Budget debate

Published June 23, 2022

WITH the economy teetering on the precipice of a major crisis, one would have expected that public representatives in parliament would be deeply invested in debating the federal budget for fiscal 2023 before it is put to the vote. Instead, both the government and the opposition have only managed to make themselves look even more dysfunctional, while the ironing out of the budget — traditionally parliament’s job — seems to have been left to negotiations happening behind closed doors with the IMF. Since Finance Minister Miftah Ismail’s budget speech on June 10, the general debate on budgetary proposals has been marked by absenteeism and hollow speeches. In the National Assembly, the first session saw the government-friendly leader of the opposition deliver inane remarks to a nearly empty House. There was only one other speaker that day. The next day, only four lawmakers participated. In both sessions, the treasury benches were almost empty — a stark reminder of the mockery the democratic process has been turned into in the absence of a genuine opposition. The same sorry state of affairs was seen in both Houses in subsequent sessions, so much so that even lawmakers from government-allied PPP protested the government’s complete lack of interest.

In whatever discussion that did take place on the budget, the focus of most speeches was on bashing former prime minister Imran Khan and the PTI government. The rambling, unintelligent ‘explanations’ for the causes behind the present crisis show that many lawmakers still have not grasped the root causes of Pakistan’s economic ills. We can, therefore, expect them to repeat their past mistakes in the future as well. On top of that, the indecent unwillingness of anyone — government, ally or opposition — to take responsibility for the economy’s structural issues, the main reason why we are repeatedly in crisis, is quite galling. Finally, it must be asked why, instead of making their own recommendations for the budget through the debate, our parliamentarians left final adjustments entirely to the finance ministry and the IMF? After years of complaining loudly about IMF ‘influence’ on government policies, one would have expected them to take more ownership of the process. It is, after all, a key responsibility of parliament to review budgetary proposals as well as scrutinise government spending in the outgoing year. Having ceded this space, they cannot now complain when the revenue measures agreed to with the IMF cause pain in the future.

Published in Dawn, June 23rd, 2022

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