Parliament and the Budget
Martin Henry, Contributor
This could be your member of parliament's (MP) finest hour. No, he or she will not have any more godfather money for funeral grants or for back-to-school expenses. In fact, what he/she has been given from the Constituency Development Fund should be taken away as a corrupting influence on governance, mixing up as it does the roles of legislature and public service.
As a gentle reminder or Constitution 101 lesson, you elected your MP to be a representative in the House of Representatives to help "make laws for the peace, order and good government of Jamaica" (Constitution 48 (1)).
At no time is the function of representative in the Parliament more important and critical than at Budget time, which is now. And while we are chronically familiar with belt-tightening austerity budgets (older people should be hearing the soothing voice of the 1970s Michael Manley now), we now face critical crisis challenges with our highest debt burden ever at $1.6 trillion, a stubborn Budget deficit, flat economic growth, International Monetary Fund (IMF) restrictions but escalating expectations of a popular government coming to power offering relief to the poor. In our weak economy, consumer confidence has ridden on the Jamaica Emergency Employment Programme (JEEP) to its highest level in years!
And all this in a global economy fighting off recession.
Several countries around the world in the crunch of the recession have exploded into protest and civil disorder. It would be foolish to think that Jamaica is divinely ordained to be a permanent exception. Leaders must carefully attend to maintaining the "peace and order of the country". Global recession notwithstanding, much of what ails us is as a result of our domestic folly and extended failure to see about "the good government of Jamaica", which is the sacred duty of the Parliament and the executive derived from it.
Ahead of last Thursday's tabling of the Estimates of Expenditure, Minister of Finance Dr Peter Phillips said, "We will see an Estimates of Expenditure which I have tried very hard to allow us to pay down the debt, to keep development programmes going, but is going to require important sacrifices because, in real terms, the amount available is very, very tight. The essential point of the Estimates and the programme," he continued, "must be to get the country out of the debt problem, and so what you will see with those estimates is that the debt-service numbers are higher."
So it follows that some non-debt Budget numbers will be lower, unless Government can substantially increase non-debt revenue, which is another name for taxes, imposing more or collecting more of what has already being imposed. The Estimates of Expenditure have been duly tabled, a good month behind the usual April schedule. Some have made heavy weather of this delay. Those very interesting historical flashbacks to 1962 by The Gleaner let us know that a May Budget is not without precedent.
Same goals 50 years ago
The Throne Speech for that year delivered by the last governor, Sir Kenneth Blackburne, was read on May 8; the Estimates of Revenue and Expenditure followed later. The general election which brought the Alexander Bustamante-led Jamaica Labour Party (JLP) into Government to lead the country into Independence had been held on April 10.
Governor Blackburne said the Budget was a "holding Budget". Interestingly, Sir Kenneth also told the soon-to-be-fully independent country that the Government would be making special efforts to lessen unemployment, stimulate agricultural production, seek methods of arresting the rise in the cost of living, including price controls where advisable, and take steps to ensure that those who derived most benefit from the recent economic boom make a greater contribution to the public revenue than hitherto.
Fifty years later, Governor General Sir Patrick Allen could well have borrowed this script for what could be Jamaica's final 'Throne Speech'.
The Estimates of Revenue side of the Budget is yet to come. We will have to wait until May 24, a two-week gap. The logic of separating them, as they were not in 1962, escapes a simple citizen like me. Then the useless blah-blah of the Budget will follow as a third stage with virtually no influence on the first two, the Estimates of Expenditure and the Estimates of Revenue. Whoever designed that system clearly intended to block and frustrate the legislature, the Parliament, from doing its most important work. No taxation without representation is the cornerstone of parliamentary democracy. I have been advocating changing the system and was hoping it would be done this year.
Grandstanding and debates
In any case, this 50th anniversary of Independence year, in an unprecedented move, the Estimates of Expenditure goes online and is available to all citizens with Internet access. But as The Gleaner notes in its promo of online access through its own Go-Jamaica portal, "It's a voluminous and complex document that is often difficult to acquire and can be daunting to peruse." Citizens, though, have reps in the Parliament who have applied for and who got the job to undertake the working of the Budget.
The executive is frustrating our reps and protecting its own dominance by leaving them little time for studying the Estimates of Expenditure, and then the Estimates of Revenue, and reducing the badly positioned Budget Debate to a horse-trading presentation of oratorically fine speeches by ministers of government and their opposition counterparts. The member for Central Kingston, the Rev Ronald Thwaites, complained bitterly about this from the backbench of both Government and Opposition. He is now in the executive as minister of education.
Parliament was born out of revolution. It's time for a Jamaican revolution to restore the power of the legislature. The revolution could simply begin with a bit of dogged work. The Standing Finance Committee, which is the whole of the House of Representatives, will meet for three days this week, Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday, to dissect the Estimates of Expenditure.
Can we the citizens represented by our MPs dare to hope that narrow sectoral interests can be superseded by a robust national-interest debate? Minister of Water, Land, Environment and Climate Change Robert Pickersgill hurried away, with a senior public servant in tow, after his speech at the opening ceremony of the UWI/SALISES 50/50 conference on 'Globalisation, Climate Change and Rural Resilience', he announced, to push for climate change money in the Budget. That's how it is done, minister by minister, agency by agency, while the broader national interest "gets shafted", to use an apt Phillipsian turn of phrase.
The parliamentary reps, in responding to the Estimates of Expenditure, must press the question, "How is all this going to be paid for?" And drag the Budget Debate forward to where it is useful and drag it out of the hands of the executive and its Opposition shadow where it is useless.
The people understand very clearly what the critical national interest priorities are, and these do not include dethroning the monarchy or enthroning the Caribbean Court of Justice. It is left to be seen if their reps will stand up for these national interests. The people need economic opportunities, not handouts. The people want justice, broadly conceived. The people need safety and security for person and property, and the conditions for the enjoyment of their rights and freedoms so lavishly laid out in a Charter of Rights.
The people need efficient and effective government and public services with the reduction of waste and corruption. The people want a reduction in the appropriation of their resources by the State through taxation, which has reached intolerable levels without corresponding benefits.
There is broad cross-party and national consensus on a reform agenda. The Budget must be aligned to this agenda, and it is the business of the people's rep to vigorously ensure that this is so.
I was pleased, with understandable trepidation born of experience and disappointment, to hear the governor general declaring in the Throne Speech that the Government intends to double legislative output this year. The 32 pieces of legislation projected to be completed, while doubling the annual average of the last several years, is still rather modest. Our lazy Parliament must sit more often and for longer. I personally wish that members could do so in more aesthetically pleasing surroundings of which the nation can be proud and have supporting aides.