The recent budget debate
Rev. Dr. William W. Watty
It is altogether fitting that the annual presentation of a Draft Budget, as well as the debate that follows, should, via the electronic media, be given as wide publicity as possible, for it is an important event in the life of a people. They are informed of plans and projects on which their own well-being and the future of their children depend, and some insight into the measures the Government intends to employ in order to implement the provisions; and although the rest of us can do little more than listen and learn, it is still right that as many as possible should have the privilege and opportunity to hear.
For some time, however, it has seemed to me that, after the Draft Budget has been presented by the Minister for Finance and the Leader of the Opposition has responded, ninety per cent of what follows under the rubric of "debate" is a pathetic display of empty and futile rhetoric that has nothing to do with the Draft Budget. It is as if that the dial has been touched or the Channel has automatically been switched to a Talk Show, or a Snap Election was called when the country was asleep and we are again on the hustings. For whatever reason, it seems necessary that the Prime Minister should again be magnified to messianic dimensions by his colleagues, and praises must be sung to his honour and glory which, however valid, have no obvious connection with the matter before the House, which is a Draft Budget for the maintenance of the infrastructure, the development of the economy and the preservation of our Democracy.
Furthermore, I would like to believe that there is a difference between a Draft Budget and a Party Manifesto, the only relationship being the opportunity it affords the Government to report how it has performed, and the extent to which it has fulfilled, and is fulfilling its mandate, or the hindrances and adversities that have arisen since taking office, which were not, and could not have been anticipated, but have frustrated, delayed or precipitated fulfilment.
Nor is it my understanding that the response from the Opposition to the presentation of the Daft Budget must be wholly a rebuttal. There is no reason why endorsement cannot also be given where endorsement is appropriate. The response may, of course, call attention to items that should have been included, which have been overlooked or deliberately omitted, to errors that should be corrected and imbalances that require redress. In any case the contribution from the Opposition should also concentrate more on the Draft Budget than on failures, mistakes or errors in the past as the essence of the response, unless of course it can be demonstrated that the passing of past Budgets has been a sham because, from the evidence, the actual revenues and expenditures bore no relationship to the Budgets that were approved.
Simply put, the institutionalization of "rebuttal" has unfortunately encouraged and entrenched an adversarial mood in the debate on this most important aspect of the nation's life and development, which is not necessary but, if anything, counter-productive; and should be diminished if it cannot be entirely eliminated. For the Minister for Finance, instead of concluding with a summation that accepts corrections where appropriate, explains omissions and removes misconceptions where necessary, so that the Budget, when passed, can reflect a measure of consensus, himself also descends into rebuttal which, because of the advantage of being the last speaker is, unfortunately, overdone. It is my view that, in the most recent debate, the Minister for Finance should not have been allowed the latitude that was given to him. He relapsed into an electioneering mode that properly belonged to the closing decade of the last millennium. To castigate the sitting Opposition for mismanagement that occurred in the 1995–99 period was a travesty that did not become his high office. That period has long passed. That chapter was closed at the polls of 2000. That is why the UWP was thrown out and the DLP was elected to replace it and form a new Government. Not a single member of the present Opposition was part of the 1995–99 Administration. How then does a resurrection of that period and a castigation of the then Administration facilitate or enhance the passage of a Draft Budget a decade and a half later? Leave that for the next electioneering in 2019 or whenever another General Election is called. In the meantime, statesmanship should dictate a response that is focused on the Budget, without diversion, deviation or digression. It is time that the demon of adversarial politics is exorcised from our Parliamentarians and our Parliament, and we rise to a new level of statesmanship in doing the People's Business.
Last, but not least, the Speaker of the House must continue to be firm and must make no apologies for her firmness. Her success in that regard is commendable. But she must also be impartial, and impeccably so, in her ruling of the House and her guidance and control of its proceedings. If Hansard is reliable, as I expect it is, the record of her silences and interventions should reveal the problem far better than an absent and distant eavesdropper can. There is already an imbalance in the composition of the House. It is therefore neither fair nor impartial that she should appear to be denying the Opposition the same latitude she deems necessary to allow the Government Ministers; and feel obliged to interrupt the address of a Member from the Opposition side, merely to caution him that he is "about to impute improper motive" when, up to the point of interruption, he has done no such thing; but Government Ministers, in the same Session and under her watch, are allowed to run riot without let or hindrance. That cannot be right. That cannot be right.
One must, of course, be realistic. The Speaker of the House is not politically neutral. It is precisely on that ground that she was nominated to be the Speaker of the reconstituted House and her nomination succeeded. She ought, however, to bear in mind that, on taking her seat as Speaker of the House, and whenever, and as long as, she occupies that seat, all political affiliation must be set aside and all her political preferences must be ruthlessly suppressed. Her exalted position does not allow her the luxury of being the twelfth player on a playing field that is already not level, when not only the numerically weaker political Opposition but the rest of us, spectators, expect to see an Umpire who takes no side. It is the future of our Democracy that is at stake, and it is not any political party but Dominica that is likely to be the loser if partisanship in the Speaker's Chair continues unchecked.
If there is no way that the Budget Debate can be improved by a lowering of the adversarial temperature, all around, then it might be just as well that the Minister of Finance present the Annual Budget, which is then put to the vote by secret ballot forthwith and without debate.