IN Pakistan, this time of the year is a regular reminder of how farcical the role of parliament has become when it comes to ensuring that the annual budget reflects genuine public aspirations and priorities.
This duty of parliament is critical, because the annual budget statement is perhaps the government’s most important policy document.
It explains the government’s strategy of mobilising resources, including taxation, and the allocation of those resources to various sectors, such as defence, internal security, communication, human resource development, telecommunication and social welfare schemes, including safety nets and subsidies for underprivileged sections.
Weakening or diluting the authority of the elected representatives in parliament to influence the budget, after fully comprehending and debating it, runs counter to the universally accepted principle of the parliamentary power of the purse.
In a federal state like Pakistan, this principle applies as much to the provincial assemblies as it does to the national parliament.
In general, the way that the national parliament and provincial assemblies go about passing annual budget statements gives the impression that they are merely fulfilling a formality.
The budget process should provide ample opportunity to the elected representatives in parliament in Islamabad and the provinces to study, analyse, debate and, where necessary, modify the budget introduced by the executive.
It is true that in a parliamentary form of government, the top crust of the executive, such as the cabinet, also consists of elected representatives and they approve the budget statement before it is presented in parliament.
However, mostly in developing and resource-constrained countries like Pakistan, the influence of the unelected bureaucracy, both local and international, plays a dominant role in deciding the most significant features of the document.
Lately, this influence has reached such a level that the ability to deal with it has become the most important qualification of the country’s finance minister.
Budget speeches in Pakistan have little to say about the financial document.
Article 84 (supplementary and excess grants) of the Constitution had set the basis for a weak role for parliament in the budget process. The article provides that almost any expenditure, authorised by parliament as part of the budget, can be altered by the executive, without limiting its magnitude, during the year — and without even informing, let alone seeking prior approval of, parliament.
Pakistan is probably one of only two countries in the world with such a constitutional provision.
Two significant developments in the past decade have leaned towards improving the budget process in general and the parliamentary influence on the budget in particular though these efforts were much smaller compared to the challenges stacked against real parliamentary effectiveness in the budget process.
The amendment in the National Assembly Rules of Procedure and Conduct of Business in 2013 provided for the first time an entry point to the standing committees of the assembly to influence the Public Sector Development Programme, which is the most consequential part of the budget statement.
The federal ministries, under the modified rules, were obligated to share each year’s PSDP proposals with their counterpart standing committee in the National Assembly and incorporate the committees’ recommendations in the PSDP.
The ministries were also required to inform the committees if, for any reason, a committee’s recommendations could not be incorporated in the PSDP.
This was a significant milestone in strengthening parliament’s role in the budget process for which both the PPP — led by Nadeem Afzal Chan, chairman, Rules and Privileges Committee, and Minister for Commerce Syed Naveed Qamar — and PML-N — led by Anusha Rehman Khan and Minister for Power Khurram Dastgir Khan — cooperated to amend the rules.
A decade after the passage of the landmark amendment it will be useful to study how effectively it has been implemented.
It is important to know how many of the standing committees’ recommendations were accepted by the government in shaping its PSDP and whether each standing committee was briefed by the relevant ministry and if the standing committees regularly convened their meetings to deliberate on the PSDP proposals initiated by the ministries.
Sadly, the assembly secretariat neither undertakes such research nor encourages civil society to do so.
The promulgation of the Public Finances Management Act in 2019 also opened the door for the finance ministry to brief the National Assembly and Senate Standing Committees on Finance on the government’s budget strategy paper and receive their input to shape the annual budget statement. It is, however, not very clear how far this consultative process has actually helped the budget process.
Although there are systemic challenges to an effective parliamentary role in the budget process, the input of parliamentarians during the budget process also leaves a lot to be desired.
A Pildat study of the budget sessions in the National Assembly during the past 25 years indicates that on average, less than 45 per cent of assembly members participated in the budget debate and their speech lasted for about 19 minutes each on average.
Almost 70pc of the budget speeches’ content had almost no link to the budget and the bulk of 48 hours allocated to the budget debate, every year on average, is consumed in either narrating constituency problems or attacking political opponents.
Almost every budget speech by finance ministers has been delivered during a pandemonium created by the opposition. This year was a rare exception because the bulk of the PTI opposition had already resigned.
Two years ago, the MNAs of the ruling PTI and the opposition PDM had fought pitched battles within the assembly chamber and targeted opponents with thick budget books while the finance minister delivered the budget speech.
When the new assemblies are elected later this year, one of the most significant part of their legislative agenda should be to make reforms in the parliamentary budget process.
The writer is president of the Pakistan Institute of Legislative Development And Transparency.
Published in Dawn, June 17th, 2023