Parliament like a "chequemate"

Parliament which is debating next year's Budget, doesn't have time to debate 21 ministries. The Sunday Times' front page story of October 26 broke the news; the official reason being that there are too many ministries to debate and no time to do this. This is a first in Parliament's history

The ministries vary from the sublime (Science and Technology; Justice; National Integration; Plan Implementation; Youth Empowerment; Construction etc.,) to the ridiculous (Supplementary Plantation Crop Development; Social Inequality Eradication; Public Estate Management and Development etc). Not that the 'ridiculous' latter are not important, but these are subjects under which portfolios are already allocated to other ministers under different names. These ministries have been given purely for political expediency with perks ranging from cars and fuel to staff and security.

The Government has ingenious ways and means to fund this team of dead-weights. If there are no vehicles, import them. If they have no houses, give them rent-money even if they occupy their own child's house. If they want a pay hike, first give it to judges, and then justify one for themselves. The underlying credo in pithy Sinhala is "Handa Athey thiyanakota kaagen ahannada", which loosely translated means - 'serve yourself if the spoon is in your hand'.

Since last Monday, 31 MPs (16 Government and 15 Opposition) sat as a unique Select Committee with the 21 ministries given one hour each for the minister and his staff to answer questions.

A day has been set (December 5) for the chairman of this Committee, Health Minister and House Leader Nimal Siripala de Silva, to come before Parliament and read out a brief report of this Committee for record in the Hansard, the official document of Parliament's proceedings. The votes of each ministry will then be passed one by one - a quick-fix solution to pass Rs. 38.6 billion.

Parliament has two fundamentally important functions to perform; Make laws and control the public purse. How responsible has it been in the latter?

Just last week, the Supreme Court detected a major flaw in the preparation of next year's Budget accounts. It said that the expenditure of the Government for next year (2009) would not only be Rs. 980 billion that was stated (in the Appropriation Bill), but should also include a further Rs. 738 billion - totalling Rs. 1,719 billion - of which Rs. 722 billion would be for debt services (paying loans taken by the Government). The total revenue expected is only Rs. 875 billion. What the Supreme Court held was that proper accounting of governmental expenditure has not been reflected in the Budget, and that debt service ( How much the state has to re-pay for the loans taken) is an 'equal activity' of the Government.

On a separate point the court showed that the Treasury was usurping the powers of Parliament by the creation of a separate account called 'Department of National Budget', which enabled it to transfer funds in cases of emergency etc., without Parliamentary approval. It was a case of a 'Budget within a Budget'.

The Government argued that this was a practice begun by the Opposition when in power. The Opposition counter-argued that when they implemented this, they had a Finance Minister in Parliament, and the two Parliamentary Oversight Committees - COPE and PAC - were chaired by Opposition MPs, unlike today. Whatever the arguments, this is clearly a derogation of the control of public finance that should be exercised by Parliament.

Today, reports by COPE (Committee on Public Enterprises) and PAC (Public Accounts Committee) highlighting waste, mismanagement and corruption involving public finance are gathering dust. A lid has been placed on these Committees by putting Government Ministers to chair them in the future. Mihin Air is spending billions without any Parliamentary scrutiny. Our front page and the Business section give a classic example of how the Cabinet has advised the Petroleum Corporation to enter into a 'hedge fund' to purchase foreign oil, outside Parliamentary scrutiny. Readers might well read these accounts and see how the blind are leading the blind.

Parliament (the legislature) must not so readily surrender its rights, duties and obligations to the all-mighty Executive. But, if we are to recognise the political reality, that Government MPs must be given carrots and sweetmeats, even if at the people's expense so that a Parliamentary majority is ensured, why can't the Government just go back to amalgamating these Ministries, have a smaller Cabinet and give these MPs the perks they get now but to do an honest day's work.

They can sit - with the Opposition - in Parliamentary Oversight Committees - with extensive powers more like in the US and Europe, and less like in Britain, to scrutinise Government Ministries and Departments, and to monitor the way the people's money is spent.

This may not be just wishful thinking. This may have to be inevitable.

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