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Budget 2021 vote debates: When an obsession with number...

Defend Truth

Opinionista

Budget 2021 vote debates: When an obsession with numbers trumps quality and accountability

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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 Budget vote debates have been dull, exceedingly so. With a few exceptions, ministers simply ticked the boxes for how many rands were allocated for what – with that sounding quite familiar as talk of new measures continues alongside pledges, but action not so much. Still, the overarching ministerial narrative is one of progress already made.

First published in the Daily Maverick 168 weekly newspaper.

It’s been Budget vote season in Parliament. From Tuesday to Friday there have been up to nine such debates a day. Snappy online sessions of just over two hours until 4 June when the Budget, officially the Appropriation Bill, is passed in the House.

And adopted it will be, as in all previous years, on the back of numbers of the majority of the governing ANC that currently holds 230 of the 400 seats.

But Parliament has the power to amend, or even reject, a departmental Budget. It’s been a power hard fought for over several years as National Treasury resisted, but ultimately Section 77(2) of the Constitution won. Since 2009 the Money Bills Amendment Procedure and Related Matters Act has allowed the public representatives elected into the National Assembly to adopt, amend or reject Budgets, known in parliamentary lingo as Money Bills.

Parliament has never done so, and has therefore failed to use one of its most stringent instruments in its oversight toolbox.

The State Capture commission parliamentary oversight hearings were told by National Assembly Speaker Thandi Modise on 19 April that Budget oversight was a key power Parliament could use. “Sadly we have not yet exercised that power.”

Instead it was about exercising the power of embarrassment, as illustrated when Modise used the example of one minister who was keen to skip the Budget vote for an engagement at the African Union (AU) being warned: “If you go to the AU and your Budget is on the floor, we will not pass your Budget.”

To be fair, it came close at least once. In 2017 the water and sanitation committee almost told then minister Nomvula Mokonyane off over her department’s multibillion-rand irregular expenditure and qualified audit opinion. Almost. But after some political massaging, in the end the Budget was supported.

On 18 May, a month after Modise’s testimony, ex-Speaker Baleka Mbete gave the State Capture commission the political take on why Parliament had not yet exercised that power to amend or even reject Budgets.

“It’s not that we can’t do anything. We could use the Money Bills Amendment Procedure and Related Matters Act. But we make the choice for stability.”

“Parliament made a conscious decision not to rock the boat?” was the quickfire question from commission evidence leader Alec Freund SC.

No, said Mbete, who doubled up as ANC national chairperson while being Speaker between May 2014 and December 2017, Parliament did do something: the national legislature took up issues with consecutive finance ministers and the current president in what’s essentially a governing ANC in-house political solution.

And so, in 2021, one of Parliament’s most powerful oversight instruments – that’s apart from committees being able to summons anyone and request any document in terms of Rule 167 – remains firmly locked in the parliamentary oversight toolbox.

No surprises are in store over Budget 2021. All parliamentary committees’ Budget vote reports published in Parliament’s Announcements, Tablings and Committee Reports indicated support for their departments’ Budgets. That’s on the back of the governing ANC majority. The DA and EFF ensured inclusion of a one-liner in those reports on reserving their rights.

The Budget vote debates have been dull, exceedingly so. With a few exceptions, ministers simply ticked the boxes for how many rands were allocated for what – with that sounding quite familiar as talk of new measures continues alongside pledges, but action not so much. Still the overarching ministerial narrative is one of progress already made.

Again, with a few exceptions, ANC MPs, amid assertions of righteousness, took the odd dig at opposition parties, but essentially repeated their committee’s Budget vote report. Those reports are themselves summaries of what the department briefed legislators on.

It’s all quite dreary – and an indictment of where public accountability is at. In the 25th year of the Constitution, it ought to be much better. 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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