MP SPEAKS On Oct 21, Prime Minister Najib Abdul Razak, as Finance Minister as well, tabled Budget 2017. I then pointed out several major discrepancies in his budget speech, i.e. items announced in the speech but not found in the budget documents.
I have written elsewhere that the budget speech is NOT the budget.
On Oct 25, while taking part in the Budget 2017 debate, I ended my speech by urging that Najib be referred to the parliamentary Privileges Committee for misleading the House, as per Standing Order 36(12).
On 26 Oct, I wrote to the speaker of the House, Pandikar Amin Mulia, to request a ruling from the speaker on this matter.
The speaker said that such a request to refer the minister to the Privileges Committee for a misleading budget speech has never happened in any Parliament.
I beg to differ and I would like to point the speaker to my debate speech on Oct 25 regarding the decision of the Indian Supreme Court in re Amin Merchant vs Chairman, Central Board of Excise & Revenue & Ors.
The appellant sued the government because of discrepancies in the Indian finance minister’s budget speech and actual budget passed by the Parliament.
Thus, a dispute involving discrepancies between the minister’s budget speech and budget has, at least on one occasion, been brought to the highest court in a common law jurisdiction.
The speaker said that he needed more time to investigate. I did not comment further despite inquiries being made by the media, as a respect for the office of the speaker.
Yesterday, I was told I will receive a written reply from the speaker on this matter.
Why did I raise Standing Order 36(12) against Najib? There are six (6) reasons:
1. Members of Parliament will not be able to properly scrutinise the budget in general
Members of Parliament (MPs), and Malaysians in general, refer to the budget speech to scrutinise the budget. Highlights by the government, usually in forms of ‘budget goodies’, are announced in the budget speech, so MPs will have to compare them and analyse them thoroughly.
If an item was announced in the budget speech but is missing from the document, how will MPs, and others, be able to scrutinise and analyse the budget effectively?
2. Parliament will not be able to debate items that are not contained in detail in the Federal Expenditure Estimates (Estimates)
According to Standing Order 55(2), at the Committee Stage after its second reading, a Bill (including budget bills) shall not be debated in terms of “the principle of the Bill but only of its details”.
I was once stopped from Committee Stage debate because I was accused of not debating the itemised details in the Estimates. Thus, if we cannot find the ‘goodies’ announced in the Budget Speech in the Estimates, there is no way we can debate on them at the Committee Stage.
Parliament business will be greatly obstructed due to this discrepancy.
3. Amendments and reallotment to an allocation cannot be made in Parliament
Standing Order 66(8) & (13) and their related clauses allow amendments to be done to the Budget while Standing Order 66A allows for reallotment of the expenditure from one item to another.
However, without knowing where the items are located in the Estimates, because either they are not found or their amounts are not recorded correctly, it is impossible for MPs to propose any amendments to these expenditures when it is necessary to do so.
4. The real expenditure of the government cannot be properly determined, allowing the government to circumvent Article 101 of the Federal Constitution
To give an example, according to the Estimates, the development expenditure for the Communications and Multimedia Ministry for 2017 is expected to be about RM495 million.
This however excludes 1) RM1 billion for upgrading broadband infrastructure and 2) RM340 million for providing tablets to 430,000 teachers, as announced in the budget speech. If they are included, the whole development expenditure will balloon to RM1.8 billion, an increase of 260 percent.
The invisible expenditure is 1.5 times more than the visible ones.
In case of excess in government spending, the government must table a Supplementary Supply Bill (supplementary budget) according to Article 101 of the Federal Constitution.
However, with the hidden, unseen and invisible expenditure, there is no way to know if the government had spent beyond its limit and the government can actually circumvent the Federal Constitution by avoiding to table a Supplementary Supply Bill.
5. Financial management will be confused because it is not clear who is responsible for the items not stated in the Estimates
It is not clear at all which ministry or department or officer will be responsible for managing the multi-billion ringgit Budget Speech announcements not found in the Estimates.
There will be no accountability and transparency, nor check-and-balance, as we do not know who to refer to on matters regarding these spendings in the future.
6. Malaysians will have no guarantee that announcements in the Budget Speech will be executed as the government is not bound by Budget Speech
Malaysians who eagerly awaited and listened to the Budget Speech on Oct 21, 2016 will have no guarantee that whatever goodies announced by the government will be executed if they are not found in the budget documents.
In a situation where someone brings the government to court for failing to deliver the announcements, will his or her case be subjected to the Indian Supreme Court decision, re Amin Merchant?
The government must not take for granted that business as usual is acceptable. Yes, this situation may not have happened before in our Parliament, but I want to assure the government, especially the prime minister-cum-finance minister, that the Opposition Bench will not let him nor his government have it easy by taking a lackadaisical attitude when it comes to managing the country’s finances.
STEVEN SIM CHEE KEONG is Bukit Mertajam MP and director of Penang Institute.