OUR INHERITED PARLIAMENTARY CULTURE: Why the Government budget proposals are always approved without change

Pius Msekwa

CURRENTLY ongoing in Dodoma, is the annual budget session of our Parliament (Bunge), and indeed our MPs are currently assembled in the capital city, discussing the government’s budget proposals for the Financial Year 2017/2018.

I was reading the reports of parliament’s proceedings as were reported in the ‘Daily News,’ of Friday 12th May, 2017, when I came across one particular news item which appeared therein.

The said item read, in part, as follows: “MPs from nearly all political parties pushed for the rewriting of the ministry’s budget, saying that it was too little to solve the numerous water problems across the country.

The MPs strongly recommended that the Water Ministry’s budget estimates for the year 2017/2018 be increased”. It is this recommendation by the MPs which prompted me to write this article, in order to explain why such recommendation cannot be implemented.

Furthermore, some keen observers have also expressed concern at the ‘sarcastic’ political exchanges taking place between certain MPs during the ongoing budget debates, and wondered why these MPs are not concentrating on the budget proposals; but instead, are making uncalled for diversions into politics.

This article will attempt to provide answers to both these concerns, and is dedicated to our readers who are interested in the subject of “How Parliament works”. Why Parliament cannot change the government’s budget proposals.

The answer is that there is one basic factor which disables parliament from introducing changes to the annual government budget proposal, and that is, basically, our inherited British parliamentary culture, which our country adopted at the time of independence, and decided to maintain. That British culture is described here below. An inherited parliamentary culture.

The said British parliamentary culture, which we inherited at the time of the country’s independence, consists of two absolutely binding rules of political behaviour, which are otherwise known as “conventions”.

The first of these conventions is commonly referred to as “government by political party”; which essentially refers to the established practice, whereby parliamentary general elections normally take the form of competition between political parties, and the party (or coalition of parties) that wins any particular election, becomes entitled to form the government of the day.

And the term ‘winning the election’ means securing an overall majority of parliamentary seats. This aspect is also known as the “winner takes all” doctrine. The second convention relates to the party which forms the government, also commonly referred to as “the ruling party”. This second convention puts great emphasis on two matters, namely Party Organization, and Party discipline.

The words ‘party organization’ refers to the parliamentary structure which brings together all the MPs of the relevant party which is represented in parliament. That is to say, the ruling party, as well as the opposition parties. Such structures are called ‘Parliamentary Party caucuses’.

While the word ‘discipline’ in this context means that the MPs who are members of the party caucus must strictly adhere to any directions given to them by their party boss, who is known as the “Chief Whip”.

These conventions require, and actually direct, that “parliament may criticize, but should not obstruct the passage of government proposals” The principle of the ‘sovereignty of the people’.

This is in turn based on another cherished principle, which is known as the ‘sovereignty of the people’. This refers to the primacy of the peoples’ decisions.

It means that once the people have made known their decision at a general election, to give a majority of their votes to a particular political party, and therefore given that party the mandate to govern, such as to form the government of the day; that decision by the people must be respected, because the people are sovereign. In other words, the sovereignty of the people must be respected.

Hence, the convention that the government may be criticized, but must not be obstructed; simply because the government is a direct product of the people’s choice, at the relevant general election.

It is because of this convention that the British government (of any political party) usually takes it for granted that its budget will sail through parliament without any change. Tanzania’s inheritance of this British parliamentary culture.

As we all know, at the time of its independence, our country inherited what is known as the British ‘Parliamentary system’ of government; as was done by all the other countries in the world which were previously ruled by the British government during the colonial period. Consequently, all the structures mentioned above were adopted, including in the system of ‘government by political party’, together with all its associated appendages of party caucus, Chief whip, as well as that of ‘party organization’ discipline’.

This setup has remained unchanged throughout the postindependence period, largely because of our membership of the commonwealth; particularly that of the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association, whose aim, according to its constitution, is “to promote knowledge of the constitutional and legislative aspects of parliamentary democracy”. This essentially means the maintenance of a uniform parliamentary system of government.

And this objective has indeed been successfully accomplished. The impact of this inheritance. It is this inheritance which explains why even the Tanzania Government “can take it for granted that its budget proposals will go through parliament without change”; much like the British government.

Unless, of course, such change is introduced by the government itself; as has happened from time to time, when the government made certain changes to its budget proposals during their discussions at the committee level.

But experience shows that at the stage of the budget consideration by parliament itself, no changes have ever been made to any of the budget proposals submitted annually to the parliament by the government In view of that situation, an ‘uninitiated’ MP may well ask himself this (naughty) question: why should he spend his valuable time discussing the government budget proposals, when he knows that they are going to be adopted without change?

In such circumstances, is it not more beneficial to use that opportunity to ‘talk politics’ as a campaign strategy for the forthcoming elections? In the past, this state of affairs (of passing the government budget without change) did produce some unfair accusations from sections of the public, claiming that ‘parliament was just a rubber stamp”.

But surely, such accusations must have been based on ignorance of this inherited parliamentary culture which we have maintained, as explained above.

Why some MPs talk politics instead of discussing the budget. We have referred above to certain observers who sometimes wonder why some MPs have a tendency to divert to politics during the budget debates, instead of concentrating on discussing the budget proposals. Such observers are now advised to always remember that MPs are politicians, in the first place.

Hence, obviously, they must talk politics whenever the opportunity arises. For example, in order to qualify for promotion, University lecturers are required to publish several documents relating to their disciplines; and this requirement has produced the slogan of “publish or perish”.

Similarly therefore, politicians, especially Members of Parliament (who face new elections after every five years), must either ‘talk politics, or perish’! And one French writer called Paul Vallery (1871- 1945), is on record as having said that “politics is the art of preventing people from taking part in the affairs which properly concern them”. Discussing the budget proposals is indeed the relevant matter which primarily concerns our MPs during the annual budget debates.

But they are not prohibited from meandering into ‘talking politics’ when the opportunity arises.

And indeed, under the cover of parliament’s constitutional function ‘to criticize the government’, parliament’s annual budget session gives the MPs an unrestricted opportunity in that regard; for they are allowed to talk about practically any issue whatsoever which has a bearing on the functions and responsibilities of the government, without breaking the rules of the House.

This is so because, although the House Rules do prohibit members of parliament from being ‘irrelevant’ when they are contributing to debates in the House, a member cannot fairly be accused of being irrelevant during the budget debates, simply because during such debates, the MPs are allowed to raise any issue which is within the responsibility of the government to deal with.

This gives a golden opportunity to those who are so inclined, to digress freely into ‘talking politics’ for their political survival, instead of sticking to the budget proposals.

For such MPs, both the temptation, and the opportunity to do so, is just too great, and therefore not easy to avoid!

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