Ronald Thwaites | Standing Finance let-down
A few weeks ago, I wrote about the disappointment the Throne Speech was. The let-down continued last week in the proceedings of the Standing Finance Committee.
Ask yourself if, as a result of the two days-and-a-night sprinted scrutiny of the more than $700-billion Budget, the observant public has better understanding, let alone satisfaction, as to how their taxes will be spent during the upcoming financial year.
The mechanism of Budget review is seriously flawed. This year, we were a little more fortunate than usual. There was an elapse of two weeks between the tabling of the Estimates and the committee sittings. Usually, you are given only a few days to read, digest and critique close to a thousand pages of accounting data and complex narrative that is going to seriously affect every one of the constituents each of us represents.
Also, the format of presentation is obtuse, difficult to grasp, and easy to hide things.
Ministers, many of whom would have had very little to do with the detailed fashioning of their ministry's budget, come before those members of the House of Representatives who are interested, to defend the expenditure. They are accompanied by a chorus line of officials, including those from government agencies and public bodies, who say nothing but are really the persons who are going to make most of the decisions, whatever is written in the huge 'yellow book'.
ABSOLUTE GOV'T POWER
The only check on dangerous absolute government power over the people's resources comes from the questioning of other members, almost entirely from the Opposition. This is so because, when you are on the government side, it is considered near treachery to question what your party is proposing. Backbenchers must stifle their critical faculties for the occasion.
There is no other opportunity in the whole annual parliamentary process when the nation can inquire into the composite process of state expenditure.
To make things more embarrassing, especially this year, some ministers are not familiar with their portfolios and substitute bluster for informed response. When the interrogation starts to bite, they are aided and abetted by the obstructionists on their side who try to shut down the questioner.
It is the duty of every member of parliament, particularly the Opposition, to question every line of the Budget, to ensure that the money really needs to be spent for the purposes requested. To fail to do so is a dereliction of duty, and to try to block this scrutiny is arrogant and anti-democratic.
It is the role of the chairman of the committee, who is the Speaker of the House, alone to determine the relevance of a particular line of enquiry.
SHORTCUTTING THE PROCESS
There is a practice of short-cutting the committee process by promising to provide information at some future date, which is seldom, if ever, met or to arrange private meetings for detail to be passed. This is the public's business and the purpose of all the officials being there is to provide all or at least most of the information asked.
But everyone is in a hurry to finish, and the Government of the day must be allowed to do what it pleases. They speak of partnership, but really listen only to themselves and, of course, the people who we owe money.
The idea of zero budgeting is scoffed at and the result is the unquestioned spending and, very probably, the waste of billions of dollars of ordinary Jamaicans' food money, the full extent of which we don't even know until Mr Shaw is finished with us in two weeks' time.
The Standing Finance Committee sells the public short every year. The way we do it contributes to the growing distrust of governments.
We can do better.
- Ronald Thwaites is member of parliament for Central Kingston and opposition spokesman on education and training. Email feedback to firstname.lastname@example.org.