Why parliamentary transparency mattersParliamentary record-keeping in our case has been somewhat superficial.
“Politics of to-day were the history of to-morrow, and Hansard was history’s ear, already listening”. These lines from the History of Hansard—a historical account of the well-known record of the British parliament’s proceedings—provide a glimpse of the importance of publishing parliamentary records. This point is worth considering at a time when Parliament remains at the centre of Nepal’s political crisis and controversies, from the then prime minister KP Sharma Oli’s sudden prorogation to Prime Minister Sher Bahadur Deuba’s abrupt ending of the house. As a result, these events have consistently kept Parliament in the public limelight, although not in the way as it should organically have been in a healthy democracy. In other words, rather than being a forum for negotiating contesting policies, political visions or social ideas, Parliament has received attention largely for the party-led political drama and for being a ready tool for the political advancement of its protagonists.
Resultantly, what has been mostly missing is systematic attention to the business of the house. Reporters and opinion makers have been pointing out the absurdities of the parliamentary proceedings, questionable bills and dubious decisions concerning the house. However, there is a serious absence of discussion in the public sphere on what the parliament, and its processes, means from the point of view of public policy and governance, and how its activities might be communicated to the larger public. This situation has been exacerbated in the absence of an accessible and transparent flow of information generated by the legislature.
By contrast, there has been an appreciable interest in the transparency of the workings of the executive arms of the government, as seen in the Right to Information (RTI) movement and its achievements. As a result, we have institutions like the RTI Commission, and all ministries and their departments have information officers responsible for answering public queries. However, this trend has regularly ignored the large body of knowledge produced in Parliament, not to mention the massive archive of parliamentary information that has been produced as part of Nepal’s legislative history. Unfortunately, most of this knowledge remains inaccessible and, worse, ignored.
Parliament generates a variety of information. One set of parliamentary data is associated with the life-cycle of new bills and acts that includes everything from drafts of bills, information about their sponsors, debates that occur in response, further deliberations in parliamentary committees, revised drafts, vote counts, including details of those in support and opposition when the voting is not in secret, and the final copy of the legislation. The other set of information is related to making the executive accountable and airing public concerns, including debates and discussions during its sessions.
This large volume of data is of public interest and importance and must be made readily available to the public. One way of ensuring greater public engagement with the legislature is the publication of parliamentary proceedings, which has a long history in the global history of democracy. The most well-known example of this is the British tradition of Hansard. Since 1909, the British Parliament has been officially publishing detailed transcripts of all parliamentary proceedings and other matters of importance and interests to the public, such as records of votes on bills, attendance of the members of parliament (MPs) and debates. In Britain, the Hansard Department publishes the latest proceedings of both the houses, House of Commons and House of Lords, on the parliament’s website within three hours of the discussions.
Countries like India and Sri Lanka have well-kept parliamentary records available to anyone on the internet. The official parliamentary websites of both the countries have such details as the MPs’ attendance, records of the business of the house including acts and bills, transcript of the debates, question-answer sessions and papers presented, among other details, in addition to the live web broadcast of the sessions.
Where does Nepal stand on this?
Parliamentary record-keeping in our case has been somewhat superficial. For instance, the federal Parliament’s website, which is the principal outlet for its information dissemination, is a combination of boilerplate biographies of the members, updated schedules of Parliament, a list of bills and soft copies of its drafts, names of committees and summaries of their activities, etc. While enterprising reporters or those with digital skills can mine much useful information from the two websites—one each for the two houses—they have significant drawbacks. Most crucially, the website for Lower House doesn’t include some of the most elementary data one might expect from legislatures: Verbatim transcripts of past sessions, attendance records of MPs (only available for Upper House sessions) or the voting records on bills.
While the YouTube channel of the House of Representatives has been uploading videos of its sessions for the past three years, no transcription of the sessions—edited or raw—is available on its website. This omission includes not just the records of debates of the recent post-2017 Parliament but past archives from Nepal’s parliamentary history. In fact, it is not at all clear whether the text of past legislative debates and sessions are available anywhere, although we know that the National Archives holds detailed descriptions of all the Constituent Assembly sessions. Officials from the federal Parliament’s secretariat claim that efforts to publish some of the aforementioned information are ongoing. Yet, much ultimately remains at the discretion of the House and the will of our elected representatives.
This lack of availability and access to basic parliamentary information is a problem of government transparency, which now inflicts the provincial legislatures as well. Nepal should invest in making these records publicly and digitally accessible because a full account of the parliamentary sessions will aid informed decision making on the part of the general public (voters) by enabling the examination of the performance of their representatives. More practically—since we can’t expect all voters to study raw parliamentary data to make up their minds—such data would allow researchers, journalists and activists to produce reports and studies that could help the voters decide. This could also help the MPs and government bodies with their own parliamentary research, something that is common in democracies around the world. Given the growing emphasis in some quarters about establishing government-run think tanks, it only makes sense for the state to invest in better record-keeping and access to legislative records.
In the same spirit of transparency, we should also start considering procedural innovations like introducing and facilitating pre-legislative public consultations. MPs are, after all, not just answerable to the party that they represent but the voters who got them there in the first place, and it is their responsibility to inform the citizens of ongoing developments in the parliament.
Historically speaking, parliaments have sometimes been known for restricting reporting of their activities, sometimes under the guise of protecting MPs freedom of speech, and sometimes to ostensibly avoid misreporting. Such limiting arguments make little sense in modern democracies with constitutional guarantees of freedom of information. At a time when misinformation and disinformation are rife, perhaps it is time we paid as much attention to our elected representatives’ words as to their deeds.