Hoping for difference in Howai's budget
Finance Minister Larry Howai will make a large difference, and even some history, if he devotes time next Monday to an empirical review of what had been promised in his predecessor's budget a year ago and what was actually achieved.
Typically, finance ministers read three-hour budget speeches loaded with projects and even delivery timelines. Sometimes, those timelines are brought forward from budgets of previous years, with no progress updates being included. Whole sections from other budgets may be repeated, with slightly different wording, and timelines dropped without explanation. New projects appear with deadlines extending well beyond the next year, or next five years, begging the question as to why they should be included in a budget at all.
These familiar wish lists of "to do's" tend to be frustrated by non-implementation or partial completion. Reasons include bureaucratic incompetence, foot-dragging, and shortage in quantity and quality of relevant expertise.
A government which adheres to its duty to be transparent with citizens about how their money is being spent would, in every budget presentation, give an account of such problems. Sometimes, the answers can be found in the supplemental budget documents, but last year's Social Sector Investment Programme (SSIP) and Public Sector Investment Programme (PSIP) publications were relatively superficial in data as compared to previous ones.
Thus, much of the budget presentation ends up being talk for talk's sake. As cynicism deepens over this annual exercise in futility, AmCham president Hugh Howard in an interview in this week Wednesday's Business Express recommended that "a budget should not be a promise, it should be a plan of action".
Mr Howard said the difference was that an action plan was comprehensive. In that distinction lies the difference between a budget which is a political speech and a budget which is about economic policy.
All administrations, naturally, try to present a document which is both political (i.e. chest-thumping) and economically sound. With the People's Partnership now suffering from Section 34 stress, it may be unrealistic to expect a budget presentation which will not be heavily politicised. At the same time, Finance Minister Howai has already stated that this will be an austerity budget, which implies that citizens cannot expect too many goodies.
But, if this is his intention, it is even more important that he is transparent and rigorous, so the populace would understand and appreciate the basis for austerity. Any attempt to paint a rosy picture, which is then contradicted by the actual measures, would surely exacerbate discontent among an already restive citizenry. The successful veteran banker turned finance minister should therefore aim to guard against damage to his credibility for being associated with more talk than action.