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Budget 2021: The loud and robust parliamentary pressure cooker

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Marianne Merten has written on Parliament since 2016 for Daily Maverick. The intersection of governance, policy and politics unfolds at many levels, from tiny nuggets of information hidden in the voluminous stacks of papers tabled at the national legislature to the odd temper tantrum by a politician. Sometimes frustrating, sometimes baffling, even after 26 years as a hack, there are few dull days in the parliamentary corridors.

The first steps to pass Budget 2021 have already been taken, on the back of ANC numbers in the House, when the fiscal framework was adopted on 10 March 2021.

First published in the Daily Maverick 168 weekly newspaper.

It is with no small irony that the only parliamentary committee that actually sits in physical reality is the spooks oversight Joint Standing Committee on Intelligence, which by default meets behind closed doors.

That every other committee is on a virtual platform has allowed for an increase in the number of meetings – about 60 this week, slightly up from a week earlier – although numbers don’t equal quality.

MPs’ questions seem tepid at best, given that the departmental and other institutional briefing documents are usually sent through a week in advance. Plenty of time to prep and dig up, if not some dirt then at least some pertinent questions on, for example, where the departmental travel budget has shifted to in these days of virtual meetings.

The year 2021 is unfurling with unseemly haste. Three weeks have been set aside to get the Budget done and dusted by 4 June, according to the current parliamentary programme. It is an election year, with the municipal poll now set for 27 October, so the mid-year recess is a generous 10 weeks to mid-August.

Having returned from a five-week Easter recess and constituency period on 4 May, parliamentary committees effectively have been left with just over a week to do oversight or interrogation of departmental annual performance and strategic plans, as well as expenditure plans. Even MPs committed to holding the executive to account – what better way than to follow the trail of public money? – must wonder whether, given the time limitation, all this is little more than a tick-box exercise.

Despite political platitudes about fighting corruption, the allocations for prosecutors, investigators and court services are down in real terms. Parliament’s justice committee was told technology would be the mainstay for making courts more effective and efficient. Similar concerns over spending cuts have also been raised in the departments of health, basic education and elsewhere.

But the pressure is on to pass Budget 2021.

Parliament has had the power – hard fought for, against resistance from National Treasury – since 2009 to change or even refuse to accept any or all Budget votes.

The national legislature has never yet done so.

“Sadly, we have not yet exercised that power” was how National Assembly Speaker Thandi Modise put it before the State Capture Commission’s hearings on parliamentary oversight in April.

Her call was for Parliament to join forces with provincial legislatures and councils to ensure money is not derailed, but is used for the public purpose intended. After all, public money lost to State Capture or corruption is money no longer available for services.

But, as those hearings showed in many ways, parliamentary oversight by the majority party in Parliament, the ANC, often sits uncomfortably with party loyalty and toeing the party line.

That party discipline was repeatedly highlighted in not only the testimony of ANC national chairperson Gwede Mantashe but also that of ANC president Cyril Ramaphosa.

And so perhaps it’s unsurprising that even if opposition parties oppose, say, the fiscal framework, the ANC uses its numbers to ensure its adoption. Ditto Budget votes. The EFF usually just supports the Office of the Chief Justice’s Budget.

The first steps to pass Budget 2021 had already been taken, on the back of ANC numbers in the House, when the fiscal framework was adopted on 10 March 2021.

This showed agreement with the government’s economic policy, including overall cost-cutting and an effective 0% pay hike for civil servants, in the hope of containing the public wage bill.

Legislators’ response to the calls made in public hearings not to go down the road of cuts and spending restraints was to urge the government to ensure more efficient spending of public money, and for the tax collector to become even more efficient.

Still, the Budget vote debates will be loud and robust. MPs, regardless of party political colours, will want to ensure their stance is clear in this, another election year. And precisely because of that, even if it’s a municipal poll, those political pledges need close attention. DM168

This story first appeared in our weekly Daily Maverick 168 newspaper which is available for free to Pick n Pay Smart Shoppers at these Pick n Pay stores.

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