ALBERT BRANDFORD: Playing politics with Estimates
THERE COMES A TIME when Opposition politicians of whatever stripe must stop playing politics with the people’s business.
Some might see a contradiction since “playing politics” is what politicians do.
However, the expression also has a pejorative connotation in that politicians might not always be putting the best interests of the people they claim to represent first, but merely seek to score cheap points or secure some dubious advantage over their opponents.
It is expected, and accepted that the political platform afforded them at mass meetings and assemblies is the ideal place for politicians to “play politics”.
But once elected to the House of Assembly, the room for “playing politics” narrows and the politician now has a duty and responsibility to ensure that the people’s business becomes paramount.
Each year, as is mandated by law, a Government is required to lay the Estimates of Revenue and Expenditure, which is the Schedule to the Appropriation Bill, in the House.
It is one of the highlights of the parliamentary calendar and constitutes a Government’s “real” budget in the same way that a housewife in anticipation of her partner’s pay cheque, which may vary from week to week, would ‘estimate’ how much money/revenue she can expect and what she would want to spend, apart from recurrent expenses such as utilities.
The Estimates debate, therefore, minus the theatre of the “Budget”, that is, the Financial Statement and Budgetary Proposals, deserves to be seen as the high point of the parliamentary year.
After all, it affords an opportunity to discuss a Government’s spending and analyse its proposals and expectations for revenue.
One would think, especially at a time when the country is facing so many pressing economic, financial and social problems, that MPs would jump at the chance to ensure they cover as broad a spectrum of the responsible Government agencies as possible during the five-day debate.
Instead, what we have seen is a creeping phenomenon of debating time for that aspect being reduced by largely grandstanding Second Reading speeches. It means that the time when the House goes into Committee of Supply to consider the Heads under which funds are allocated for the agencies is severely constricted and we would be lucky if any more than three or four are scrutinised.
This year, the tomfoolery probably reached its nadir when the first three days were taken up by time-wasting speeches and then compounded by an early suspension around 5 p.m. on Wednesday, thus leaving only Thursday and Friday for the Heads within the guillotine coming down Friday around 6 p.m. ending the debate.
If memory serves, the issue was raised last year by Prime Minister Freundel Stuart and again on Wednesday lamenting that he had failed to get the Opposition’s agreement to limit Second Reading speeches thereby allowing more time to examine a greater number of Heads.
“I have always considered, and I think the Minister of Finance referred to it when he was piloting the Bill, that it would be eminently more useful if we were in a position to agree on both sides of the House to try to do as many of the Heads in the Estimates as possible,” he said.
“Last year, the Government tried to get the Opposition to agree to that procedure. We did not succeed and once again this year, on Wednesday afternoon, we are now completing Second Reading speeches and will have only tomorrow and Friday to look at all the Heads of Expenditure contained in the Estimates.
“It was not always so. During the days before Independence and immediately after Independence, the practice was for the Minister of Finance to do a very short introduction, for the Leader of the Opposition or the Shadow Minister of Finance, to do a short speech and then all the issues of concern to members of the House were dealt with in Committee of Supply.
“And I hope that we can get back to that because this whole exercise is about holding the Government to account, making the Government account for its expenditure and making the Government justify the programmes to which that expenditure relates.
“But we are only going to get back there, of course, if there is a little more trust, a little more understanding than at present exists in this House.”
We have to do better than this as a people. If Stuart is able to constraint Government MPs on Second Reading speeches is it not possible that the Leader of the Opposition can persuade that fractious grouping in the people’s interest?
Or we just “playing politics”?
Albert Brandford is an independent political correspondent. Email: [email protected]