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How can we improve our Budget process

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AS I COMPLETE this column the 2021 Budget debate continues in the House of Assembly and is not expected to conclude before the end of the week. Once again the tone of the debate indicates that it is as much a political exercise as one dealing with the progress of the nation with both sides of the House striving to win points and shift public opinion in their favour.

Each year as I listen to the Budget presentations, the same set of thoughts run through my head – Is the process as currently undertaken, relevant to enhancing our people’s understanding of the budgetary exercise or having inherited it from the Westminster model, we simply take it for granted? What do our people gain or gather from the exercise?

Are we still at the stage of “what’s in it for me?”, or “Are there new taxes in this year’s budget?”

In the first place, do we need such marathon presentations of 4-5 hours from the Minister of Finance, Leader of the Opposition and then to round off, both the Prime Minister and the final say by the Finance Minister?

Inevitably we end up with a lot of repetition, even by Parliamentarians who have a convenient 45 minutes but must share their overall budget comments with some level of constituency accountability.

We can also ask ourselves that when the overall presentation is made, can’t some of the details of the work and plans for each ministry be left to the relevant Minister to explain, thereby raising his/her profile and avoiding repetition? Similarly if there is a clear delineation of responsibilities on the opposition bench then there too not only will we avoid repetition, but free the Opposition leader to make a more holistic analysis of the Budget and avoid some MPs struggling to grapple with a host of subjects, some of which they do not seem to be so comfortable with elaborating. Each year we end up with a lot of comments on roads for fixing. It seems that it goes back to time immemorial, is this approach the best use of budget time? Are we lifting the understanding of our people of the budget exercise? And what about making the pre-Budget consultations more meaningful?

Given the political rivalry, especially when there are two rivals for a constituency seat in the House, some time is devoted to constituency matters.

All well and good for the profile of the constituency and the political rivals, but I wonder if it is accountability to constituents that we wish, is there not another way? Many moons ago the United Peoples Movement (UPM) had put forward ideas about constituency accountability.

These revolved around the idea of elected Parliamentarians being required to hold an annual accountability session in each constituency, the mechanics of which can be worked out, where they give an account of their stewardship, face questions from their constituents and receive proposals from them for the betterment of the constituency. It would not only be more democratic, it would be more engaging and will save time which can be spent on more detailed analysis of national policies. But perhaps I am only dreaming.

As I continue to dream or search for more creative ways to make our political process more relevant, more centred on policies than on politicians and more educational, the COVID-19 pandemic has given everyone an opportunity for comment.

It is certainly dominating the budget debate. It is sad though that such a serious issue of national concern affecting the health, wealth and livelihood of the nation, is too often made into a political football. It is too important a matter to be so treated.

The issue can never be WHO is right or wrong on this or that approach, but rather WHAT IS RIGHT in the circumstances. We can deal with the “who” when it is time to cast our ballots. For the time being the emphasis must be on forging a national consensus on combating COVID and saving our nation. We can only do that TOGETHER.

Finally, let me make a brief comment on the debate about vaccines and their availability. I am quietly amused when I hear the complaints about inequality in access and availability. Of course that is the situation because inequality is built into the global system, a system which we hold to be sacrosanct. We seem to accept that capitalism is the ONLY way of doing things. In so doing we accept inequality, poverty and discrimination. Never forget that those noble constitutions in the west which proclaimed that “all men are equal”, permitted slavery and inequality of women with men.

The “vaccine nationalism” is but one expression of that built-in inequality as is the discrimination against vaccines being developed by non-western nations as in India, Russia, China and Cuba. It is another manifestation of the injustice in this world.

● Renwick Rose is a community activist and social commentator.

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