The presentation of the 2015 National Budget in Parliament last week turned out to be a non-event after the Minister of Finance and Economic Development revealed to his stunned audience that virtually all the revenues collected were now being directed towards wages and salaries for public servants, and that there was no money for the government officials to operate. A scenario whereby civil servants are paid to do nothing is unheard of in other jurisdictions. This is unproductive expenditure to the extreme. Our MPs should take this matter seriously when they start debating the Budget on the 8 of December. Basic economics tells us that salaries and wages are recurrent expenditure which does not promote the much needed capital formation necessary for job creation and gross domestic product growth. The MPs must therefore tackle the issue of unsustainable recurrent expenditure in an informed and non-partisan manner if budgeting in this country is going to make any sense at all. Granted, there are no quick-fix solutions to the size of the civil service wage bill as reduction in numbers is not an overnight event. However, the MPs must be pushing hard for the Executive to be seen implementing measures to cut the size of the civil service. It does not make any economic sense to keep a large number of employees on the pay roll when they do not have the tools of the trade. Over the years, the thrust of parliamentary debate on the budget has been disappointing. The various portfolio committees tend to echo the same sentiments by ministries that the funds allocated are not enough. This is meaningless debate because we are on a cash budgeting system and the national cake is very small. Rather, the MPs must be proffering concrete solutions on how to grow the size of the cake. The national cake can only grow through sound economic policies that are implemented in a consistent manner by the Executive. Policy inconsistencies and discord within government will scare away both domestic and foreign direct investment. Perception about the political stability of a country is also a major determinant to investment decisions. These are the real issues that the MPs must be debating at length as opposed to asking that their wish list be allocated adequate budgetary resources that are not available in the first place. Now that the Budget has been tabled in Parliament, the next stage is for the various portfolio committees to analyse allocations and policies related to the sectors that they provide oversight. Hearings shall be convened at which government officials and civil society organisations are invited to make their submissions. The hearings will culminate in reports being compiled for presentation during general debate on the budget. This is the stage that I expect the reports to focus more on the underlying issues affecting poor economic performance and the smaller cake. In other words, the portfolio committee reports must dwell more on how to grow the economy, how to raise additional revenue in a sustainable manner and how to prioritise the limited cake in a way that promotes the rights of citizens. MPs must debate the budget from a rights-based perspective. After general debate the next stage is committee of supply. Debate and approval of each ministry’s allocation/vote is done in the committee of supply. During this stage, portfolio committees have an opportunity to debate in detail, their sector allocations. Recommendations to virement funds from one budget item to another may be proposed and debated. Thus each vote is passed, with or without amendments. So it is possible for Parliament to amend the budget by virementing funds from one budget line to another. In other words, if MPs feel certain areas are not priorities, they have the legal powers to move funds to areas they feel are national priorities. They cannot increase the size of the total Budget but can move funds from one item to another. We know that the party whipping system is largely to blame for the failure by Parliament to amend the Budget. While acknowledging the negative effects of the whipping system, I have not come across MPs that have tabled proposed amendments to the Budget during Committee of Supply which have been debated and rejected. Let us see the proposed amendments first, and not jump to blame the whipping system for the MPs’ own short comings. There are chances to amend the Budget provided the portfolio committees constructively engage the ministers and refrain from politicising budget debate. Surely you cannot expect to influence changes to the Budget if you merely clamour for more resources without proffering well-thought suggestions on where the money will come from. When the Budget has been passed with or without amendments, the portfolio committees have a huge task to monitor implementation of that Budget. They are legally empowered to do so through provisions in the Constitution and Public Finance Management Act. The MPs must fully familiarise themselves with these provisions in order to enforce their implementation and ensure the limited resources made available are utilised efficiently and effectively.