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What happened to the budget debate?

Updated May 14, 2018

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THE likelihood of a substantive debate was always low. This is not surprising given that the end of parliament’s term is imminent, a controversy over the PML-N government’s presentation of a full-year budget is still continuing, politicians are focusing on the nomination of a caretaker setup, and political parties are going into poll campaign mode. Still parliament’s disregard of its duty to have a thorough discussion on the federal budget before it passes the Finance Bill was clearly evident when the government was unable to ensure quorum in the National Assembly on Friday during Finance Minister Miftah Ismail’s winding-up speech. Quorum may be ensured this week when Mr Ismail tries once again to wrap up the budget, but the damage has already been done and the PML-N has yet again embarrassed itself in parliament. The inability of the PML-N to ensure its elected representatives do not hinder parliament’s constitutional work is sadly one of the more prominent aspects of the party’s tenure.

To be sure, the opposition did not perform especially well either during the budget debate. While the parliamentary arithmetic is in the PML-N’s favour, a spirited and substantive debate by the opposition could have put pressure on the government to change some aspects of the federal budget. The handouts galore on the expenditure side and revenue projections built on seemingly unrealistic assumptions will likely require serious changes after the next federal government is sworn in later this year. But the major opposition parties missed a significant opportunity to demonstrate that they are better prepared than the PML-N to take on the serious responsibilities of managing the state’s finances and sustaining economic growth. Instead, further embarrassment for the government could be in store for the PML-N government during the passage of so-called cut motions during the budget session, which could threaten to trigger the resignation of the government if the PML-N does not ensure adequate numbers in the house.

While procedural skirmishes are indulged in, the worrying reality is that the next parliament is not poised to deliver an improved democratic process. Among the major political parties that could form or become a part of the next government, only the PPP has shown interest in introducing structural reforms to the institutions of democracy. But the PPP’s governance record is undeniably poor and the party’s interest in improving the performance of parliamentary committees, for example, has been patchy at best. The PTI has unveiled a governance agenda for the next five years if elected to government, but Imran Khan has set a trend of PTI MNAs taking minimal interest in parliament when in opposition. While the treasury benches attract far more spotlight, the work of the opposition is also important. At the very least, all parties should pay some heed to the economic storm clouds and think through some stabilising measures that may be needed early in the next parliament.

Published in Dawn, May 14th, 2018