An unconscionable charade

Notwithstanding the theatre of the absurd to which budget debates have deteriorated over time, the annual budget remains one of the most important pieces of legislation brought by an administration.

How an administration acquits itself in both its budget presentation, and in the scrutiny of its appropriations bills during the House’s committee stage, is a patent indicator of its fitness to govern.

On Monday, the House of Assembly passed the final budget of the Minnis administration’s term, and the scrutiny of the 2021/2022 budget heads was the government’s opportunity to demonstrate that transparency and accountability in its budget process are more than just buzz words.

However, a near half-hour battle ensued between government and opposition over the latter’s desire to question government on the budget’s revenue heads, prior to moving to the traditional process of scrutinizing heads appropriating sums for proposed recurrent and capital expenditure.

Given record-breaking recurrent deficits and connected borrowing for the current and upcoming fiscal years, and the reality that revenue performance drives both fiscal dynamics, the opposition’s push for scrutiny of revenue estimates was reasonable.

Predictably, the opposition — and by extension the Bahamian people — lost that battle, with House leader of government business Renward Wells’ ever obstinate approach to members opposite, prompting him to characterize last year’s scrutiny of revenue heads as government’s “courtesy” to the opposition.

We do not tire of reminding this and all administrations that Cabinet is constitutionally bound to be accountable to the Parliament, therefore making its accountability thereto a preeminent duty, and not simply an act of benevolence.

Notably, if the administration was confident in its revenue projections, it stands to reason that it would welcome the opportunity to defend those projections, with the aim of bolstering public confidence therein.

Getting clear answers from ministers on expenditure estimates was made difficult by nettlesome interventions on the part of committee chairman, Deputy Speaker Don Saunders, who repeatedly insisted that opposition members accept the responses they were given, regardless of whether those responses were in line with the questions asked.

Almost to the point of cliché, the administration has prided itself on eclipsing previous governments in its delivery of fiscal accountability via the passage of the Fiscal Responsibility Act, which gave rise to the creation of the Fiscal Responsibility Council.

When questioned about a sizable increase in recurrent allocation for the council in the upcoming fiscal year — considering its failure to submit oversight reports to Parliament thus far as statutorily mandated — Prime Minister and Minister of Finance Dr. Hubert Minnis revealed that the increase accounted not only for council members’ remuneration, but the establishment of suitable office facilities to carry out its work.

Council members received their instruments of appointment in October, 2019, and as an oversight body, the council functions as the heart of the act that created it.

That it has taken the administration close to two years to make provisions for suitable facilities to enable the council to carry out its work, is evidence of an accountability campaign that is shambolic at best.

In the context of transparency and accountability, we recently bemoaned as an antithetical hallmark of the budget’s committee stage under this administration, the evasive refrain by ministers of “I’ll get back to you”, when questioned.

True to form, Minnis made numerous pledges to provide answers to questions by members opposite on Monday — none of which were provided prior to the budget’s passage.

The submission of annual audited accounts by government agencies not only informs Parliament and the public on their financial state of affairs, but enables parliamentarians to judge the appropriateness of proposed allocations thereto.

Centreville MP Reece Chipman decried that such accounts have not been submitted to Parliament as statutorily mandated, with Minnis offering merely that such failures are a longstanding problem that “we are looking into”.

The time for “looking” is soon over, and the time for causing government agencies to follow the law with regard to fiscal accountability, began over four years ago for this administration.

Transparency and accountability in governance are not only demonstrated by the passage of and adherence to laws, but an attitude of openness that emanates irrespective of statutory edict.

Hoisting the moniker of accountability and transparency while consistently operating to the contrary, makes for an unconscionable charade.

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