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Weak parliamentary oversight of budget-making

July 01, 2013

THE three-week long strenuous exercise has concluded with the passage of the federal and provincial budgets, with the exception of Sindh.

However, visible improvement in financial management, both at the centre and at the provincial level, looks unlikely because of the lack of parliamentary oversight of the public purse.

Using the budget season to democratise economic decision-making by initiating public discussion over different paths to achieve efficiency and equity appears to be a distant dream in a country at war with itself.

For an effective parliamentary oversight of inflow/outflow of public finances, the members need to be well conversant with the issue, and also stay vigilant. Sadly, members of the treasury and opposition benches make do with speeches full of rhetoric, instead of making their participation meaningful by doing their homework and taking positions that can be substantiated with facts.

“They do not even bother to say it differently. If you are in opposition, you will call all budgets ‘anti-people’. Meanwhile, occupants of treasury benches defend all components of a budget tooth and nail, and call it ‘historic’ and ‘in the best interest of the country’s future,’ irrespective of its contents,” a senior journalist covering parliament for many years told Dawn.

In 13 sittings of the National Assembly and six sessions of the Senate since the budget was tabled on June 12, the participation of members was low, except in sessions that warranted a show of political strength. In some sittings, attendance was less than 84 (one-fourth of the total strength of the National Assembly) — a minimum requirement for quorum. In most budget sessions, the discussion drifted to non-budget issues for the longest period.

The economy is facing tough challenges from the fiscal side and the external sector. The fiscal deficit is exerting pressure on foreign exchange reserves, and is keeping the currency in a tailspin. GDP growth is sluggish, and the private investor is reluctant to commit resources for expanding the industrial base.

Though inflation is in check and in single digits, static wages and rising unemployment have increased the economic hardships of the common citizens, who have been pushed to the brink by power outages in the sweltering summer.

“The level of participation and the quality of the budgetary debate can be treated as an indication of the parliamentarians’ commitment to serve the people. The fact is that a majority of MNAs cannot fare well if assessed on this criteria,” commented a depressed business leader who was very optimistic when the PML-N government assumed power after elections.

The Senate’s standing committee on finance, after detailed discussions on technicalities, did suggest a number of amendments (after clearance from the Senate), and sent them to the National Assembly. Unlike the NA, the Senate is dominated by the opposition, which suggested a reduction of the GST rate from 17 to 16 per cent.

“The Senate can make as many suggestions as it wants. Its recommendations are not binding on the National Assembly,” a senior member of the government’s economic team privately told Dawn from Islamabad.

However, some other civil society members did not quite agree with the view, as they felt that parliamentarians do not have the support system necessary to equip them with ready research material so they could effectively project their vision in parliament. They believe that in a country hopping from crisis to crisis, it would be unrealistic to compare the conduct of members of parliament with that of their equals in the developed world.

“Democracy is still in its infancy in this country. Yes, the quality of economic discussion in parliament leaves much to be desired, but my observation is that the graph of the performance is upward-looking. This parliament sat longer, for up to eight hours in budget sessions, as compared to four hours on average earlier,” Free and Fair Election Network (Fafen) project director Daud Malik told Dawn over phone from Islamabad.

Malik sent in the information gathered by his organisation in tabulated form that is reproduced here.

“The law empowers parliamentarians to influence the direction and policy choices made by the government for economic management, but the will to exercise their right cannot be enforced,” commented a parliamentary expert.

The lawmakers need to be more focused and better prepared to exercise their right to influence the direction and composition of the budget, he argued.

“Let’s be fair to the government that assumed power in a challenging environment. The PML-N did not keep its pre-election promises to the corporate sector. But I am ready to give it the benefit of doubt, as it did not get enough time to prepare the budget in peace,” commented Kamran Y. Mirza, CEO of the Pakistan Business Council.

“But as far as the quality of the budget debate in parliament goes, it is safe to say that it was weak. The opposition seems to have surrendered. Maybe they did not want to give an impression of exerting pressure on the just sworn-in government,” he added.

The details of a voluminous budget document cannot be discussed threadbare in a house of hundreds of people. Therefore, special standing committees, with party representation, are tasked to discuss their respective subjects and allocations and present their position papers in the parliament for voting after the final round of discussions.

“Rules were amended some time back to accommodate the role of standing committees. This year, however, because of the paucity of time, special committees could not be constituted. We would suggest that from next year, more time should be given to special committees to work on budget proposals for making budget sessions meaningful,” said Fafen’s Daud Malik.

“During the current budget session, the National Assembly is holding longer sittings. The last session had lasted 26 hours and 14 minutes. The current budget session completed 75 hours on June 27.”

“Last year, out of 26 hours and 14 minutes, parliamentarians spent 15 hours and nine minutes on discussing the budget. This year, the debate on the budget has consumed 35 hours. More members — 132 — have taken part in the budget debate, against 37 in the previous year,” added Malik.