Why Rotten MPs Justify Broadcasting All Parliament Sittings Live
De facto Minister for Parliamentary Affairs Nazri Aziz predicted that the 12th Parliament would be "one hell of a Parliament". He has not been proven wrong. The first question time of the 12th Parliament was an uproarious affair, with MPs from both sides yelling at and insulting one another, and the Prime Minister himself forced to ask the Speaker to reconsider his decisions. This does not bode well then for the future of live Parliament telecasts; Information Minister Ahmad Shabery Cheek says the government will have to reconsider possible plans in that area. His reasons, however, are far less than convincing. If anything, they strengthen the case for transparency.
Parliament of course suffers when legislators insult one another and use unParliamentary language. Karpal Singh and Bung Mokhtar Radin calling each other names is hardly the best use of taxpayer money; neither is broadcasting their insults live to the entire country. We have better things to do with our time, and better ways to spend our taxes.
Certainly, I don't want to pay to watch my elected officials jeer each other. I want to see how my leaders tackle pressing national issues. I want them to question government officials about how my taxes are being spent, rather than seeing my taxes go to pointless namecalling.
As far as things go, however, I do not regret the emphasis on procedural issues that dominated the first question time of the 12th Parliament. Parliamentary procedure lays the groundwork for a debate about the things that matter. If Parliamentarians refuse to adhere to the rules governing debate, if they want to toss the Standing Orders and other Parliamentary rules out the window, then there is no point in watching any Parliamentary debate. The rules of order are what prevent the debate from degenerating into mindless namecalling in the first place.
I am not sure if Azmin Ali, the PKR Whip, chose the right time to bring up the issue of unfair allocation of questions. Certainly it does seem out of place for the Leader of the Opposition to initially be denied any questions during question time. Maybe Azmin chose the wrong time to bring these things up, but these are valid points, and they deserve to be made. Question time is one of the most important aspects of the Parliamentary system, and the Prime Minister rightly acknowledged this when he asked the Speaker to permit a supplementary question to him.
Regardless, the government is now grumbling and making noises about not extending live broadcasts of Parliamentary proceedings as they had earlier hinted at. I was never optimistic about the prospects for expanding these live telecasts; government officials were always careful about inserting caveats into their promises when it came to broadcasts of Parliamentary affairs. Indeed, the current situation is more or less what I expected to happen.
I do not think, though, that the government has a good case for denying Malaysians the right to watch our elected representatives in action. Yes, our MPs are behaving like goons. That's bad. Nobody wants to see that, and nobody wants to waste money on that. Foreign Minister Rais Yatim says that "The public may have a negative perception of their leaders after seeing what happened". That's the government's case for not letting us see our elected officials do their jobs, and it simply cannot stand.
The reason is simple: we have to see public servants do their jobs. Sunshine is the best disinfectant, one prominent American jurist has said, and it is so here. Of course MPs will swear at each other on live television — it's what they've done for years. Why then broadcast these meaningless and spiteful affairs? Because it holds these men and women accountable. They work for us; we have a right to know how they carry out their duties.
If Pakatan Rakyat cannot use its 81 MPs (minus Ibrahim Ali, who is apparently considered an independent MP despite running on a PAS ticket) to encourage constructive debate in the house, if Barisan Nasional cannot use its Parliamentary majority to promote good governance, the Malaysian people have every right to know. We could rely on the newspapers, blogs and other second-hand reports, or we could see first hand how our Parliamentarians behave.
One thing that makes me quite sad is simply that American Congressmen are more accountable to me as a foreign student in the US than my own MPs are. Here I can watch them on television, either live or delayed, at any hour of the day. Anyone can walk into the US Congress to observe proceedings. I have done so myself. In Malaysia, I need to write to Parliament for permission. Until yesterday, I could not observe anything live on television other than the budget speech. Even now I am limited to half an hour of the weekly question time. What incentive do my MPs have to work for me, to not waste my time, when they know nobody is watching?
The Malaysian people have a right to know how their elected representatives are spending their tax monies. We have a right to see how they carry out their duties. If they are misbehaving, that is all the more reason to let us see them. In the short run, we will waste money carrying nonsense over the airwaves. In the long run, we will be able to cast our ballots knowing exactly the kind of conduct we are voting for.
Does Parliamentary misconduct justify discontinuing live transmissions of Parliamentary proceedings? Far from it. It makes the case for broadcasting all sittings of Parliament live to the entire country, so everyone can know how our MPs are wasting the salaries we pay them to call each other names and blather on about irrelevant matters. If we want to stop this behaviour, the right thing to do is to ensure our MPs are always being watched — to broadcast them live to the entire nation whenever Parliament is in session.