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Talking heads and the real deal – spot the difference

Over the course of the next few weeks, we shall be witness to the biggest charade in the parliamentary calendar — and that is the Budget debate. One week of this charade has happened already and I'm willing to bet that most people had no idea. There is a lot more to the theatrics of the Minister of Finance walking up the “Hill” with a red box.

So how does the process work? The Budget must be passed and signed into law by March 31, since the Budget applies from April 1 to March 31 of each year — although there is scope for a deviation to this under the Constitution, but it has never been done as far as I know.

This means that for the Budget to pass in the House of Assembly and the Senate, and be signed by the Governor by the March 31 deadline, the Minister of Finance traditionally presents the Budget and accompanying statements in mid-February. A hefty Budget book is handed out to MPs and collected by senators to review. The Minister of Finance gives an opening Budget Statement and it marinades in the community for a week before the Opposition replies.

Before the Budget Statement being read, each lobby group speaks out with its wish list, and they are always the same: more money for seniors, more money for environmental protection, less tax for small and large businesses, more money for healthcare, more investment in education, etc, etc. In other words, pretty bog-standard stuff.

The Budget debate is allocated 56 hours in the House of Assembly and 22 hours in the Senate — this is after the general debate about the Budget, which in itself lasts at least 12 hours, if not more. The Opposition chooses which heads of the Budget will be debated — if you are interested, the ministry heads should be on the government portal.

The Budget “debate” process is laborious and a tremendous waste of government time and energy. Since no one but the Opposition knows which heads will be debated until a week before the “debate”, senior civil servants must prepare a budget brief for their ministers explaining the machinations of their respective ministries and departments that they may or may not be called upon to actually use.

This process starts in September of each year. By December, the briefs should be largely completed and be ready for ministerial review. Should that minister's ministry and respective heads be selected by the Opposition for debate, the minister has the joy of reading out the laborious brief in Parliament.

This year the only difference from usual was that the Premier and his junior minister did a roadshow of “collaboration”. However, given how the Budget process works, the collaborative part was really a charade. It was another magic show.

No real change would ever be possible to the Budget as a result of this “collaboration”, given that 95 per cent of the Budget is completed by the end of December of each year, including the revenue and expense estimates.

For those not “in the know”, the so-called “debate” process is similar to watching paint dry for both the Government and the Opposition, no matter which party is sitting on either side of the aisle.

I suspect it is worse for the members of the media who have to attend from this parish and who have to find a way to report on drying paint differently year after year.

Why do I say this? It is simple, really. If, for example, the Government allocates six hours to the Ministry of Public Works for debate, including its various departments, the minister could choose to “read” — note, I have not used the word “debate” here — a six-hour brief and leave no time for any actual debate or questions. That brief would be full of both useful and totally useless information, dealing with interesting matters from staffing levels all the way to the mundane, such as the number of tyres ordered for the government fleet of dump trucks.

Rarely is the brief shared in advance with the Opposition. The sharing of such is literally based mostly on the relationship the respective minister may have with their Opposition counterpart. Normally, a minister may leave an hour for questions from the Opposition. If a minister knows the ministry and was engaged substantively in the Budget process, the debate can run smoothly.

However, we can never be assured of that a minister has real and substantive understanding of the Budget, which often leads to hours of reading rather than debating.

A minister in command of his ministry ship is actually an impressive thing to watch. However, the truth is that this is rare. Usually an army of civil servants accompanies the minister and sits in the gallery, passing notes to the minister in answer to questions — in other words, the minister simply becomes a ventriloquist dummy.

Sadly, such “performances” are rarely, if ever, seen by the public. Instead, after six hours of a “debate”, you may end up with only about 30 minutes of true debate, of which three or four sentences may be reported in the media. If the minister or Opposition member is proactive, you may be “treated” to an interview or op-ed.

Things get worse in the Senate. Twenty-two hours are spent in this chamber “debating”. If the Opposition simply chooses the same heads as were debated in the House, the debate is doubly boring and even more a waste of time. The reason in the Senate that the debate is futile is that the Budget-related Bills cannot be turned back.

When I was a member of the Opposition in the Senate, I often said that it was the most amount of work that I ever had to do for the smallest amount of return. I also used to tell that to the Opposition when I was a government minister, although it only holds true if in fact, as a member of the Opposition, you actually fulfil the role of acting as an Opposition. I suspect the process was a little more exciting for the Progressive Labour Party as Opposition since the parliamentary numbers were so close in the House.

So what can be done to at least make this political theatre called a debate more public-friendly?

1, Televise proceedings of both chambers on CITV. With fixed camera angles and specific dispatch boxes for speeches, this will be less costly. This will liven things up and also hopefully make members be more respectful towards one another

2, Limit the time ministers may read briefs to, say, half of the time allocated for a debate

3, Require briefs to be shared with the Opposition in advance to allow for maximum transparency and accountability

4, Agree in advance which members will speak from each side so that not all members are required for the debate

5, Limit to one the number of civil servants that may accompany the minister — and that should be the permanent secretary

Frankly, I would have been more than happy to have embraced these changes as a minister. These changes would encourage far more real debate and would ensure that ministers are more than just parrots or, worse, ventriloquist dummies.

Only then will the public truly see what their representatives are up to and who is truly competent and worth the money they are paid from the public purse.

Michael Fahy is a former Minister of Home Affairs, Minister of Tourism, Transport and Municipalities, and Junior Minister of Finance under the One Bermuda Alliance government

Say what: Cabinet ministers are akin to ventriloquist dummies when they are accompanied in Parliament by an army of civil servants

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Published March 06, 2018 at 8:00 am (Updated March 06, 2018 at 8:10 am)

Talking heads and the real deal – spot the difference

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