When a Speaker speaks the unspeakable
Sircar's personal undertaking proves that he was doubtful about the legality of his own action
Speaker Jamiruddin Sircar held a press conference on Thursday last to condemn this paper's lack of ethics and shoddy journalism, and claimed that our purpose was nothing more than to denigrate him. We are writing this comment not so much because he criticised us or questioned our motive but because, while doing so, he revealed a sense of value and a pattern of thinking that we feel strongly that we should challenge. We have been further motivated by the rejoinder he sent against Mr Hafizuddin's comments published yesterday, in which he "concluded that Parliament Secretariat Act, 1994, under which he acted in good faith is supreme and no regulation and rule can override the act of parliament." This position seems to be directly contrary to his undertaking that he would be prepared to return the money if competent judicial body decides so. When constitutional amendments can be set aside by the Supreme Court then why should the Parliament Secretariat Act, 1994 be supreme?
Our views are not directed at Mr Sircar as an individual but at the holder of the high office of the Speaker, whose views, values and actions necessarily reflect the dignity of the parliament and by implication the practice of democracy itself.
In trying to prove our mal-intention he questioned how we could give his news more prominence than that of the army chief. His comment implies that the army chief is a far more important person than the Speaker of the Jatiya Sangsad. Leaving aside the official protocol where Speaker is only second to the President in order of precedence, how can a Speaker of a sovereign parliament even think that his position is below that of the army chief? Such mentality is insulting to the high office of the Speaker and the institution and values he represents. By stating that army chief should get more prominence than the Speaker, he has undermined the importance of the office. As to the news value of our story, an injudicious action of the guardian of the parliament, verging on using official position for personal gain, is definitely worthy of national attention.
Mr Sircar claimed at the press conference that our news was intended to undermine him and that office of the Speaker. We want to categorically state that it is not we, but he himself who has undermined the high office that he holds by handling public funds the way he did. Simply put, he used the financial authority vested in him to run the parliament for his personal benefit.
The Speaker claimed that section 18 of Parliament Secretariat Act, 1994 has made him the final authority for the approval of all expenditure of allocated money for the parliament secretariat. So the first question is, was the money he took to pay his medical bill allocated in the budget of the parliament? No. Was there any miscellaneous head of expenses linked to medical bills from which the Speaker could have taken the money? No. We repeat, the Act on which the Speaker bases his action, talks about the 'allocated money'. The medical bill was not allocated.
Our Speaker of the House appears to be totally oblivious of the distinction between being the highest financial authority of a public institution to ensure its smooth functioning and using that power to gain personal benefit from it. The power that the Act gives him is to ensure strict adherence to the existing financial rules and not to implement them for one's own self in "good faith." In financial dealings there is no question of "good faith". Either it is sanctioned or it is not. If not, then there are special measures to be taken by authorities other than the beneficiary.
We have decided to highlight this point simply because we think what the Speaker has done has set an extremely dangerous precedent which can lead to disastrous financial consequences. What amazes us is that the Speaker appears to ignore one of the fundamental principles of financial discipline, namely the notion of 'conflict of interest'. A chief, who has the right to decide about the financial or other benefits of all his subordinate staff, cannot decide the same thing about himself simply because the decision maker and the beneficiary must not be the same person. For, if they are, it will be impossible to prevent chiefs of institutions from running amok in financial matters.
The Speaker cites two previous examples of hefty medical bills, one of former speaker Mr Humayun Rashid Chowdhury of Tk 35,71,192 and the other of former chief whip Mr Abul Hasnat Abdullah for Tk 5,75,000. These examples do not hold true for Mr Sircar as in both these cases the head of the government, the prime minister, had approved them. In his case the PM had sent the file back without signing. This clearly indicates that in spite of the two precedents Prime Minister Khaleda Zia did not deem it appropriate to sign. She left it to be decided in accordance with the 1994 Act. Speaker ignored the fact that Khaleda Zia did not sign though he had mentioned the two instances in his letter to her.
To make things less improper and give his action a veneer of respectability, the Speaker wrote an undertaking in which he pledged that he would 'return the money if proved unlawful by any competent authority'. This is the most absurd act for any chief of an organisation. He said in his undertaking "I have decided to pay the medical bill in good faith and on my honest understanding of the law." Imagine if the Chief Election Commissioner or the Chief of Public Service Commission (to mention two statutory bodies) or heads of government and semi government bodies (with independent financial powers sanctioned by law), the Vice-Chancellors of Universities, the MDs of banks, CEOs of companies, Executive Directors of NGOs all started writing benefits for themselves in "good faith and honest understanding of the law". What would then happen to financial discipline?
What Mr Jamiruddin Sircar appears not to understand is that the Parliament Secretariat Act, 1994 (on which his decision was based) empowers him to run the parliament secretariat for the benefit of all, except himself. One cannot use the power vested by the law on oneself, for his or her own benefit. This is more so for the position he holds. Parliament is the highest place for making law. Speaker is the guardian of that place. He must, therefore, epitomise the parliament and the whole legislative process, and not represent attempts to benefit personally either from ambiguities of law or its laboured interpretation.
In a recent speech to a meeting of Global Organisation of Parliamentarians against Corruption (GOPAC) held in Dhaka, Mr Sircar said, "Even the World Bank President Wolfowitz had to resign for corruption." The former World Bank chief did not break any law per se yet he was forced to resign because he used his office to extend undue favour, not himself, but to a friend. What should happen to someone who uses the powers of his office to extend undue favour to his own self?
The minimum he can do, to restore the dignity of his office and that of his person, is to return the fund taken by him.