Parliament awaits 2012 Budget strategy paper from Biti

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We have reached that time of the year when crafting of the next National Budget gathers momentum.

With about 10 weeks to go before the Budget is presented to Parliament, the Ministry of Finance has stepped up work to put together the 2012 National Budget.

The questions to ask are, what sort of a consultative framework is in place to ensure participatory budgeting which is responsive to the needs and aspirations of the people? And what is the role of Parliament in this process?

The Public Finance Management Act has a provision that tries to empower Parliament to participate in the process of formulating the National Budget. Section 28 (5) of the Public Finance Management Act says “The minister (of Finance) Tendai Biti may through the appropriate portfolio committee of Parliament, seek the views of Parliament in the preparation and formulation of the annual Budget, for which purpose the appropriate portfolio committee shall conduct public hearings to elicit the opinions of as many stakeholders in the National Budget as possible.”

The appropriate portfolio committee in this case is that of Budget, Finance and Investment Promotion, chaired by Paddy Zhanda, Zanu (PF).

While last year the committee held public hearings in Harare, Bulawayo, Masvingo and Mutare during the formulation of the 2011 National Budget, these were conducted very late in the process, thereby impacting minimally on the structure and content of the Budget that was then tabled and approved in Parliament.

The hearings by the committee were also conducted without any Budget policy framework from the Ministry of Finance.

The Budget policy framework or Budget strategy paper is important to provide the necessary parameters under which the Budget is being crafted.

This will tremendously assist those who wish to make submissions during the hearings and avoid unrealistic demands or a wish list being made on the fiscus.

So do we have any Budget strategy paper that the Ministry of Finance has prepared to guide Parliament and public participation during the formulation of the 2012 Budget?

In his presentation of the 2011 Mid-Year Fiscal Policy Review Statement to Parliament on July 26 2011, Finance minister Biti said the Budget strategy paper would be launched in early August and tabled in Parliament for debate as a prelude to the actual Budget.

He explained that the Budget strategy paper was a tool meant to “facilitate broader participation and in-depth debate on national priority issues”.

“This approach, unlike in previous years, allows more time for stakeholder participation during the consultative and formulation phases of the Budget, hence enriching the budgeting system,” he added.

What is important to note from Biti’s statement is that the tabling of the Budget strategy paper in Parliament in early August would have given Parliament and other stakeholders reasonable time under the circumstances to interrogate and participate in the setting of national priorities to be funded from the fiscus.

Of major concern to me is that we are only left with two weeks to the end of September with the Budget strategy paper nowhere to be seen.

This means Parliament and its citizens have already lost six weeks that could have been effectively used to mount public debate on national and Budget priorities in order to realise what the minister described as broader participation in budgeting.

It is therefore up to the Budget Committee of Parliament to engage the minister on his promises in order for these not to end up as empty ones.

Parliamentary committees must make it one of their priorities to follow-up on government assurances made in the august house in order to force their implementation.

This is exactly what the oversight role of Parliament is all about. The presentation of the Budget strategy paper in Parliament should also be legislated for in order to compel the minister to do so. At the moment, the minister is not obliged to present the strategy to law-makers.

In other jurisdictions such as Kenya, Uganda and South Africa, it is legally required that the Budget policy framework is presented to Parliament for interrogation three to six months before the main Budget is presented in the House for debate.

The Budget parameters are therefore not treated as a secret document only to be seen on Budget day.

The enactment of the Public Finance Management Act with provisions for Parliamentary involvement in the formulation and monitoring of the Budget is a very good starting point in promoting a participatory budget process and revamping public finance management in Zimbabwe.

There is, however, urgent need for supporting regulations to be formulated to ensure enforcement of this Act.

Enforcement of the Act will promote credibility, inclusiveness and openness in the whole Budget process.

The Budget Committee should only embark on public consultations on the 2012 Budget after having demanded and scrunitised the Budget strategy paper.

John Makamure is the executive director of the Southern African Parliamentary Support Trust writing in his personal capacity. Feedback: john.makamure@gmail.com