in the hall.

But I’ve never walked out in protest.

So I was surprised when, six months ago, Kuensel took note when I left my seat:

The opposition leader left the hall before the end of the budget report discussions, which hurried to a close, once the chapter on the rationalisation of taxes was done with.

And I was surprised when, ten days ago, Kuensel again drew attention to my temporary departure from the hall:

After the debate, when the house geared to proceed with the bill amendment maintaining the previous clause, the opposition leader was seen to leave the house, followed by the opposition member Damchoe [sic] Dorji.

Yes, I did leave the hall on both occasions. But, no, they were not in protest – I was not being disrespectful or disobedient. And it was wrong for Kuensel to imply that I was.

I expect to walk out of the National Assembly hall on many more occasions. They’ll mostly be to visit the men’s room, to retrieve documents or to consult experts. But in the unlikely event that I ever walk out in protest, I’ll do so deliberately – I’ll make it obvious. That, after all, would be the whole idea.

Live TV

The sixth session of the Parliament has concluded. And again, during this session too, the National Assembly did not allow its proceedings to be broadcast on live TV.

But this time, the Assembly allowed the Question Hour discussions to be carried on live TV.  That’s a slight improvement. And I welcome it. And hope that, from the next session on, BBS will once again be allowed to cover the National Assembly’s entire proceedings on live TV.

On a related note, BBS’s own efforts at covering the Parliament’s discussions seem to have regressed. Till the last session, BBS would, after their evening news, organize live panel discussions on important issues that were being debated in the Parliament. This time I didn’t see any panel discussions on topical issues emerging from the Parliament. They seem to have stopped.

This is unfortunate. The live panel discussions were well attended, especially by viewers throughout the country. And the discussions were widely considered to be among BBS’s more popular segments.

So as we conclude the sixth session, I offer a quiet prayer: that henceforth the National Assembly allows its entire proceedings to be broadcast on live TV; and that BBS revives their live panel discussions.

Relief for relief fund?

For the people

During Question Hour today, I requested the Hon’ble Home Minister to report on the status of the Relief Fund. In particular, I asked him if he, as the minister in charge of disaster management, would propose legislation to establish the Relief Fund.

According to Article 14 Section 12 of the Constitution:

Parliament shall establish a relief fund and the Druk Gyalpo shall have the prerogative to use this fund for urgent and unforeseen humanitarian relief.

Bhutan’s first Parliament has already met five times. And the sixth session is currently on. Yet, and in spite of the opposition party’s repeated appeals, the Parliament has not established the Relief Fund. In fact, the Parliament has done no work to establish the Relief Fund. So the first elected Parliament risks defaulting on this important responsibility.

On the other hand, a spate of natural disasters – floods, earthquakes, storms and fires – have struck various parts of the country during the last two years, and have caused unprecedented hardship to countless people. In almost every case, His Majesty the King has personally provided immediate relief, and overseen the rehabilitation and recovery process. And, during the opening of the Parliament’s sixth session, His Majesty spoke of His pledge to victims of the Chamkhar fire that:

… even though our nation may be a small, landlocked country without the great wealth of others, in their moment of great suffering, the King and government would do everything to find the resources needed to alleviate their pain and restore happiness to their lives.

Obviously, there’s a real need to establish the Relief Fund urgently.

So I was happy to hear the home minister report that his ministry and the Ministry of Finance have jointly drafted a proposal to establish a relief fund, and that the proposal would soon be discussed in the Cabinet.

And I was even more happy to hear the Hon’ble Speaker decide that the home minister will submit a motion in the National Assembly to introduce the proposal to establish the Relief Fund.

Question Hour questions

Responding to the agenda for the National Assembly’s sixth session, one reader, “sonam_t”, asked if there were any plans to discuss a “Right to Information Act”. “Truth”, another reader, asked if when Parliament would “… introduce Landlord Tenant act, which actually protects tenants.”

Both the comments are important. And, since both of them will not be discussed during the sixth session, I might raise them during Question Hour.

The Question Hour, which takes place every Tuesday and Friday, is an important mechanism in the National Assembly by which members can question every aspect of government administration and policy.

So if you have issues that you’d like to see raised during question hour, please post them here. Or, if you prefer, you can email them to me directly.

Sixth session

The 6th session of the Parliament is scheduled to begin on the 19th of November. During this session, which will go on till the 10th of December, the National Assembly will consider the following bills:

  1. Child Care and Protection Bill
  2. Penal Code (Amendment) Bill
  3. Anticorruption (Amendment) Bill
  4. Civil and Criminal Procedure (Amendment) Bill
  5. Sales Tax, Customs and Excise (Amendment) Bill
  6. Public Finance (Amendment) Bill
  7. Land Act (Amendment) Bill
  8. Election (Amendment) Bill

The government will submit reports on actions taken on the following resolutions of the National Assembly:

  1. Pay revision
  2. Zhaptog lemi
  3. Constituency development grant
  4. National minimum wage rage

The Assembly will ratify the SAARC Agreement on Trade in Services.

The Women and Children Committee of the National Assembly will submit their report.

And the National Assembly will consider a petition from the public of Paro to formulate stringent rules for drayangs and discotheques, and to review their licensing procedures.

I would like to encourage discussions on this blog on as many of these agenda items as possible. But the discussion papers for the 6th Session are yet to be distributed. So I do not know what will be discussed on most of these issues.

I’ll post information on these agenda items as and when they become available. In the meantime, please share your overall views on the items that will be discussed during the 6th Session.

Taking people for a ride

Bhutan Today has quoted MP Ugyen Wangdi, the National Assembly’s legislative committee chairman, of accusing the opposition leader of trying to “hoodwink the people of Bhutan” and taking “the people of Bhutan for a ride”. He was referring to my continuing protests over the government’s unlawful tax increases.

Obviously, Dasho Ugyen is entitled to his views. And, yes, I’ll defend his right to express them. But I’m surprised at his views. After all, he’s the very MP who tabled the motion in Parliament to amend the provisions of the Sales Tax, Customs and Excise Act 2000 that he considered to be inconsistent with the Constitution.

Here’s his Notice of Motion:

Amendment of the Sales Tax, Customs and Excise Act of the Kingdom of Bhutan, 2000.

As per Part I, Chapter 3, Section 4.2 of the Sales Tax, Customs and Excise Act of the Kingdom which was passed by the then National Assembly of Bhutan, the Royal Government is given the power to approve the fixation of the rates of Sales Tax and any revision thereof, and the range of commodities and services under the Sales Tax Schedule. On the other hand, Article 14, (1) of the Constitution states that taxes, fees and other forms of levies shall not be imposed or altered except by law. As such, any change in sales tax and customs duty needs to be done in concurrence with the Parliament.

In accordance with Article 1(10) of the Constitution, the undersigned would like to propose to the House that the relevant agency shall be directed to make necessary amendments to the Sales Tax, Customs an Excise Act of the Kingdom of Bhutan, 2000 and submit it to the National Assembly for amendment.

In his motion, Dasho Ugyen refers to Article 14, Section 1 of the Constitution and concludes that, “As such, any change in sales tax and customs duty needs to be done in concurrence with the Parliament.” And that’s exactly what I’ve been saying: only Parliament can raise taxes, not the government.

Dasho Ugyen also refers to Article 1, Section 10: “All laws in force in the territory of Bhutan at the time of adopting this Constitution shall continue until altered, repealed or amended by Parliament. However, the provisions of any law, whether made before or after the coming into force of this Constitution, which are inconsistent with this Constitution, shall be null and void.” Again, exactly what I’ve been saying: the provisions of the Sales Tax, Customs and Excise Act 2000 that gave the government the authority to raise taxes are now “null and void”.

So I really don’t understand why Dasho Ugyen is so upset that I’m continuing to challenge the tax increases imposed by the government.

Perhaps it’s because I did not, as he put it, raise my voice at all on this issue in the House when he tabled the motion. He’s correct: I did not take the floor then. But I did not speak for a very simple reason: I supported the motion. In fact, every member of the National Assembly supported the motion!

State of the Nation

Reporting to Parliament

The projected order of business for the Fifth Session of the First Parliament for Bhutan had, among many others, the following two entries:

Thursday, July 1:

Presentation of the Annual Report on the State of the Nation, including Legislative Plans and the Annual Plans and Priorities of the Government, to the Druk Gyalpo and to the Joint Sitting of the Parliament.

Monday, July 12:

Deliberation on the presentation of the Annual Report on the State of the Nation including Legislative Plans and the Annual Plans and Priorities of the Government by the Prime Minister

As we all know, the prime minister delivered his State of the Nation address, as scheduled, on 1st July. But for reasons still unknown, we didn’t get to discuss the prime minister’s State of the Nation report. We didn’t discuss it, as scheduled, on 12th July. Nor did we discuss it at another time.

It wasn’t like that last year. The State of the Nation report was discussed, albeit briefly, in the National Assembly immediately after the prime minister delivered it to the joint sitting of Parliament.

I hope it won’t be like that next year.

The State of the Nation address is important. It is the prime minister’s report to the Druk Gyalpo, the Parliament and the nation at large, on the social, economic, financial and political condition of our nation. It gives the prime minister the opportunity to highlight the government’s successes over the previous year. And it allows him to outline the government’s legislative plans, policy agenda and national priorities for the next year.

Naturally, the prime minister would expect us, parliamentarians, to consider his annual report carefully. And to spend as much time as needed discussing it to offer valuable feedback.

But more importantly, our people would expect us, their representatives, to consider and discuss the prime minister’s State of the Nation report thoroughly so that they can rest assured that the Parliament is doing its job.

Photo credit: National Assembly

Taxing explanation

The prime minister devoted a substantial part of his State of the Nation address to justify the government’s recent tax hikes. And to discredit the “vocal few” who challenged the government’s ill-conceived tax policies. The prime minister:

Much has been said of the fiscal incentives and tax increases in certain areas. It has been alleged that the government is being insensitive to the difficulties that these will cause to our poor and ordinary businesspeople and that they will suffer the most. However, one should not allow oneself to be influenced without seeing the full picture. One needs to be also mindful that such opinions could be planted to influence public opinion in order to protect the interest of those who are in positions of power and influence. As this is a serious matter, I would like to explain it in some detail.

And so he explained, in great detail, that we enjoy some of the lowest tax rates in the world; that we must replace external development assistance with internal revenue; that the policies are pro-poor; that the tax hikes are not aimed at generating government revenue; that taxes were being increased for the public good in spite of the political risks; that doing what is popular would be unpatriotic; that the opposition to tax increases benefits the rich and influential; that ministers did not take a pay raise; that increasing taxes will prevent widening economic disparities and social ills; that taxes lead to environment friendly development; that the tax measures would develop a tax paying culture; and, finally, that paying taxes is about democracy.

Indeed, we may need to increase taxes. So taxes, per se, is not what I’m concerned about. Not at this time, at least.

What I am concerned about – and what the public outcry is generally about – is that the government did not follow the law, particularly the Constitution, when it recently revised the tax structure.

The debate is not about if taxes should be revised. It’s about how taxes should be revised.

In order to deflect the debate, the prime minister used the State of the Nation address to explain, at great length, why taxes had to be increased.

But that won’t do. I’ve already reported the matter in the National Assembly. And if the government refuses to review its decision, I may be compelled to report it to the Supreme Court.

Working with NC

The prime minister, in his State of the Nation address, on differences between the National Council and National Assembly:

Already several issues have arisen between the National Council and this House which inevitably raised the question of seeking the guidance of the Supreme Court even before it was established. Now with its establishment, the wisdom of the judiciary too will be tested if indeed constitutional issues are brought before it.

My hope is that, through the ongoing dialogue between the two houses, these issues will be resolved without judicial intervention.

Very good.

Now prove that there’s some genuine commitment to resolve the many outstanding issues that the government and the National Assembly have with the National Council. Initiate that “ongoing dialogue”. And if differences can’t be resolved, seek the judiciary’s assistance. Major disagreements that need immediate attention are:

  1. Constituency Development Grant. The government has completely ignored the National Council’s repeated assertions that the CDG is unconstitutional.
  2. Question Time: Ministers have once again stopped attending the National Council’s Question Time.
  3. Budget appropriation. The National Council’s role in approving money and financial bills, especially in passing the budget, is still unresolved.
  4. NC resolutions. The government has not responded to any of the National Council’s resolutions. And during the current session, the National Council has made strong observations on the  economic development and FDI policies.