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Opinions of Monday, 29 November 2021

Columnist: Kofi Ata

The Budget Rejection: Are MPs working for Ghana or for their parties?

A sitting of parliament | FILE PHOTO A sitting of parliament | FILE PHOTO

Last Friday 26 November 2021, the minority party in parliament, National Democratic Congress (NDC) voted to reject the budget presented to parliament by the Finance Minister, Mr Ken Ofori-Attah on 17 November 2021.

This was after the majority party, National Patriotic Party, (NPP) walked out of parliament and boycotted the approval of the budget following the decision of the Speaker to put to a vote, a request by the Finance Minister to address either the house or the minority on some concerns raised.

This brief article is to discuss what happened in parliament on the day and whether the peoples’ representatives are serving the interests of Ghana or those of their political parties.

Some Ghanaians will remember that what happened in parliament on Friday 26 November 2021 is not the first time that a budget of the majority government has been rejected by parliament.

Those of us old enough will recall that on Tuesday 30 June 1981, the budget of the Dr Liman’s government presented by the then Financial Minister, the late Prof George Benneh was rejected by parliament.

On that occasion, the ruling Peoples National Party (PNP) also had majority in parliament but did not have the numbers on that day in parliament to carry the vote, therefore the minority party, the Popular Front Party (PFP) decided to vote against it in a partisan approach.

I personally did not follow events on the day in parliament but have since familarised myself with what happened through the media. My conclusion is that both the majority and the minority strategised to undo each other for political expediency but both have backfired.

It is the case of the majority that the Speaker was biased against them for putting the Finance Minister’s request to a vote and that is why they walked out.

On the other hand, the minority also claim that the majority after realising that they did not have the numbers to win the vote decided to use the presence of Mr Asiedu Nketia, the NDC General Secretary as a scapegoat to avoid defeat.

My personal view is that, irrespective of each other’s position, they should have put Ghana first and party second to resolve their differences and approve a budget that is in the best interest of Ghana for Ghanaians. That is what they were elected to do.

Had Ghana been a listed company on the Ghana Stock Exchange or the London Stock Exchange (as Ken Ofori-Attah’s proposed Agyapa Royalties), her shares would have tumbled down after the walk out by the majority and the vote by the minority. Both have done a disservice to Mother Ghana and parliamentary democracy.

But when did a majority party in parliament walk out or boycott parliamentary vote on a budge of their own government? Is that not interesting or strange? Were they aware that they did not have the numbers in the house and realised the minority outnumbered them so they must outfox the minority by finding an excuse to avoid defeat?

We may never know the answers to these questions but what we know is that, the Speaker instead of allowing the request of the Finance Minister to address the concerns of the house decided to throw it back to the members. Was the Speaker aware that the majority were short of numbers and if the request was put to a vote, the minority will win?

The next question is, did the majority really want Mr Asiedu Nketia who was in the public gallery out because the minority had insisted on the Finance Minister leaving the Chamber of the House? Was this tit for tact or politics of equalisation approach in Ghana helpful? The answer is no.

The budget was presented on 17 November 2021and since then the public and the minority have raised a number of concerns, including the proposed levy on internal electronic transfers, now referred to as e-levy.

Therefore, if the Finance Minister has had a change of heart and wanted to explore the possibility of making some amendments, why did he not approach the leadership of both the majority and minority to put the proposals and his request to address the house on those matters earlier?

Why wait till the eleventh hour and was that also a good reason to justify why the minority refused or were bent on refusing the request?

Yes, the request might have come too late but at least, the Finance Minister was in the house and should have been given the opportunity to speak, unless the minority had made up their minds that they will vote against the budget come what may.

Couldn’t the majority have stayed in the house for the Majority Leader to carry the message of the Finance Minister to the house?

Were they also bent on walking out and disrupting the day’s parliamentary agenda because they did not have their way? Sadly, this “yentie obiaa” syndrome by both the majority and minority would not help either of them, nor parliamentary democracy.

What was clear to me from the events in parliament on the day in question is that, there are no winners and we, Ghanaians are all losers.

The second lesson is that, the results of the parliament election on 6 December 2020 when NPP won 137 seats and NDC won 137 seats with one independent voting with NPP, sent a clear and unambiguous message that, parliament must work in a bi-partisan approach to get things done. In reality, there is no majority and no minority in parliament.

The majority and minority positions were reached by consensus. In the case of NPP parliamentary group, it is even more difficult for them to always secure the 138 votes because the First and Second Deputy Speakers are from their side.

Therefore, if any of the two is the presiding member, the majority and minority numbers will be equal. Again, on the part of majority, they have MPs who are also ministers and may be unable to be present in the house at all times because their ministerial duties could take them out of the country for days.

For example, now that the Speaker will be away for medical treatment, one of the Deputy Speakers must reside, which makes the majority votes 137, assuming all MPs from their side are present.

What happens if an MP minister is abroad on his or her ministerial duties? The majority will be the new minority assuming all NDC MPs are present. Therefore, it’s in the majority’s interest to cooperate with the minority in passing bills.

For the above reasons, both the majority and minority should know that it is in their best interest to cooperate for the good of Ghana. For the majority, they should admit and accept that, it’s no longer business as usual.

The days of the minority will have their say and the majority will have their way are gone as far as the 8th Parliament is concerned because the mathematics will not always favour them. In the same way, the minority should not abuse their new found strength in the numbers game to always want to defeat the government because when two elephants fight, it’s the poor grass that suffers.

Instead, the minority should be will willing to use their advantage in the numbers game to engage the majority in influencing government policy for the betterment of Ghana and not play party political politics.

If both majority and minority had engaged in fruitful discourse over the issues they had disagreements over in advance, the debacle on Friday would have been avoided and a budget would have been passed.

Finally, the government should not feel to big to approach the minority side to discuss issues of national interests. The President, Nana Akufo-Addo and the Finance Minister, Mr Ken Ofori-Attah must be willing to go on the phone to speak to the leadership of the minority to seek their support for the approval government policies.

Of course, the two parties will always have differences of opinion because they come form different political ideologies and have different approaches. However, the fact is that, no one party has the solutions to Ghana’s problems and even within one political party, there are differences of opinion. What is required is, as Winston Churchill said, is to jaw-jaw and not war-war.

The Speaker, Right Honourable Alban Kingsford Sumana Bagbin must not only be impartial but must also be seen to be impartial.

So far, in my candid opinion and observing from afar, I am unable to confidently say that he is an impartial arbiter. Why was he unable or unwilling to rule on the request by the Finance Minister to speak to the house?

Would he have done thrown it to the members, being aware that if put to a vote the government would lose and if this was an NDC government? He must improve on his decision making to prove beyond reasonable doubt that he is impartial.

What happened in parliament on 26 November 2021 was a disgrace and not in the interest of NPP and NDC but against the interest of Ghana and Ghanaians.

I hope all parties involved will learn from it and improve parliamentary co-operation in bi-partisan approach for the good of Ghana.

Kofi Ata, Cambridge, UK