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The debates wrapped up on Friday in the National Assembly.
There seems to be more interest than normal in this year’s budget from all sides of the political aisle. It is , of course, the first “Oil Budget” and thanks to the sharp political contestation since the controversial 2020 election, every political development is subject to wide popular scrutiny. This is reinforced by an enlarged media landscape that includes the much maligned but potent Social Media platforms. There can be no doubt that coverage of the budget by the so-called Alternative Media has helped to transform what has traditionally been the purview of elite discussants into one of mass national interest.
We make no attempt here to analyse the merits and demerits of the budget nor to offer an economic critique of its content. Rather we wish to draw attention to the perceptions and realities of the politics of exclusion behind what is the largest budget in Guyana’s post-colonial history. The $552.9 billion budget represents an approximately 44% increase over last year’s budget. By all accounts this is an astronomical spending plan for a country like Guyana that is not accustomed to have that large pot of financial resources at its disposal.
Given the large package presented by the government and the highly charged political environment in which it does so, the optics and reality of a budget shaped by one stakeholder is an indictment of our politics and society. Article 13 of our constitution suggests inclusionary governance even if it does not spell out what that means in practical terms. Yet, given our fractured society and politics, it is not difficult to interpret what the framers had in mind.
A budget is perhaps the most important piece of legislation to be placed before lawmakers. It is part of the developmental trajectory of a country replete with plans on how the nation’s resources would be distributed and invested. It gives the nation a sense of the political and economic thinking of the rulers. It is both a statement of vision and an articulation of the ideological thrust of national governance. But more than that, a budget is about the country—all of the country. One expects therefore that it would reflect a consensus of sorts. This becomes even more pressing in a divided society.
Given the fact that this is an Oil Budget being presented against the backdrop of intense debate over equitable distribution of resources, it is surprising that the government made no attempt to include Civil Society and the Political Opposition in its preparation. Yes, in our majoritarian system, the sitting government holds ultimate responsibility for the budget, but Article 13 affords the opportunity for a broader involvement of non-government actors. Further, the very fractured nature of the polity should instruct government to adopt a more inclusionary approach to budget matters.
Many would argue that it is not within the Political DNA of the PPP to contemplate such an approach. That party has shown a stubborn fidelity to monopolization of all space available to it and to even reach for added space. But even then, the global trend is moving towards the tri-partite arrangement of labour, business and the broader government that includes the political opposition when it comes to economic planning and preparation of budgets. What is more revealing is that the opposition PNC and to some extent the AFC took the time to prepare budgetary proposals before the official presentation of the budget. While these were not formally presented to the government, it was a hint to the latter that they chose to ignore.
Involvement of the political opposition in the preparation of the budget would have served the important function of incorporating the concerns of the government’s opposite constituency. This is an underestimated area of governance which by their very nature tend to be constituency-oriented when it comes to economic policy and distribution of resources. Hence opposition’s intervention at the frontend of a budget helps to steer the country towards a more consensus-based trajectory. It also gives the opposition more ownership of the budget and reduces the rancor that usually passes for budget debates.
We feel that the time has come for inclusion of the opposition in both the preparation and passage of the budget. This ought to be enshrined in the law. Towards this end we support the idea of a working economic committee comprising government, opposition, and Civil Society (particularly Labor and Private Sector) representatives that presents a consensus budgetary proposal to the government as a first step in the process. We also support the institution of a consensus (super majority) within the National Assembly for passage of line-items within the budget and perhaps the entire budget. This we feel will go a long way towards developing a national ownership of the budget. The anticipated concerns about gridlock and erosion of government space are less important than national stability and confidence.