Time to paint a new picture on Budget debates
The “Economic Debate on the Hill” is done and dusted and the annual Budget debate upon us. If you are not following along, closely or at all, you are probably not alone. Some 50-plus hours are put aside for what is generally regarded in parliamentary parlance as the Opposition’s Debate — but, regrettably, it has been typically anything but.
Here is it how it is supposed to go: the Opposition gets to allocate how those hours will be spent, on what ministries and/or departments, and to zero in on proposed expenditure, current and proposed.
However, and unfortunately, over the years, starting with the United Bermuda Party, a practice evolved whereby ministers read these seemingly interminable briefs, prepared by civil servants that take up so much of the time there is little left for anything resembling debate, let alone questions and answers.
Credit here to those ministers who do buck the trend and who keep their briefs tight and share them with their shadow ministers in advance.
But for those who choose to listen along, closely or otherwise, the Budget “debate” can be like watching paint dry. I know. I have been there and sat through many. It was like watching paint. Period.
Of course, it does not have to be that way. There are enough Members who have had the experience of serving on both sides of this unproductive practice. This is one critical piece to our governance architecture that is in dire need of review, repair and remediation.
There is plenty of scope for change, too. Limit the time the ministers and opposition spokesmen speak, opening it up to other Members — again with time limits — to allow for and to encourage questions and answers. That also means giving ministers specified time to reply; and answers to questions that cannot be answered there and then on the floor should be provided and written into the record on the next day of sitting.
It has always seemed to me that the goal should be for the Government and Opposition to not only review what was done, or not, in the previous financial year, but to establish benchmarks for the coming 12 months. The benefit here is that these benchmarks can then be tracked during the year — and it is here that oversight committees should come into play, particularly that of the Public Accounts Committee, which is headed and meant to be driven by the opposition spokesman for finance.
This may not always make for sexy, headline-grabbing work for MPs — it can be a hard slog, in fact — but this is nonetheless an important component of parliamentary duties. It is just this sort of scrutiny that helps to bring about accountability.
MPs from both sides also get to weigh in on and demonstrate their working knowledge of those subjects and portfolios that interest them. It is the kind of “working together” we could usefully use. Members don’t necessarily have to agree on what they tackle, and they will not have lost the opportunity to advocate and defend party position.
True, there is merit in passionate debate on matters of principle and policy, and that should continue. Voters will measure the strength of their representative accordingly, but ... But there is a lot to be said for parliamentary opportunities to work on solutions where there is agreement.
Let me illustrate the point on the thorny issue of immigration, a subject rightly addressed in both the Budget Statement and Opposition Reply. We see in the respective positions the possibility of a common approach juxtaposed with the challenge to adopting a more collaborative approach.
Language is key.
Here is how the Premier/finance minister framed the issue after confirming that population growth is essential for economic recovery: how do we ensure that it benefits Bermudians who live in Bermuda? He declared there had to be a change in mindset.
He held out as an example a template introduced in his time: the Economic Investment Certificate. He further referenced the $45 million in investments this has brought to Bermuda — to benefit Bermudians.
It read like an invitation to me, one that the Opposition could have taken up in its Reply.
There is no percentage in just recounting the history, recent and past, which has always surrounded what has been a vexatious issue, and engaging in the blame game. People know. People do remember.
What we need now are solutions and no one, I am guessing, is in favour of any policy or practice that does anything other than benefit Bermuda and Bermudians. The need has never been more apparent.
Put forward and work on solutions — and be prepared to be seen not only working with the Government but supporting the Government in advocating adoption, helping to bring along those who have doubts, concerns or reservations.
Again, the need has never been more apparent or greater, and with the outsized mandate the Progressive Labour Party received at the last election, it has won for now the right to lead and set the pace on this and other issues facing Bermuda.
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