As has become the norm, this week saw the 2011 National Budget being fast-tracked in the House of Assembly without any changes.
The only positive news was the passage of the Public Order and Security Amendment (Posa) Bill, a private member Bill moved by Innocent Gonese.
What is disappointing on the Budget is that the fast-tracking followed almost seven days of intense scrutiny of the expenditure and revenue proposals by various portfolio committees, with the assistance of sectoral experts.
Civic society and interest groups were invited to Parliament to make submissions on the Budget while line ministry officials had an opportunity to appear before their committees and clarify the various programmes and expenditure plans for 2011.
Why then the Budget had to be passed within two days, boggles my mind. In my view, this is a setback to the advancement of parliamentary democracy.
When debate on the Budget commenced on Tuesday, most of us got excited because it was lively.
Taking centre stage was Paddy Zhanda, chairman of the Budget, Finance and Investment Promotion Portfolio Committee, who tabled a committee report that I can describe as brilliant in that it focused on the pertinent issues affecting this economy, and came up with very clear and substantive recommendations.
Zhanda, who has proved a strong advocate for pro-poor policies and a champion of investor-friendly policies, did not mince his words when he called for all members across the political divide to set aside partisan interests and debate the Budget in the national interest.
Said Zhanda: “While we acknowledge the presence of the whipping system, it is however our conviction that on such matters related to the expending of national resources, national interests should take precedence than anything else.
We, therefore, call upon honourable members to engage the Budget with an objective conscience of wanting the right views to prevail.”
This is as it should be because these are public funds which must be deployed in an efficient and effective manner.
Efficiency means deriving maximum returns from the resources utilised while effectiveness means utilising resources for the right things.
Surely, allocating limited financial resources in order to subsidise parastatals like Cold Storage Company (which was allocated $2 million), Pig Industry Board ($339 000), Agricultural Marketing Authority ($120 000), among others, is not doing the right thing. The same applies to the perennially loss-making National Railways of Zimbabwe.
These enterprises should be self-sustaining rather than become a burden on the already over-stretched fiscus.
The other issue of concern raised by the Budget Committee is the continued free importation of agricultural products that can be abundantly grown in Zimbabwe.
Such policies have crowded out the smallholder farmer and worsened poverty, which the minister said the Budget is trying to mitigate.
It is against this background that the MPs demanded that changes be made to the Budget before they could pass it.
What they called for was a re-alignment of allocations in order to promote efficiency and effectiveness in the utilisation of the $2,7 billion Budget.
When Zhanda tried to move a motion for the adjournment of debate, he was not politicking but simply saying there was need for further consultations with the Minister of Finance Tendai Biti to convince him to effect some of the proposed changes.
More time was needed for debate so that the public out there would understand the implications of the fiscal measures and join in the same debate.
Parliament acts as a centre for promoting public debate on government policies and this can never be achieved if the Budget is passed in two days.
All the 19 portfolio committees made recommendations to the minister, so why not give Hon Tendai Biti enough time to carefully consider the recommendations and come back to the House for further debate?
Such an approach is for the public good. The argument from other people is that by delaying the Budget, government operations will come to a halt as there will be no money to pay civil service salaries and other urgent expenditures.
This argument has no merit because there are adequate constitutional provisions to cater for the failure by the Budget to come into force by the start of the fiscal year on January 1 2010.
Section 103 (6) of the Constitution says if an Appropriation Act has not come into operation by the beginning of the financial year, an Act of Parliament may make provision for the President to authorise withdrawal from the Consolidated Revenue Fund for the purpose of meeting expenditure necessary to carry on with the services of government.
The period under which the President can exercise these powers is up to four months. The funds that the President can authorise to be withdrawn from the Consolidated Revenue Fund should not exceed one-third of the sums included in the estimates of expenditure for the preceding year.
So in this case, the President can authorise a maximum of $750 million to be withdrawn based on the approved 2010 National Budget estimates of $2,25 billion.
As long as MPs are not advocating for an increase in the size of the Budget, it is within their right to demand a re-alignment of line items and the Executive should have positively responded in line with the spirit of good governance.
The demand for better salaries by MPs can only be justified if they assert their authority and resist being used as rubber-stamping agents of the Executive.
John Makamure is the executive director of the Southern African Parliamentary Support Trust. Feedback: email@example.com