Minister of Finance Larry Howai's switch to politics was touted as an infusion of good governance expertise into a political bureaucracy desperate for credibility. So desperate, that some people were prepared to overlook a governance gaffe in what Minister Howai described as a "discretionary" personal payment of $10 million for the move from a State-owned bank to political office. And perhaps those persons may also overlook the fact that not once in his maiden statement of intention to spend $58 billion, Minister Howai managed to use the word, "governance".
Going back to the Partnership Government's first budget statement in September 2010, by the third paragraph, then minister of finance Dookeran noted that the Prime Minister had, "skilfully steered the early transition from a discredited conduct of politics to a new pathway to good governance and inclusive development". Minister Dookeran had no crystal ball to see the SSA/SIA scandal mere weeks away, exposing what would turn out to be an incredible level of naïveté in governance, or reckless indifference to it.
In that 2010 statement Mr Dookeran used the word, "governance", six times, describing "good governance", as one of the seven pillars of the Partnership's Manifesto, a document later adopted as Government policy. In his next budget statement, Mr Dookeran would refer to, "governance", four times, but never with the idealism of his previous statement. In Minister Howai's first time up, the concept simply disappeared.
The annual budget statement is of course supported by a dozen documents including the draft estimates for revenue and expenditure; a separate State-sector document and an expenditure plan for that sector; the Review of the Economy, and the Public Sector Investment Programme (PSIP), including a separate document for Tobago. But the budget statement should be every Government's good governance statement. Over the years it has lost its way both in terms of its constitutional context and its actual content, but the statement is more than just a three-hour speech around which a few weeks of forgettable rabble-rousing is centred. It is a statement which should summarise the governance of the country's actual expenditure and revenue, and the projections for the coming year. It is a sober review and mature projection into the short, medium and long term. And while the three-hour statement may draw the lights, cameras and attention, it is one part of the fiscal governance process, established by the country's Constitution.
In that process of fiscal governance, Section 113 of the Constitution requires the Minister of Finance to lay an Appropriation Bill annually, setting out the estimates of the country's revenues and expenditure. The Bill is so named because funds are appropriated from the Consolidated Fund for the purposes set out in the Appropriation Bill. And where there is expenditure above what is approved or expenditure for which there is no approval, a Supplemental Appropriation Bill has to be laid. But, it is not accidental that three sections down from the provision for the Appropriation Bill, the Constitution establishes the office of the Auditor General. This office has to audit the country's public accounts; must have access to all books, records, returns and other documents relating to those accounts; and reports annually to the Parliament.
And it is also non-accidental that two sections further down, the Constitution establishes the Public Accounts Committee, to consider and report to the House of Representatives on the appropriation accounts of moneys expended out of sums granted by Parliament to meet the public expenditure.
The section also establishes the Public Accounts (Enterprises) Committee, to consider and report to the House on the audited accounts, balance sheets and other financial statements of all enterprises that are owned or controlled by or on behalf of the State.
Throughout, these constitutional provisions assume the adequacy of the public accounting and auditing functions, and also assume that the public accounts are fairly reported. It is obviously not a function of a three-hour budget statement to trace the detailed accounts of the country, but it is a function of any budgetary process and the concise report on it, to review what was anticipated in the previous statement, and what was accomplished. It is also a function of any budgetary statement to provide clear, concise commentary on the governance and efficacy of the budget process, the level of accountability, and the reliability of the figures. To put it simply, the budget statement should be a strong report on fiscal governance, reflecting on the interplay of good governance, fiscal responsibility, public accountability and the Government's role in the discharge of constitutional functions which form part of the fiscal governance process.
Unfortunately, the dozen detailed budget reports, though publicly available are not reviewed by the public, and the discussions are usually centered on the three-hour statement itself. It means that the details relating to the work of the State owned companies- now valued at close to $8 billion- escape public and political scrutiny, and only the sampling ends up in the Auditor General's report.
And, through its slow pace and the emphasis on the headline-grabbing issues within the public and State-owned sectors, the public accounts committees of Parliament cannot keep State-sector companies and public spending generally, under close enough watch.
In any event, on an individual constituency level and within the office of each Senator, there are inadequate resources available to thumb through the voluminous reports and other parliamentary documents, to give the public sufficient information to provoke the type of oversight needed. The problem is worsened by the weakness of civil society, with an absence of interest-driven watchdog groups which do not serve a parallel political interest.
Each year, the budget statement fails as a report on governance and, even as a $10 million "discretionary" payment brought Minister Howai's breath of fresh air into the dank corridors of politics, the matter of governance escaped mention as the Minister's plan for spending $58 billion was unfurled.
• Clarence Rambharat is a lawyer and a university lecturer