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Ronald Thwaites | Accountable to whom?

Published:Wednesday | May 11, 2016 | 5:00 AM
Ronald Thwaites

The yearly Budget is the proposal by Government to spend the money which we agree, through the consent of our political representatives, to let the State take out of our pockets or mortgage our futures by borrowing in our name.

The decisions of what to spend and how best to expend are among the most serious that every member of parliament must take. The choices ought to be fully interrogated and not rushed through on the basis of some false confidence that a minister and the civil servants have a right to determine who gets what.

But that is largely what is happening now.

The Standing Finance Committee of Parliament is an imperfect mechanism that allows for all MPs to question the Estimates of Expenditure, and where ministers of government have the obligation of explaining how public policies will be financed.

Apart from committees which may or may not examine areas of public expenditure and whose recommendations are largely ignored by Cabinets anyway, the Standing Finance Committee is the single occasion in the parliamentary year when a government's overall expenditure is likely to be reviewed.

 

MAKE IT WORK

 

Elements of the Westminster system are clearly not our best fit, but it is the one we have now and those elected must try to make it work. After two decades of being close to governments, I am convinced that we are spending large sums of taxpayers' money in less-than-effective ways. A whole heap is being wasted!

But most ministers and officials don't like to be questioned about the figures in their estimates, and the chorus line of backbenchers on either political side behave as if it is a personal attack or a politically motivated assault when insistent queries are asked about the efficacy and detail of a ministry's budget.

Years ago, I used to be chided by PNP colleagues for asking too many questions of ministers of the same party. As a minister, I welcomed every question on the education budget as an effort to justify to the country what Government could, and could not, do in this vital area of state activity. It was disappointing when so few queries were asked and the pages in the huge yellow book were approved often without being read or understood by members anxious to go home or for some to go downstairs to drink rum.

So last Wednesday's barrage of invective, when this year's estimates of nearly $90 billion for education were up for scrutiny, was not at all surprising.

There was not a single challenge that any question asked was irrelevant to Minister Reid's opening statement or the published figures.

Derrick Smith's snide personal remarks did no justice to the office of leader of the House and were properly resisted by P. Charles in the chair. Then there were the usual bromides from Samuda and Chuck, anxious to assert that this Budget is really a PNP budget and intent to shield an imprecise-sounding minister from scrutiny.

Then, predictably, came the Warmington eruption. This man has no change to change as far as his parliamentary behaviour is concerned. 'Tracing' is his first language. Speaker Pearnel Charles Sr cannot manage him. Nor can his party's leadership, which simpers as he fulminates, cowardly aware that if anyone tries to restrain him, the exhaust pipe of his vitriol will turn on them, too.

 

JUSTIFY ADDITIONAL SPENDING

 

The 2016-2017 estimates would have been information from late last year and certainly bear the imprint of the precious administration. But this Government took time to reformulate them and this Cabinet approved them. So ministers would have had time to thoroughly familiarise themselves and must be able to justify every additional expenditure and to explain all reductions.

Platitudes about 'changed ways' of accounting for millions of expenses, florid promises to 'find the money' to do this or that, are vague and unacceptable as a basis for approving billions of expenditure.

On a last note of realism. The public should know that, apart from allocations for debt and salaries, the approved estimates don't mean that a ministry will get the money to spend or even be able to spend it if received. The constraints of timely, available revenue and the perils of procurement requirements can make a liar of any minister who makes promises. This was what Peter Phillips was warning about on Wednesday and which Audley Shaw said he wants to have resolved.

But the House was in no mood to take on these issues. Will we ever be?

It was time to put the pages to the vote and move on. So on Thursday, we will be told how the money to pay for all we voted for will be raised.

Is this annual ritual the best way to carry out the principal task of governance?

- Ronald Thwaites is MP for Kingston Central and opposition spokesman on education. Email feedback to columns@gleanerjm.com.