Finally, more efficient debates
So at last, the annual budget and sectoral debates will be changed. The Standing Orders Committee approved a far-reaching amendment to the debates as members finally recognised that the annual talk fest was of little value to the Parliament.
This year's Budget Debate, scheduled for the first time to be completed before the customary April 1 start of the new financial year, will be confined to the prime minister, finance minister, opposition leader and another representative of the Opposition, likely to be its spokesman on finance.
The new format removes the participation of two other members - one from either side - even though there's no guarantee that the quality of the debate will be improved.
One innovation which pleases The Gavel is the creation of a backbenchers' debate. This debate will take place by September to allow backbenchers an opportunity to make recommendations that would impact the budgetary process.
"It would allow backbenchers to be first presenters and it would be done before there is the Budget call. So, before the minister of finance meets with ministries to ascertain what are the proposals for expenditure and revenues, the MP (members of parliament) would be able to speak to some of the things they want to see," Phillip Paulwell, the leader of government business, said.
Paulwell, who had long promised changes to the Sectoral Debate, acknowledged that people have tuned out of the debate, as it is essentially the case of parliamentarians talking to themselves.
But making the changes to the Standing Orders is no guarantee that we won't have a continuation of the situation where MPs turn up to state how many funerals they have attended and chickens they have distributed. The Gavel submits that the Budget Debate must set the tone for quality contributions. The government participants in that debate must seek, as far as possible, to use it to enunciate the general direction the country will head this year and how the budget will support that vision. This means that the propensity to be like Lot's wife has to be abandoned.
Similarly, the Opposition ought to use the debate to put forward worthwhile suggestions about how to get the country on a firm pathway to accomplish that which is set out in Vision 2030. Yes, we expect a thorough critique of government policies and programmes, but there is no place for narrow political partisanship.
A similar point has to be made of the format which is to see ministers of government and their opposition counterparts speaking in the repositioned Sectoral Debate. Every effort should be made to ensure that the Sectoral Debate is conducted along the lines of a theme. For example, consideration should be given to have a debate on the theme 'enabling economic growth through rural development'. Such a theme would allow all members to structure their presentation in such a way that the debate, when done, would have left ideas that can be taken on board for implementation. If this is not going to be the case, the ministers should just be required to table ministry papers on the plans for the fiscal year, and save us from the boring speeches.
The Gavel is mindful that, for some MPs, the Sectoral Debate represents one of the few times they speak in the Parliament. And since all politics is local, they choose to use the debate to signal to their constituents that they are in Parliament fighting on their behalf. This new backbenchers' debate will be a test of their ability to not simply talk about projects, but to suggest ways in which they can be financed.
Another aspect of the Budget Debate process we hope will take on a new approach is the matter of funding. Too often, the business of raising money, which includes the unpopular method of taxation, has been left to the minister of finance.
The enhanced fiscal rule requires that the Budget is presented ahead of the new financial year. This means that the Estimates of Expenditure for the new financial year, along with the estimates of revenue, the fiscal policy paper and the debt-management strategy have to be tabled in time for passage before the new fiscal year. The new framework will be a test of both political maturity as well as the ability of MPs to abandon the inclination to be parochial.
The Gavel is not going to be fooled into thinking the changes, though approved by the Standing Orders Committee, will be welcomed by all 63 MPs with open arms. The fact is that all MPs use the debate as a platform from which to speak about the 'good work' they do in their constituencies and to call attention to problems with which they are faced. After all, though they are legislators, they have been sent to Parliament by their various constituents to make representations on their behalf. Backbenchers should therefore ensure that this format works; they will have to be focused, sharp and pointed, and not allow this to become another talk fest.