THIS year’s budget session in the National Assembly was a lacklustre affair, especially considering the volatile political atmosphere in which it was conducted. According to a study by the watchdog group Free and Fair Election Network, this was the shortest budget session in many years, spanning a total of 15 sittings, nine of which were for general discussion, with a total duration of 37 hours only (last year’s budget session logged a cumulative 80 hours). Moreover, lawmakers proposed 1,704 cut motions, but none were moved because the legislators were not present in the Assembly when these were taken up. The opposition decided to boycott much of the session because their speeches were not being aired live on PTV, with the result that one of the most crucial pieces of legislation — the Finance Bill 2017-2018 — passed with hardly any debate, and no real input from the opposition. Apparently, grandstanding before the TV cameras is a bigger priority for many of the opposition lawmakers than legislation and budgetary allocations. More input was offered through points of order than any substantive legislative or budgetary matter. One-fifth of the time was spent dealing with the 489 points of order that were raised, and almost all of them were related to political matters and not the budget.
The opposition has displayed immense immaturity in this session by surrendering its role. The budget and the finance bill are two key pieces of business, and the role of lawmakers in shaping the allocations and highlighting the changes in taxation measures, as well as all other items that are snuck into the finance bill, is a crucial element of democratic lawmaking. The casual manner in which the budget was passed, after a cumulative debate barely lasting 37 hours over 15 sittings, shows that the opposition is more interested in generating political noise rather than shaping the nature of governance. The complaint that the debate is useless because it does nothing to change the government’s mind or the outcome sounds more like an excuse for disinterest in real legislative and governmental business than a serious response. The finance bill contains many clauses that amend the law in subtle ways to produce winners and losers in society, and the opposition has a key role in ensuring that this power is not exercised arbitrarily. Relinquishing the obligation to read and debate the budget in a serious manner is inexcusable.
Published in Dawn, June 19th, 2017