Why the federal budget has lost its meaning

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By T.K. Chua

When I read “Why I didn’t watch the Budget speech” as written by Kensi from Sarawak, I found my feelings were the same. For the first time in a quarter century I did not sit through the whole Budget speech. I walked off after the first hour or so.

The Budget has long lost its aura. It is just an annual pomp for fund managers to get excited and for the government to announce some goodies. Whether or not the goodies are carried out as planned is as good as anyone’s guess.

Why do I say our federal budget is meaningless?

First, the annual budget has never capped the amount of borrowing that the federal government could incur each year. If the federal government may borrow without restraint, who bothers whether our projected revenues and expenses are adhered to? If revenues fall short, the government could borrow more to fill the gap. If expenses burst the budget, again the government could borrow more.

Where are the restraints and control that the annual budget is supposed to provide?

In fact, the annual supplementary budgets are clear indications that the budget has failed to keep government financial indiscipline in check. The government will borrow and spend as it wishes, regardless of the revenue performance or actual expenditure incurred.

Second, the annual budget is just a mechanism to dish out allocations, but never to accomplish its intended outcomes. We mistakenly look at the allocation earmarked for each programme as if it is a fait accompli.

But this is far from true. For example, just look at the allocation for subsidies which the government has always bragged about. It is time for the government to list out how much of the allocation has reached the intended target groups and how much of it was siphoned off by corrupt officials, businessmen and those who could indulge in arbitrage.

Seriously, if budget spending has been constantly effective over the years, I believe there would be no more poor people in this country.

Third, the annual federal budget is no longer the true representation of government financial commitment and responsibility. Off-budget agencies and activities have now overwhelmed traditional government ministries and departments.

Parliamentary oversight of government taxation and expenditure through the annual budget is at best only half correct.

When non-financial public enterprises and GLCs set up ventures, incur debt and impose contingent liabilities on the government, did they get the approval of Parliament to begin with? When government decides on privatisation projects, including guaranteeing revenues and profits of privatised entities, did it seek the approval of Parliament?

I thought the Federal Constitution, (through Part VII – Financial Provisions), is very clear on financial oversights by Parliament – no taxation shall be levied or expenditures incurred unless with expressed authority of federal law. How then did the government spend and borrow so massively through off-budget agencies such as GLCs and Non-financial public enterprises?

It is simple; the annual budget can’t instil discipline if there is no oversight. The annual budget can’t function as an instrument of control if borrowing and off-budget activities are allowed to roam free, unrestrained and unchecked.

T.K. Chua is an FMT reader.

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