By AVA TURNQUEST
Tribune Chief Reporter
FORMER chief parliamentary clerk Maurice Tynes has criticised the handling of the decision not to hold a debate in the House of Assembly on the mid-year budget statement, telling The Tribune the government does not own Parliament.
Mr Tynes was asked to comment on the government’s decision not to hold a debate - an unprecedented departure from previous administrations that has drawn the ire of the Official Opposition, as well as FNM party insiders.
“You don’t do it arbitrarily like it was done this year,” Mr Tynes said, “it has to be done with discussion with the opposition. The government party does not own the Parliament, they may control it but then all civil democracies have a discussion between the government and the opposition, and if you’re going to change the rules then it has to be done in discussion, not done arbitrarily.”
For his part, however, Mr Tynes said he always felt it was “stupid” to hold two debates within a three-month cycle as no other country had this policy.
“It ought to be a budget statement followed by questioning by the committee of the whole House,” he added.
“They had a debate up until this year so if they change it, it ought to have come from discussions with the opposition.”
Last month, Renward Wells, leader of government business in the House of Assembly, reportedly advised South Andros MP Picewell Forbes there would be no debate on the mid-year budget as there was no corresponding resolution.
Mr Forbes is leader of opposition business in the House.
“How can you say you’re cutting five percent in expenditure from each ministry because you’re not getting in revenue, and you don’t say what you cutting and where you putting that money?” asked a former FNM parliamentarian, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, adding the current administration was not transparent.
Yesterday, Attorney General Carl Bethel insisted the decision not to hold parliamentary debate on the mid-year budget statement did not signal a lack of transparency, telling The Tribune anyone who wanted information could simply “read” tabled documents.
Mr Bethel dismissed criticism over the unprecedented shift in policy concerning the mid-year budget statement.
Yesterday, Mr Bethel maintained the debate portion was not mandated by law unless there were supplementary appropriation bills, or borrowing.
“The PLP had to borrow. We didn’t have to borrow,” Mr Bethel said when pointed out that the policy was upheld by the subsequent Progressive Liberal Party administration.
“It’s very simple, if we were mismanaging the finances of the country and had to borrow then we would have a debate. Right now we are managing expenditure,” he continued, “in the budget statement they are there.”
The Tribune asked Mr Bethel whether he felt the lack of debate was a matter of transparency.
“It does not, no,” he said, “because the budget statements are there. No one is saying they’re incorrect. It’s all set out, very transparent just read them. There is nothing hidden or not disclosed. No one has made that criticism, they are demanding a debate but the law does not require it.”
The mid-year budget statement was first introduced by the Ingraham-led administration in the 2007/2008 budget cycle to bring a level of ministerial transparency and accountability to the budgetary process, and a subsequent debate has been held since the first statement was read in February 2008.
In the first such statement, then-Prime Minister Hubert Ingraham outlined the purpose and implications of the proclamation - which he said represented the “establishment of a level of transparency and accountability which is, without doubt, a noteworthy enhancement in the process of governance.”
Prior to this, Mr Ingraham explained, the annual budgetary process was primarily concerned with the economic context of the fiscal period; an articulation of the government’s expenditure plans and programmes of the fiscal year; and issues related to raising necessary revenue and finances for the budget.
He added that the performance review portion was often overshadowed by the plans for the upcoming year, with little attention given to the government’s performance in the current year.
In his 2008 statement, Mr Ingraham said: “It is specifically an opportunity for ministers to report to Parliament and the Bahamian people on the progress they are making on the programmes established for their portfolios in the current fiscal year, to determine its adequacy and to make the case for any additional expenditure which may be required.”
At the time, Mr Ingraham said the documentation circulated with the mid-year statement contained the necessary information for this reporting process, and showed the progress of expenditure on recurrent and capital expenditure and on recurrent revenues.
“The information is therefore,” Mr Ingraham said in 2008, “being laid before this honourable House to enable it to query all aspects of the management of the public finances, and to question ministers thereon.
“Thus, this opportunity is specifically structured for parliamentary review of the performance of the budget midway during the fiscal period.”
Mr Ingraham added: “My government is honoured to have had the opportunity of introducing this new landmark in strengthening our parliamentary process and making government more accountable to the people.”
When asked for comment yesterday, Official Opposition Leader Philip Davis reiterated his accusation that the Minnis administration upheld a hypocritical “double standard” when it came to governance.
“They’re just arrogant and they believe the Bahamian people don’t see what they’re doing,” Mr Davis said. “(Minnis is) going to the Family Islands on the public purse campaigning. And if you watch any of those sessions, because he just repeats himself, he’s going to talk about the mid-year budget in these small groupings instead of giving an opportunity to debate it in Parliament.
“And there are some questions we need to answer,” Mr Davis continued, “they claim that tourist arrivals have been up but when we look at departure taxes that’s down significantly what does that mean? Are we not collecting the taxes?”