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Opposition participation central to public accountability

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Last Monday, the Government of St Vincent and the Grenadines (SVG) presented its constitutionally mandated national ledger sheet of expected income and expenditure for fiscal year 2018, the Estimates of Revenue and Expenditure.

Seen strictly from the perspective of an accountant, it is a cascade of numbers that detail in precise digits how the Government will exercise its stewardship of the finances of SVG, except that a national budget is much more than an accounting record. It is instead a fundamental expression of a philosophy of governance, a clear statement of the relationship between the State and its citizens and more particularly, the Government’s responsibility to meet the needs of its people.

Next Monday, Minister of Finance Camillo Gonsalves will present the Budget, more formally known as the Appropriation Bill, which will provide for the services of SVG for 2018. The Budget address will give details on how Government intends to raise the revenue to meet its needs and how that revenue will be expended. We can and will disagree how we are taxed, how much we are taxed, what will be spent, and on what it will be spent. But the public display of these choices is fundamental to the workings of transparent democratic governance. Every Minister of Finance has submitted himself to this public ritual for all 38 years since Independence.

For many of us, listening to the Budget debate over several days is a bit like self flagellation. Nevertheless, to ignore these presentations is to sleep walk through the most meaningful opportunity we are given to hear how the choices our politicians make will affect our lives.

Twice this past week, first during the presentation of the Estimates on Monday, then again during the debate of the ‘Motion of Confidence’ on Wednesday, Opposition parliamentarians absented themselves from the House. They have their reasons, but we hope that next week, they put these aside and take up their rightful places in Parliament and fully engage in the deliberations.

Full and active participation by the Opposition in these exercises is central to the goal of public accountability. It is the responsibility of the parliamentary Opposition to challenge the numbers presented by Government and offer a competing vision of what their budget would do.

Of course, this critique can take place both within and outside of Parliament. But the ritual of governance is far more profound and powerful when this critique commands an immediate response from the Government. Only Parliament allows that.

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