Why MPs need good parliamentary researchers

(Also published on Malaysiakini)

To the casual observer, parliamentary proceedings in Malaysia would probably seem like a waste of time. The salient images from parliament are probably that of MPs from either side shouting and berating each other, the speaker throwing ‘misbehaving’ MPs out of the dewan and MPs tearing pieces of paper in shows of defiance.

But behind the scenes, outside the spotlight of live coverage and debate, there’s actually a lot which an MP can and should do in parliament. But for us to be more effective in our job as legislators, we need capable, experienced and diligent parliamentary researchers.

At the very basic level, we need our researchers to help us prepare our parliamentary questions and our parliamentary speeches. A good researcher would be able to use the important issues of the day to raise salient points via parliamentary questions (both oral and written) and during the debate period. For the 10 oral and 5 written parliamentary questions, an MP must find a good balance between asking questions on national issues, to extract timely information that would otherwise not be attended to and to follow up on constituency-related issues. To help an MP achieve this balance, a really good researcher must not only know about important issues at the national level but also be aware of constituency specific concerns. For the parliamentary debates, a researcher must be able to process legislative bills and quickly draw out the most important points for debate. An MP with an experienced researcher would be able to use whatever is being asked and said in parliament as press statements and publicity points outside parliament. In an ideal world, to paraphrase my college, Tony Pua, an MP would wake up to find his or her press statement and parliamentary speech already prepared.

Apart from the actual parliamentary proceedings, an MP receives many important documents during a sitting. For example, during the recently concluded year-end budget session, I received 100 Annual Reports, 7 Parliamentary Accounts Committee (PAC) Reports, 21 Parliamentary Acts, 5 Auditor General Reports (Federal Government), 26 Auditor General Reports (State Governments), Parliamentary Replies for oral questions and Hansard Reports for 28 days of sitting and 5 budget related reports (See picture below). Still to come, answers to over 1000 written parliamentary replies.

Photo: Documents received during the 2014 Budget Sitting (October to Nov 2014)

An MP would not have the time to go through all these documents. Here’s where the parliamentary researcher comes in. He would need to sift through this information to filter what is important for the individual MP to highlight. The role of the researcher takes on greater importance since many of the documents given to the MP are not available on line for public consumption. In addition, many reporters won’t have the time nor the interest to go through these documents. Hence, it is often left to MPs to highlight the salient issues which are to be found in these various reports and parliamentary replies. And to a large extent, MPs rely on their researchers or assistants to do the initial work of going through and filtering these reports.

For example, three of the annual reports which I have and will refer to are the Port Klang Authority’s 2013 Annual Report to find out its losses as a result of the PKFZ scandal, the PTPTN 2013 Annual Report to analyse the growth in overall student loans and to ascertain its sustainability and the Sustainable Energy Development Authority’s (SEDA) 2013 Annual Report to check the progress of Renewal Energy in the country. One PAC report which I paid particularly close attention to was the report on the awarding of contracts to build 4 small scale incinerators in Pangkor, Langkawi, Cameron Highlands and Tioman, since I am helping residents protest against the building of the 1,000 ton per day incinerator in Taman Beringin, Kepong.

With a capable and experienced parliamentary researcher, I would be much more effective in being able to summarize and highlight important issues that may otherwise escape media attention.

When parliament is not in session, the work of an MP continues. There are new issues and policy questions to respond to which requires research, presentations to be prepared for public engagement, press statement to be issued on national and local issues, new reports and analysis to digest and filter and so on.

The value of an experienced and effective parliamentary researcher can be significant. The researcher can act as the chief strategist and be an extension of an MP. He or she can prioritize the areas in which an MP should focus on and provide the necessary material to back up the MP. The researcher is not just a valuable asset for an individual MP but also to the MP’s office, his or her constituency and even the party.

So the next time you think of asking whether MPs deserve a pay raise or not, perhaps the more relevant question you should ask is whether MPs deserve to have good parliamentary researchers. A really good parliamentary researcher is worth his or her weight in gold.