Parliament expected to approve changes which will neutralise President’s oversight powers

Parliament expected to approve changes which will neutralise President’s oversight powers
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Clarification: Publichouse.sg has received a clarification, on 28 April 2017, from the Ministry of Communications and Information (MCI) following the publication of the article (below) on 26 April 2017. The MCI said, referring to Publichouse.sg, “In writing the article, you had referred to the Standing Orders Committee’s report, which was released on 25 April 2017. We would like to clarify that a Standing Order is a set of rules approved by the House to regulate its proceedings, and that it is purely procedural.”

“All amendments to the constitution relating to the Elected Presidency were already debated and passed by Parliament in November last year and are now in force,” the MCI said. 

“You had erroneously referred to the report’s points relating to the Elected President’s powers as new proposals that were to be approved in Parliament on 8 May 2017. This is factually inaccurate.”

“No new law or constitutional change is being introduced through the Standing Order Committee’s report.”

Publichouse.sg apologises for the error.

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If Parliament gets its way on 8 May, as it most surely will, the powers of the Elected President (EP) to check on the government will be further curtailed.

You might have not noticed it as it was reported under a rather nondescript headline, “Panel of MPs recommends changes to House rules”, but the curb on the Elected President’s oversight powers on the government is now underway.

And how this is being done is through an unelected body with 8 appointed members called the Council of Presidential Advisers (CPA).

The government had appointed a Constitutional Commission last year to review the EP scheme to, among other things, provide for a Reserved Election and to enhance the role of the CPA.

In November, the government issued a White Paper on the Commission’s recommendations, accepting some while rejecting others.

Among the Commission’s recommendations which were accepted by the government was the requirement for the President to seek the advice of the CPA on all matters relating to Singapore’s reserves and key public service appointments.

Additionally, Parliament’s ability to override the President’s veto in matters relating to the reserves and public service appointments will also be enhanced, as follows:

Currently, Parliament may override the President’s decision in certain circumstances:

(a) the President’s veto of Supply Bills, Supplementary Supply Bills or Final Supply Bills.

(b) the President’s veto of key appointments to the public service and Fifth Schedule entities.

The changes will give Parliament the power to override the President’s veto on all matters relating to Singapore’s reserves, if the President goes against the advice of the CPA.

The mechanism for Parliament to override the President’s veto is as follows:

  1. If a simple majority of the CPA agrees with President’s veto: Parliament cannot override President’s veto.
  2. If a simple majority of CPA disagrees with President’s veto: Parliament can override President’s veto with a two-thirds majority.

In short, the CPA – an unelected body – will have sway over the President’s decision and can, by simply disagreeing with the President’s veto decision, trigger a parliamentary vote where the President’s decision can be overruled.

This will, effectively and potentially, neutralise the President’s oversight ability.

The power of the CPA to have such influence over the Elected President has been questioned by opposition MPs in Parliament and the public at large.

“As noted by the Commission, the CPA’s role is only relevant when the President disagrees with the government, effectively serving as a check against the President’s ability to, in turn, check the government’s decisions,” noted Benedict Chan on the Singapore Public Law website.

“As it stands, the CPA wields a substantial amount of influence, sufficient to render the President’s decision ineffective.”

The Elected Presidency, which was created to be a check on the government, is itself now being subjected to checks – by an unelected 6-member panel of “wise men”, most of whom are, directly or indirectly, appointed by the Prime Minister.

Consensusg.com

As this article in Consensus SG points out, under the current system, “the Prime Minister has direct control over 2 members of the CPA, and at least indirect control over 2 others.”

Under the proposed changes, the CPA will be expanded to an 8-member council.

Consensus SG also observes that “the People’s Action Party currently holds 93% of the elected seats in Parliament, far more than the two-thirds majority needed to amend the Constitution, or override the President’s powers.”

“When you combine these two set of facts with the power to override the veto, it is not difficult to see the problem: as long as the CPA disapproves of the President’s use of his/her veto, Parliament can sidestep the President’s powers,” the article says.

How then does this accord with the fundamental purpose of the Elected Presidency to be a check on the government of the day?

The CPA was originally created as an advisory body made up of members with deep knowledge in areas which would help the President in making decisions, nothing more.

It has, however, mutated into a body endowed with significant powers not only over the President but indeed with the capability to trigger a parliamentary debate which could lead to the President’s decision or veto being overturned.

“[The] Government is not merely strengthening the Council’s advisory capacity, but is changing the very nature of the Council beyond its advisory function,” the Workers’ Party said in its position paper in November in response to the revised changes.

The party warned that a third power centre is being created by empowering the CPA with such influence.

“In attempting to create another check, namely the strengthened Council, on the original check, namely the Elected Presidency, the Government’s approach will create a third key for safeguarding the reserves,” the WP said. “When the President disagrees with the Government, the strengthened Council will be empowered to settle the decision on the side of either party. This makes the Council another alternative centre of power.

“This approach risks politicizing the office of the Presidency further, by placing the Elected President in a situation where he will be caught in a three-way faceoff in making crucial custodial decisions. This approach also risks producing complicated three-way situations that could end in gridlock and the erosion of the legitimacy of the elected Government.

“An unelected Council should not have the potential to create such outcomes.”

Mr Chan says: “Finally, it is of note that the CPA remains a small body. To vary the consequential support for a parliamentary override based on the differing decision of perhaps only one CPA member… may result in more fractious discussions within the CPA, and between the CPA and the President. Indeed, one should question if the Commission’s recommendations accord an unelected CPA member a disproportionate amount of influence.”

Parliament is expected to approve of the changes in May’s sitting.