Major learning curve for new MPs….
Probably the most difficult parliamentary rule to explain to the new influx of MPs who have become members of the fifth Parliament is the time honoured and important fact that whilst they may debate and even disagree with various facets of the budget vote appropriations now passed by Parliament, they could not change the sums involved.
That is because the Appropriations Bill, which passes the money raised by taxes and from banks to the various government entities, is a money Bill.
All such money Bills emanate from national treasury and are tabled by the minister of finance. In terms of section 77 of the Constitution, such are Bills that Parliament cannot alter by amendment, whereas with all other Bills they can exercise by majority vote any changes.
Three types of Bill
The majority of proposed legislation that comes before Parliament is in the form of a Section 75 Bill, legislation that will make its way to the National Assembly (NA) for a final vote, the “concurrence” of the National Council of Provinces (NCOP) only being sought during its parliamentary passage. These can be altered by Parliament and Parliament usually holds its own public hearings on such Bills.
The remaining but small balance of Bills, which are quite often of greater importance and interest to the general public, are “tagged” as section 76 Bills. This is because they affect provincial and local administration and constitutionally must go before each provincial legislature to obtain a simple majority for amendment, rejection or approval from the nine provinces. Public hearings occur right down the line accordingly.
Hence, the argument over the Mineral and Petroleum Resources Development Amendment Bill and the e-tolling issue, both of which have both described by opposition members as Bills passed unconstitutionally because, in their view, the subject matter was not purely “national” but involved provincial legislation, taxes and provincial citizens. In other words, they maintain the Bills were incorrectly “tagged” as Section 75.
No money amendments
But back to the very different section 77 money Bills which are introduced direct to the NA by the minister of finance. Why, ask new MPs, should we sit debating the budget vote in portfolio committees when we cannot change the Bill?
The reason goes to the whole root of the parliamentary process and why the Appropriations Bill, as the first Bill that a new crop of MPs has to deal with, forms the basis in the learning curve of why they are there at all.
This is because this is where the process of financial oversight starts.
When the budget vote comes before Parliament, each department, headed by the minister involved, also comes before the relevant portfolio committee and explains what they will be doing with their allocation of the total budget for the current year, their objectives and targets. This commitment is accompanied by a five year strategy plan for the particular department.
The annual cycle of accountability has therefore started and this is why it is so important that director-general posts are substantiated and not filled by those “acting”. These processes are explained to MPs during their training of two weeks now completed.
Following the budget presentations by each government department to each portfolio committee in the NA (and select committee in the NCOP), the Appropriations Bill then goes to a joint sitting in the NA, all MPs from both Houses being present and each minister, with a speech on intent, targets (with, hopefully, some indication of any legislation that ministry intends tabling) the budget vote is then proposed in the knowledge that it will indeed be passed.
Numbers, targets and objectives have therefore all been vocalised and minuted as a result and now the financial facts and objectives are “set in concrete” with all present. Failure or success can be measured.
As a matter of fact, this process is usually the first interface between a new MP and the government department to which the MP has been allocated, which is also an important part of the democratic and oversight process. In the case of the budget vote it is, in essence, for most MPs a financial initiation.
By coming before the committee, consequently, the director general of each department is also committed both on policy and in monetary terms. Each cabinet minister is subsequently asked to sign a presidential delivery contract which, in public service terms, is followed up upon by the department of performance, monitoring and evaluation – part of the Presidency.
Marker put down
However, none of this is so important as the parliamentary monitoring process itself, which both enables all political parties to “grill” under performing departments during the year; debate legislation supporting policy and also, importantly, to provide a transparent window during the oversight process to both media and monitors, who exercise their constitutional right to observe such meetings but with no speaking role.
Other money Bills involve taxation matters, which are specifically dealt with by the portfolio committee on finance, and a special report submitted to the NA. An example of this would be the budget proposals in April.
It is this long and somewhat complicated process that protects us all – emanating from one of the better constitutions in the world. And long may we be so protected.