COMMENTARY: Stupidity, Childishness on FULL DISPLAY for Budget

The content originally appeared on: Antigua News Room

Despite the fact that we a citizens pay parliamentarians to be parliamentarians, we have somehow, by the admixture of childishness on the government’s part, and raw stupidity on the opposition’s part, been cheated out of one of the few formal measures of accountability that exist in our woefully inadequate democratic system – the budget process.

The budget in the Lower House with no debate from the opposition on Tuesday, after the opposition refused to turn up, ostensibly on a matter of principle, and after the government gleefully rushed to end the debate and pass the budget in order to keep the opposition from participating after their boycott of day one.

Background:

The Prime Minister gave the budget speech on Friday, and the government wanted the debates to commence on Monday. The opposition said this was too short a time and criticised the government for the habit of rushing parliamentary matters and failing to give the opposition members enough notice and time to digest papers presented to them. The opposition put forward Thursday, while the government moved the needle to Tuesday.

In an amazing display of stubbornness, neither side was willing to further suggest Wednesday, today, as a further compromise. The government stuck to Tuesday, and the opposition stuck to Thursday.

The government has the voting majority, and passed a resolution calling for the House to adjourn until Tuesday. So, on Tuesday, the debate commenced with all government MPs (most of whom are also ministers) and the opposition benches were vacant. When night came, the government side moved the second and third readings of the Appropriations Bill, passed it, and effectively ended the Lower House debate, sending it to the Senate.

The Government’s Childishness

The government has a lazy and offensive habit of pushing through legislation and treating Parliament as a mere formality. The opposition has protested consistently about the need to receive bills and any other material to be considered sufficiently in advance so as to allow them to prepare.

This is not an unreasonable position. Parliament should not be treated as some cut and dash, wing it, make it up as you go along, type of affair. All Parliamentarians, especially the opposition and independent members must have adequate means to actually do the work we asked them to do, and do it to an exceedingly high standard. Last minute Bills and documents are unacceptable.

That being said, we can see some merit in the opposition’s position on having received the budget estimates only on Friday. I see no reason why the estimates were not available a week in advance of the budget statement. I understand if the Prime Minister’s actual speech remains unseen until the day in question, but the estimates ought to be available to MPs well in advance. While the budget speech is a document of a dozen pages, the estimates are a far weightier bundle of papers that takes time to properly digest.

It is important that we allow MPs to scrutinize the estimates as part of their presentations and not simply call upon them to respond only to the speech of the PM. The estimates give us line by line, how and what the government is spending money on. Comparisons between current estimates and previous years actual spend and estimates can make for an excellent and meaningful debate, to which the people are entitled from their elected representatives.

To drop a bundle of estimates on MPs on Friday and ask them to debate it on Monday is not impossible for them, but it shows a level of disrespect for the role of Parliament. It is almost as if to say “I don’t expect you to really go through all of this anyway, so i didn’t factor in any time for you to do so”. It signals an expectation that Parliamentarians should ignore the estimates and just debate the politics of the PM’s speech alone – an expectation of mediocrity and half-assedness.

Therefore, I am of the opinion that the government was unreasonable to push for Monday as the day upon which the debate would recommence. I also am of the view that the government’s refusal to acquiesce to the opposition request of Thursday was simply a display of childishness. The ministers were simply adamant that the opposition would not have a victory of any kind. To allow them to protest and get their way would be a victory in the eyes of the politically petty, therefore, the response is to deny them that for which they have asked, regardless of the reasonability of it. So it was that the government voted for Tuesday.

What was telling was the justification given by the Prime Minister and the AG for why debates had to commence on Monday. One of the statements made was that Ministers had travel schedules which had been set. Many people did not understand the gravity of this statement. It was a clear indication that the ministers have come to view Parliament as a secondary responsibility. It is part of the unsound mentality that Parliament comes second to executive business. Instead of Ministers clearing their schedules for something as crucial as the budget debates, they set their schedules and then plan Parliament around their other more important business.

That is what happens in a country with a weak Parliamentary structure such as ours where there are so few MPs in total that the entire government bench ends up being in the executive, and the Cabinet as a group becomes, more or less a voting majority, or near voting majority, in Parliament. Suddenly, ministers are not summoned to Parliament to answer to MPs as is the case in proper democracies. Instead, our ministers summon Parliament at their leisure to get their business passed. There is no back bench of government MPs. There is no shadow Cabinet in effect on the opposition side. There are no permanent committees because there just aren’t enough members to do the work.This is the context in which the current government feels it acceptable to plan the budget around their busy Christmas schedules as opposed to clearing their schedules to give precedence to the budget and their duty to Parliament.

Now, having arrived on Tuesday to discover an opposition boycott, the government had options. Had the opposition been present on Tuesday, then the government could have expected the debate to continue into Wednesday and into Thursday. Given that the opposition boycotted Tuesday’s session, when the government ministers completed their presentations on Tuesday night and proceedings were effectively ahead of schedule, they could have simply adjourned the House till Wednesday morning to see if the opposition would be a no show, or not. This would demonstrate that the government made every effort to facilitate opposition participation and was not ought to deny anyone the chance to debate. But they chose to be childish – a hallmark of Gaston Browne’s brand of politics.

Everything is a petty political game to see what cheap points can be scored. So as opposed to adjourning until Wednesday morning, or even Thursday, the government decided to score a goal, and push the final readings and passage of the Bill on Tuesday night, so as to end the debate and hand it over to the Senate. In so doing, they prevented the opposition from getting its way, and turned what may have been a 1 day boycott into a total absence from the debate process. The mindless bottom feeding adulators in the Labour Party were chanting in support, smiling ear to ear with glee as the opposition got shafted and the people were cheated out of a democratic norm that should be basic.

The fact that the government was comfortable passing a national budget with no involvement in the debate from the opposition after one day of proceedings speaks volumes to the lack of value they place on parliamentary politics and democracy generally. But let’s not kid ourselves. The Labour Party has never espoused itself to be virtuous in the areas of just governance and democratic practice.

The Opposition’s Stupidity

What are these people really doing? While the opposition will no doubt claim that it took a stand on principle, it also managed to deny itself a national platform upon which to lavish the government with the criticism that Gaston and the ministers in his government so earnestly deserve. I am firmly of the view that it would have been better to come to Parliament and debate the damn budget. So what if you did not get enough time? It is not totally unheard of that MPs will be called upon to pull all-nighters, and produce solid responses and arguments to things of which they have had little notice. Get with the programme.

Additionally, while you may not have as much time as you might like to digest the estimates, most of your presentation on political points should already be written. You know the issues spoken of in the last budget. You know what the Prime Minister has not addressed in his speech. You know major failures you want to lambaste the government on. And frankly, you know the headings of the Prime Minister’s budget speech already, because it follows the same format every single year. So there is no way in hell that you should be going into a budget speech without knowing 80 percent of what you want to say in response. The PM’s speech will allow you to organise your thoughts to be a tailored response, but much of your substance should come from observations and arguments that you have already compiled prior to budget day.

It is my view therefore, that as an opposition, you should be fully capable of responding to the politics of the budget speech between Friday and Monday, or even between Friday and Tuesday. The real question of ample time has to do with digesting the unholy bundle of papers that comprise the estimates and to compare these with previous years and extract issues of concern to incorporate into your debate.

The opposition should also use Parliament as the very platform to criticize the government for the way it handles parliamentary matters. Lambaste them if you wish, but show up to lambaste them as part of your budget response. What is the point of having a wider membership on the opposition bench if the debates are going to be thwarted by walk-out and boycott politics? Now, don’t get me wrong. There are times when a walk-out or a boycott is demanded. But was this such an instance? Does the fact that the government refused to allot you two additional days of preparation grounds for you to BOYCOTT THE BUDGET DEBATE?

You have missed a golden opportunity to rip to shreds, on national television, what many of us saw to be a waste of time speech by the Prime Minister that offered nothing new, inspired very little, and left us irritated by the dishonesty emanating from his lips – like when he uses the economic crash years of Covid-19 lockdown for comparison with current GDP and says mind-bogglingly stupid things like “We grew the economy by 40 percent after Covid”. Or, when he poured cold water on the issue of diversification, masking the fact that the government has no concrete set of policies to spur foreign investment in anything other than hotels.

Then there’s the issues he did not speak about at all that you could take him to task over – the impact of the ABST hike on our ability to buy products other than zero-rated basic foodstuff and toiletries; a report on the revenue collection measures he said he was implementing last budget and whether they have performed; a report on his and his government’s adherence to their own damn stated 2023 policy of limiting tax waivers – he said absolutely nothing about the extent to which they did this; all the projects listed in the 2023, 2022, 2021, 2020, 2019, 2018, 2017, 2016, 2015 and 2014 budgets that have not materialized; what is the unemployment rate; what is the youth unemployment rate; what is the poverty rate; etc. But instead, what do we get? Ministers praising each other for a whole day, and then a budget passed without any actual debate.

The other glaring issue is the lack of political strategizing on the part of the Opposition Leader, Jamale Pringle, in making sure that the government did not end the debate. No one wants to say it, but it seems clear to me that the Opposition was taken by surprise when the government simply passed the Appropriations Bill in their absence. They should not be surprised. That’s how Gaston Browne operates. Pettiness is where he is most comfortable. He has devotes hours and hours every Saturday to gossip, name-calling, bashing people he does not like, insinuating wrongdoing against others, revealing private conversations he has had with people who spoke to him, and generally trying to drag everyone down to the gutter where he can feel assured that no one can claim to be any less morally bankrupt than he is now.

An end to the debate on Tuesday night could easily have been avoided by sending at least one or two opposition MPs to Parliament late on Tuesday evening to speak at length until the government side was prepared to adjourn until the next day, keeping the door open for the Opposition Leader to present on Wednesday. But instead, they all just stayed away, and allowed the government to end the debate prematurely.

The People Cheated

The people are entitled to the maximum efforts of their paid and elected representatives in Parliament. The fact that we, the people, have been denied the proper execution of one of the most fundamental parliamentary norms in our democracy – the budget debate and process – on account of the childishness, stupidity and laziness of our elected officials, is a testament to their collective inadequacy and inability to understand their roles.

Every opposition member who boycotted and allowed the debate to end without their contribution, is as responsible as every government member who voted for the passage of the Bill on Tuesday night, with the aim of preventing later opposition participation. It demonstrates a pettiness on both sides. For the opposition: “I cant’ get my way so I’m not showing up.” For the government: “Let us vote to end the debate tonight and prevent the opposition from coming tomorrow, or the next day, so they can’t get their way. Truly and obscenely pathetic in every respect.

Be sure, they are all proud of themselves. Government MPs feel that they have scored a goal and humiliated the opposition, while opposition MPs feel that they have stood up to the government and showed their mettle.

What are we, the people, left with? A parliamentary democracy where a national budget of 1.9 billion is passed in a day with no debate. None of our MPs should receive a salary for December or for January. We should not pay for this bullsh*t.

Ernest J. Farfingbottom

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