PM’s Business History Fails To Impress Opposition

Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, in his long-awaited speech before the National Assembly on the Panamagate issue on Monday, again spoke about the chequered history of his family businesses, arguing that his father had left him enough money to buy properties in London.

Minister Nawaz Sharif,
PM’s business history fails to impress opposition

His 30-minute address to a packed lower house, however, did not impress the opposition, which walked out in unison, instead of responding to the prime minister’s claim that his family had made its businesses profitable, even under adverse circumstances. This dismayed the government no end, as it was expecting the opposition to react to the prime minister’s speech on the floor of the house. Even an offer to constitute a joint parliamentary committee for the reformulation of the terms of reference (ToR) for the proposed judicial commission couldn’t win over opposition parties, who preferred to speak outside parliament rather than inside it. 

The PM presented documentary evidence of taxes worth Rs10 billion, which his family had paid over the past 23 years, and details of the sale of two steel mills; one in the UAE which was sold in 1980 for 33.37 million dirhams, and another in Saudi Arabia, whose sale netted his family $17m in 2005. He said this money was used to buy properties in London, but didn’t touch specifically on the offshore companies said to be owned by his two sons and daughter. “Not even a single penny was transferred abroad for the purchase of these properties,” he announced with aplomb. “My two sons have been living and doing business abroad,” he said. But whether or not it was a deliberate omission, the prime minister didn’t refer to the business concerns of his daughter, Maryam Nawaz, who is the beneficial owner of two offshore companies as per the ICIJ reports. 

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Leader of the Opposition Syed Khursheed Shah, however, saw matters differently. Instead of responding to the seven questions posed by the combined opposition, “the PM’s speech has raised 70 more queries”. In a short response, Mr Shah said, “I don’t want to waste the time of the august house by challenging whatever the prime minister has said, but the issue is that he hasn’t responded to our questions.” During the retelling of his family’s business history, the PM referred to the nationalisation of Sharif family industries in 1972, and the Musharraf-led witch-hunt of the late 1990s. He also took swipes at the PTI leadership. “Ittefaq Foundry had an annual turnover of Rs40.5m when it was nationalised in the early 70s. This was the time when one US dollar was worth four rupees and CSP officers received a monthly salary of Rs500 per month.” Now, he said, the time had come for those who are living in palatial houses and riding in helicopters on a daily basis to explain their sources of income, the prime minister said, an obvious reference to the PTI chairman. 

The prime minister also reminded Mr Khan how he, as Punjab chief minister, had allotted land, free of cost, to certain charity organisations and trusts to set up hospitals, another obvious swipe at Imran Khan. But the opposition’s silent treatment flabbergasted the treasury benches, and even Finance Minister Ishaq Dar sounded as if he felt cheated. From his remarks, it appeared that Mr Dar had assured the prime minister that by submitting evidence of his tax records and offering for the constitution of a joint parliamentary committee, the opposition would be satiated. In his short but impassioned speech, Mr Dar said that the government had been listening to the opposition over the Panamagate throughout, but “I really don’t know what else they want”.

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Requesting the speaker to arrange a meeting between himself and the opposition, the minister said, “let a committee be formed, which can decide the exact nature of the instrument, which the two sides can agree for the investigation. But by staging a walkout, [it seems the] opposition parties want to drag out the issue.” Let the two sides sit together and work on the ToR, and if need be, an ordinance can also be promulgated, he added. Responding to the opposition outside parliament, senior government ministers including Khawaja Mohammad Asif and Pervaiz Rasheed said that besides offering to form a parliamentary committee, the prime minister had also proposed legislation to effectively check the issue of kickbacks, commissions and money laundering for all times to come.