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EDITORIAL: In its detailed order of last December Islamabad High Court (IHC) had clearly set the limits of the role of unelected advisers and special assistants to the Prime Minister (SAPMs) in the decision-making process. But the government had failed to fully grasp it. Lahore High Court (LHC) Chief Justice Qasim Khan last Wednesday sought an affidavit from the federal government through the Cabinet Division Secretary to confirm the participation of the advisers and SAPMs in the cabinet meetings to the extent of the sessions relevant to their portfolios. Expressing dissatisfaction with the reply filed by a law officer on behalf of the Principal Secretary to the PM, the honourable justice noted that the reply suggested the advisers and SAPMs remained present during the entire meetings of the cabinet whereas they were supposed to attend sessions relevant to their respective areas of responsibility. The practice, he warned, could have dire consequences.

It all started when Prime Minister Imran Khan appointed his then finance adviser, Dr Abdul Hafeez Sheikh, as chairman of the Cabinet Committee on Privatisation and two other advisers, Razak Dawood and Dr Ishrat Hussain, members of the committee. The move was challenged in IHC, which ruled that “on special requests, [such] persons can be called in by the committee but no person can be chairman or a member of the committee of the cabinet, who is not a member of the cabinet.” Leaving no ambiguity behind, the court went on to observe that “the special assistant to the Prime Minister is not a minister of state or a federal minister, but only enjoys the status for the purposes of perks and privileges. He cannot address the Parliament, nor has any executive authority vested in him. He also is not a member of the cabinet and cannot take part in the proceedings of the same.” Apparently, it was to comply with the court ruling that the PM went to great lengths to have Hafeez Shaikh get elected as a member of the upper house, albeit unsuccessfully. But, as the LHC order shows, no heed has been paid to the need of keeping unelected persons from participating in cabinet meetings.

There is no denying that selected on the basis of specialized knowledge and experience such people can make valuable contributions to government policies and plans. There are important reasons, however, why they should not participate in cabinet meetings. One is that, unlike elected cabinet members, advisers and SAMPs are not required to give up foreign citizenship, take oath of allegiance to the state, or declare assets. Another is that decision-making is the prerogative of the peoples’ elected representatives who are answerable to their voters. No surprise then that there have been noticeable tensions between the elected and unelected members of Imran Khan’s government. The LHC’s intervention should help resolve the issue once and for all.

Copyright Business Recorder, 2021