Short and sweet

Assembly

The 8th Session of the Parliament concluded last Friday. It was easily our shortest session: we started on 4 January and ended, barely 12 working days later, on 20 January.

But the 8th session was historic. Her Majesty the Queen graced both the opening and closing ceremonies; and the members of Parliament got to offer the Oath of Allegiance to the Throne.

Plus, the joint sitting of the Parliament amended the Sales Tax, Customs and Excise Act and the Public Finance Act to align them in accordance with the Supreme Court’s interpretation of the Constitution which had been rendered in the first constitutional case (Incidentally, the amendments had actually been proposed by the ruling party in the 6th session to give the government sweeping powers to introduce, increase and revise all taxes); the Parliament amended the Tobacco Control Act, responding to public outcry that the law was flawed and draconian; the National Council passed the first-ever private bill, the National Flag Bill, introduced by NC MP from Wangduephodrang; and the Speaker invoked special powers granted to him in the Legislative Procedure Rules to block the Parliament from voting on the Election (Amendment) Bill that mainly sought to permit state funding for political parties.

The 8th session was also quite productive. In addition to what I’ve already mentioned, the National Assembly passed five bills (Consumer Protection Bill, Druk Gyalpo’s Relief Fund Bill, Education City Bill, Disaster Management Bill and University of Medical Sciences Bill) and ratified one international convention (Ramsar Convention on Wetlands); the National Council passed the University of Medical Sciences Bill, the Parliamentary Entitlement (Amendment) Bill, and ratified the Ramsar Convention; the joint sitting passed the Child Adoption Bill; and both houses endorsed the government’s proposal to increase the salaries of tshogpas, and questioned the government on a range of issues.

The 8th Session was short. But it was productive. A lesson, perhaps, that we should keep our future sessions as tight as possible.

In action or inaction?

The National Council and National Assembly will meet in a joint sitting tomorrow to discuss two important matters: the Tobacco Control (Amendment) Bill, and state funding for political parties.

On the first matter, the Tobacco Control (Amendment) Bill, I’m delighted that the National Council has come through. Their recommendations aim to amend the draconian law to make it sensible and implementable. Naturally, I agree with their recommendations.

The discussions are not going to be easy. They’re going to be difficult. And complicated. If, at the joint sitting, we agree on the National Council’s proposed amendments, the current ban on the sale and purchase of tobacco products will lifted in favour of taxation to reduce tobacco consumption in our country.

If we agree on the National Assembly’s proposed amendments, the current ban on the sale and purchase of tobacco products will continue, but the penalties for breaking the law will be spread according to the quantity of tobacco involved.

But if we do not reach an agreement – that is, if neither proposal, nor one that the joint committee comes up with by tomorrow, is supported by at least two-thirds of the MPs present and voting – the amendment bill will be declared a “dead” bill. And we will be stuck with the current Tobacco Control Act.

Democracy in action. Or democracy inaction. We’ll see tomorrow.

Controling tobacco control

There's hope

The National Assembly has passed the Tobacco Control (Amendment) Bill. 39 MPs voted for the amendment. One MP voted against it. And I abstained.

I believe that the proposed amendments do not adequately address the shortcomings of the Tobacco Control Act. That’s why I didn’t vote for the amendment. But I couldn’t vote against the amendment either, as doing so would amount to supporting the existing Tobacco Control Act. That would be unthinkable. And so I abstained.

Here’s the main difference between the Act and the amendment: while the existing Act condemns all offenders to prison, regardless of the quantity of tobacco involved, the amendment staggers the penalties for illegal possession of tobacco products based on the quantities.

So, for instance, if you’re caught with less than the “permissible quantity” of 200 sticks of cigarettes or 150g of khaini you’ll be let off with a fine, which will be set by the tobacco control board. (Sorry, you won’t get to keep the contraband.)

If you’re caught with more than 200 sticks of cigarettes or 150g of khaini, but less than three times that “permissible quantity”, you’ll be slapped with a misdemeanor. A misdemeanor carries a prison sentence of one to three years. But the sentence is compoundable. So you could pay thrimthue of Nu 36,500 (at today’s wage rates) instead of serving time in jail. But be careful. If you are a civil servant, according to the civil service rules, you’ll lose your job and your benefits if you are found guilt of a misdemeanor.

And if you’re caught with three times the “permissible quantity” – that’s 600 cigarettes or 450g of khaini – you’ll receive a felony of the fourth degree. That means that you’ll be sent to jail for 3 to 5 years. A felony is not compoundable, so you will not be able to pay thrimthue. You will have to serve your jail sentence.

If the amendment sounds better than the current draconian Act, it is. Yet I didn’t I support it. Here’s why:

First, the amendment, like the existing Act, continues to allow people to legally import tobacco. Travelers, and those fortunate to live in bordering towns, can continue to legally import tobacco up to the “permissible quantity”. The way I see it, if we’re going to allow some people to purchase and consume tobacco legally, we should allow other people to do so too.

Second, the amendment, like the existing Act, does not recognize the simple fact that prohibition has never worked and will not work. That’s why a black market quickly (and effectively) established itself in spite of the draconian provisions of the existing Act. That’s why, in the year since the Tobacco Control Act came into effect, many people took their chances despite the stiff sentences in it. Of the many, 84 people got caught. And of them, 39 people have already been sent to jail.

If the amendment goes through, a minority of us will continue to be able to procure and consume tobacco legally. But for the most of us, if we consume tobacco, we will continue to be doing so illegally. That would make us criminals. And because the penalties have now been staggered, expect a bigger black market; expect many more criminals.

There’s no doubt that tobacco consumption goes against our beliefs and our traditions. And there’s absolutely no doubt that tobacco consumption is bad for our health. So we must reduce the amount of tobacco we consume, we must smoke less, and we must chew less khaini.

But I don’t see that happening through the Tobacco Control Act or, for that matter, the proposed amendments. Instead, we should allow the sale of tobacco products. But we should tax the products sufficiently to discourage its indiscriminate consumption. And we should limit the places where tobacco products are sold. We should also set and enforce a sensible minimum age to buy and consume tobacco. And we should make all public places completely tobacco free.

But most importantly, we should educate ourselves about the ills of tobacco consumption. And to educate ourselves meaningfully, all of us – teachers, religious heads, doctors, journalists, businesses, politicians, celebrities, parents, all of us – must work together, hand in hand, to convince ourselves, and then our children, that smoking and chewing khaini may not be worthwhile.

The Tobacco Control (Amendment) Bill is an urgent bill. So it will be discussed in the National Council in the next few days. I remain hopeful that we can correct the excesses of the Tobacco Control Act in a meaningful manner, one that is both logical and implementable.

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.

Original sin

How is it that the media – the press and television – reported that the proposal to increase the salaries of MPs originated in the National Council? The National Council session was broadcast on live TV, yet no one saw them discuss the salary increase. No one saw it, because it hadn’t been discussed in the National Council. In fact, a member of the National Council I met today claimed that the first time he heard about the pay increase was when the media reported that the National Assembly had approved it!

Answering questions

I salute the Cabinet ministers for attending the National Council’s Question Time. The NC’s Chairperson was quoted as declaring:

this session was a remarkable one as three cabinet ministers from the ruling party actually visited the house to answer queries during Question Time of the session. They were labour minister Lyonpo Dorji wangdi; finance minister Lyonpo Wangdi Norbu; and agriculture minister Lyonpo Pema Gyamtsho.

Well done. I congratulate the National Council and the Cabinet for resolving their earlier differences.

Dangerous standoff

So yesterday, it was our agriculture minister’s turn. He too didn’t show up for the National Council’s “Question Time”. And the Council had to adjourn, yet again.

The National Council Act, which we passed just last year, authorizes the Council to: “… summon any person to attend the proceedings of the National Council …” The act also empowers the National Council to “…call the attention of a minister to any matter of urgent public importance” and to “…question the Government during Question Time.”

If our ministers feel that they do not need to report to the National Council, they should explain that to them. It‘s a matter of common decency. And, a matter of the law.

But, if our ministers refuse to justify their absence, the National Council should call on them to explain why they need to attend the Council’s Question Time.

This standoff is unnecessary. And it is dangerous.

Black Friday

Today, Friday, July 3, 2009, will be remembered as a dark day in the history of our democracy for two reasons.  One, the National Assembly started imposing its ban on live TV coverage of its proceedings.

And two, a cabinet minister refused to report to the National Council for “Question Time”. The National Council had directed the home minister to report to them today, in person, to answer questions. The questions had been sent to him in advance. Lyonpo Minjur, however, did not report to the Council and submitted his answers in writing. The refusal of a cabinet minister to report to the Council undermines the mandate of the National Council and the democratic process.

The National Council’s banquet hall


The offices of the Honourable MPs of the National Council were inaugurated yesterday. Their offices are now located on the second floor of the recently built Royal Banquet Hall.

The second floor is actually the attic of the Royal Banquet Hall. But the offices are quite comfortable and the MPs, including the two who have no windows in their offices, are not complaining.

Viewed from the outside the Royal Banquet Hall doesn’t look too bad. I was horrified when the original, historic banquet hall was razed to make way for this new building. And was initially appalled at how ugly the new structure looked while it was being built. Like I was saying, not too bad, but nothing like the quiet and charming original we’ve lost.

By the way, the building was actually constructed as the National Council. At least, it appears that that was the plan and that’s what GOI, the main donor, was told. But that’s not the case, and now the beautiful main hall is used primarily to host banquets. Only the attic is used by the National Council, as offices for their MPs.

And where is the National Council hall? The old conference room adjacent to the banquet hall accommodates this important house of our Parliament. It’s small, congested, uncomfortable, and the Honourable MPs have to undertake difficult maneuvers to enter or leave the Hall when the Council is sitting. Plus there’s hardly any room for visitors. All in all, very, very different from the splendour of the National Assembly Hall.

Naturally this is unacceptable. So there’s already talk about building a completely new structure, one that’ll be more becoming for the important institution that is the National Council.

Such talk should not be acceptable.

About Nu 120 million was spent to build the Royal Banquet Hall. That’s already a lot of money. So rather than spending even more money building a separate National Council – and diverting that money from the people – we should use this building for its intended purpose: as the National Council. The hall is large enough for the National Council, and, with a few improvements, will be as grand as the National Assembly’s.

And where should be host government banquets? In restaurants, naturally. Thimphu already has a few hotels with good banqueting facilities. Many more are already being built. Private entrepreneurs have invested good money building these facilities – it’s time to make better use of them.