For the first time the democratic Parliament has the power to make changes to the medium-term budget, but lack of expertise on the part of MPs will curb the institution’s ability to do so.
Earlier this year the two houses of Parliament passed the Money Bills Amendment Procedure Act. This gives Parliament the right to instruct the treasury to change allocations in the budget.
The new law is a victory for Parliament after years of resistance by former finance minister Trevor Manuel, who had argued that parliamentarians do not have the expertise in public finance needed to make meaningful changes.
This problem was overcome in the Bill by directing Parliament to appoint a budget office staffed with skilled economic analysts. Finance Minister Pravin Gordhan allocated an extra R116-million to Parliament’s budget for the office.
But the office has not been set up yet, said finance committee chairperson Thaba Mufamadi. It should be in place when the annual budget is tabled in February next year.
Even so, the electoral system hampers MPs’ power to amend the budget. Len Verwey, head of the budget unit of the Institute for Democracy in Africa, said: “The electoral system attaches a huge premium [to] party loyalty.
Directors general and ministers are political appointments, so there is not a hugely assertive engagement with departments anyway. But there are signs of a more assertive legislature, so hopefully this will lead to a virtuous circle.”
The treasury has had an increasingly tough time from the ruling party, with several senior members of the ANC complaining that the department has overstepped its boundaries and reduced ministers to “begging” for money to fund their departments.
Verwey told the Mail & Guardian there are indications of a gradual shift, where the treasury is no longer seen as a “special institution” and MPs are less likely to “just accept what treasury is saying”.