Time to take accountability as the voice of the people

Tito Mboweni walked into Parliament's media centre calmly as SA awaited his maiden Medium Term Budget Policy Statement speech with bated breath. Photographer:Phando Jikelo/African News Agency(ANA)

The Minister of Finance delivered the Medium-Term Budget Policy Statement (MTBPS) on 24 October.  Amongst the announcements he made, was that the MTBPS is an opportunity to restore trust between government and society.  South Africans correctly expect more from their government to ensure that their money is spent wisely and productively, and goes to meeting their basic needs.

The Minister further stated that as Government, it is necessary to face up to the events of the recent past, and take steps to strengthen financial management.  National Treasury will therefore work with the Office of the Auditor-General (AG) to reduce fruitless and wasteful, irregular and unauthorised expenditure.

This is an encouraging announcement bearing in mind that last year the then Minister of Finance announced that there was a budget deficit of R48 billion.  In February this year, it was announced that Value Added Tax (VAT) will be increased by 1%. Following from the announcement, the Standing Committee on Finance (SCoF) held public hearings and reported amongst others that the AGl found in November 2017 that over R45 billion was lost in the 2016/17 financial year through wasteful, fruitless and irregular expenditure.  SCoF emphasised that more should be done to prevent wasteful, fruitless and irregular expenditure.

At the Parliamentary Joint Meeting: Standing Committee on Finance, Select Committee on Finance, Standing Committee on Appropriations and Select Committee on Appropriations on 23 October 2018, I noticed an attitude of frustration from Members of Parliament (MPs).

The committees were briefed by the Parliamentary Budget Office (PBO). The PBO provides independent advice and analysis to the Finance and Appropriations committees in Parliament on money bills and bills that have financial implications.  In its briefing, the PBO provided an analysis to the MTBPS. This is followed by a closed meeting with the committee and the Minister of Finance on the day of delivering the MTBPS.  An open meeting between the Minister and the committee takes place a day after the MTBPS.

Questions from MPs to the PBO were aimed at seeking advice on how to be more directive to National Treasury rather than only making recommendations.  A tone of sincerity in wanting to do more, or maybe to have done more, was present – particularly now that the end of the Fifth Parliament is approaching.  The PBO responded that in terms of the Money Bills Amendment Procedure and Related Matters Act (Money Bills Act) of 2009, its mandate is confined to only provide an analysis of the budget.

Parliament is the voice of the people and a question that should be in every MPs mind is has it exercised that voice in holding the executive accountable?  MPs are accountable to the citizens who voted for them and these citizens will get the chance to exercise their vote next year and hold politicians accountable.

In the Constitutional Court Case of Doctors for Life, the majority judgement remarked that, “Politicians, who are perceived to disrespect their voters or fail to fulfill promises without explanation, should be held accountable. A democratic system provides possibilities for this, one of which is regular elections”

The 2016 Municipal Elections is an indication of how voters have exercised their voting powers: metros were lost and gained. Politicians have constituencies and are well aware of the plight of the poor and clear about improving the lives of the poor and vulnerable, creating employment, striving to have a responsive government and a working health system.

Looking back, the First Parliament was elected in 1994.  The First and Second Parliaments most likely dealt with the amending and repealing of former apartheid laws.  The Third Parliament started looking at how it holds the Executive accountable. The Fourth Parliament adopted the Money Bills Act which prescribes strict timeframes in terms of finalising the various stages in the budget process.  The Money Bills Act also established the PBO.

A point emphasised by SCoF during the VAT increase public hearings was that the Money Bills Act was too restrictive in its time frames which stifled meaningful consultations with the public.

The Fifth Parliament is now amending the Money Bills Act in order to give both the public and parliament more time to process the budget proposals.  The Fifth Parliament also dealt with inquiries into the maladministration of Eskom and Parliament summoned various witnesses to this inquiry. This is an indication that Parliament is continually flexing its muscle as it evolves in holding the executive accountable.

This has implications for the Sixth Parliament. Committees are in the process of preparing Legacy Reports for the Sixth Parliament.  These reports will look at what the committees have achieved, what still needs to be done and recommendations as to how to proceed.

The bar is raised for the Sixth Parliament.  How far will it go in holding the executive accountable?  How Parliament passes laws and conducts its oversight over the Executive also has impacts the principle of separation of powers.  The Executive makes policy and implements the laws made by Parliament. Parliament makes the laws and holds the executive accountable.  Is it possible that SCoF will for example reject a bill from the executive proposing a tax increase? I think that would be very unlikely as it would be a sign of no confidence in government.  However, committees and their Chairpersons can skillfully raise or lobby an issue of importance and convince a Cabinet Minister to follow a different a route.

I think there’s room for growth in Parliament flexing its accountability muscle.  This will add to restoring citizen’s trust in government. We must not forget that Parliament is after all, the voice of the people and they speak for us.

Zelna Jansen is the Executive Director of Zelna Jansen Consulting.