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LETTER | Fixed-Term Parliament Act should prioritise confidence votes

LETTER | Project Stability and Accountability for Malaysia (Projek Sama) would like to clarify that the proposed Fixed-Term Parliament Act (FTPA) necessitates amendments to the Dewan Rakyat Standing Orders to prioritise confidence and no-confidence motions in parliamentary agenda on all occasions.

However, an FTPA does not include a separate reform for a motion of confidence to be tabled for every new prime minister.

We take note of former Dewan Rakyat speaker Azhar Azizan Harun's general support for FTPA in his interview with the news portal Free Malaysia Today and thank him for bringing to the public attention the motions of confidence and no-confidence in the FTPA debate.

We also note his view that the other reform of having a “confirmatory vote of confidence” (CVC) in every new PM - sometimes known as an investiture vote - is unconstitutional, a point we will respond to below.

Projek SAMA holds that the FTPA must entail amendments to the Dewan Rakyat Standing Orders to streamline and enhance the procedures for motions of confidence and no-confidence and prioritise these motions.

In this respect, the Bersih had in 2022 commissioned parliamentary expert Maha Balakrishnan to produce two reports entitled “Unlocking the Powers of the Dewan Rakyat” and “Parliament in Government Formation”, which can inform the public discussion.

Amendments to the Standing Orders are necessary because one of the two exceptions that allow the prime minister to seek royal consent for early dissolution is the loss of confidence.

Hence, loss of confidence needs to be clearly defined and motions of confidence and no confidence must be prioritised. This would eliminate the shadowy practice of collecting and counting SDs.

The flaw of the current provisions in the Standing Orders was well illustrated in the detailed explanation by Azhar in his then capacity as the Dewan Rakyat speaker to the then Gua Musang MP Tengku Razaleigh Hamzah on why the latter’s motion of no-confidence against the then prime minister Muhyiddin Yassin could not be debated and voted upon.

Published on Oct 15, 2020, Azhar’s explanation boils down to one point, the government’s business takes precedence over any other motions including motions of confidence and no-confidence by private members (opposition MPs and government backbenchers).

In a nutshell, unless the government is willing to give way, a motion of no-confidence practically can never get to be debated. The power for parliamentarians to unseat the sitting government in that sense is illusory because it cannot be realised.

Azhar Harun wrote at length to explain that the speaker had no discretionary power to decide otherwise. Regrettably, the Standing Orders committee, always chaired by the speaker, never amended the Standing Orders to assign real power to the Dewan Rakyat to dismiss the government, since Azhar was the speaker till now.

The FTPA can fix this flaw by prioritising motions of confidence and no-confidence, for all occasions, not limited to the appointment of a new PM.

Meanwhile, Projek Sama respectfully disagrees with Azhar’s assertion that a confidence vote in the PM after his appointment by the Agong, is unconstitutional.

This was done by Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim on Dec 19, 2022, although it was not strictly a conventional motion of confidence because of its lack of a division vote and the loaded preamble.

Before Anwar, both Abdullah Ahmad Badawi and Hussein Onn had a motion of confidence in themselves passed, respectively on Nov 3, 2003, and on Jan 27, 1976.

None of these three motions had the intent or effect of questioning the discretionary power of the Agong to pick a prime minister who in his judgement can command the confidence of the majority of members of Dewan Rakyat.

Why should the same act become unconstitutional when it becomes a standard operating procedure (SOP)?

While the proposed FTPA would facilitate the tabling of a motion of confidence or no confidence at any time to ascertain the majority of a PM, CVC is a specific mechanism to affirm the legitimacy of a newly appointed PM as politics may change by the day or even the hour.

Between the time the Agong makes his judgement in picking the PM and the time Parliament first convenes, anything may have changed. CVC serves no harm to any institution that the PM’s majority is officially confirmed in the Dewan Rakyat. Instead, CVC will strengthen both constitutional monarchy and parliamentary democracy.

While related to FTPA, the CVC is a different topic. At this stage, we welcome more debates on the merits and demerits of FTPA itself.

We call upon the cabinet to issue a green paper on FTPA to check misinformation, as per the wise counsel of Upko honorary president Wilfred Madius Tangau.

The views expressed here are those of the author/contributor and do not necessarily represent the views of Malaysiakini.