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Public Accounts Committee matters

JULUIS

The principles of transparency and accountability ought to transcend the divisiveness of politics in any democracy.

The realization of these twin concepts should be among the list of things that are spared from the inutile nature of the bicker-style politics employed in Belize.

As stated before in previous editions of this paper, there are 13 standing committees in the House, but only one  such committee—the Public Accounts Committee—is chaired by the opposition party of the day. 

In the eyes of the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association, the PAC is possibly the most significant of these  committees, because it is tasked with overseeing the very thing that all taxpayers care about: how our hard-earned money that is taken away via taxes is being utilized and allocated.

The past People’s United Party administration and the legacy of its super bond should be enough reminder to all Belizeans of the dangers of allowing politicians to “run free” without adequate scrutiny.

The original 2007 super bond had a maturity date of 2029, and its restructured form is pushing that date back by nine years to 2038. This case alone should get everyone thinking about the potential long-term effects of financial decisions that are made in the name of Belizean citizens.

It is then clear that the PAC must be allowed to function properly if we are to truly protect ourselves from any repeats of fiscal decisions that could very much cripple fiscal flexibility of this country, and leave us with intergenerational debt.

The PAC’s mandate: now or then?

The big question, then, isn’t if the PAC is needed; it is why it has not been functioning. The reasons vary but, today, the hindrance, according to PAC chairman, Hon. Julius Espat, the PUP area representative for Cayo South, is the incumbent government’s and the opposition members’ inability to agree on which budget the PAC should examine.

Espat explained that he and others he has consulted believe that the PAC’s mandate is for the present budget: it is not the PAC’s job to go back to examine previous auditor general reports, because that is something a forensic audit or a special select committee could and should do.

However, the United Democratic Party’s members argue that the committee must work chronologically, and start with previous years’ auditor general reports before they can begin to assess the current report and budget, Espat said.

He shared with the Reporter that he expects the stalemate on this matter to continue to such a point that it may end up before the courts  to have the judiciary decide whether or not the PAC’s legal mandate is for “now or then”.

Why is this type of thing necessary of UDP government that ran on a platform of ‘transparency and accountability’? Why is it deemed necessary to bog down the system with things that stand in the way of transparency and accountability? These are the questions every citizen should be asking of their government’s members on that committee.

Today’s PAC to do yesterday’s work

Nonetheless it is safe to say that it would be utter foolishness if something as basic as the PAC’s mandate has to end up before the judicial system before it can  start its work.

As I have mentioned before, the Public Accounts Committee is chaired by the opposition party of the day.

It could be easily understood why any government would want to spend time looking at what its predecessor’s accounts looked like: that is politically expedient. However, it was up to the “opposition of the day” to ensure that they were doing their job as members of the PAC.

What do we mean by that? There was—on paper at least—a PAC during the last PUP administration. The UDP would have had the chairmanship of the PAC in those days; therefore, it was their duty—as it continues to be now as the incumbent—to ensure that public funds were being spent properly.

But that UDP-chaired PAC never came to life and did not do what it should have done as the legislature’s fiscal guardians during those days.

We would not doubt that its failures were on account of similar blockading tactics by the PUP government in those days, because that’s just how infantile the politics in this country could be at times.

So, here we are now. The then opposition is now in power and is requiring the new opposition (the PUP) to take a retrospective approach to assessing the government’s accounts.

Maybe it’s revenge, regret or just a means of securing political mileage—who knows? But, if you look at it objectively, the government is essentially asking the current PAC to do what the UDP-chaired PAC failed to do during the PUP’s last administration.

It must be said that it is a clever move by the government.

While a few PUP members may put country first, the government knows that the majority of PUPs may not want to expose whatever dubious practices the  party had done during its last terms: that’s essentially intra-political-party cannibalism—a taboo of sorts.

This creates an effective stalemate situation. But it is for the Belizean citizens to ask whether or not we care more about what is politically expedient for the two parties, or what is expedient for us, the people of this country, that they were elected to serve.

The here and now

The government has the power to order a forensic audit into the financials of the previous PUP administration, Espat said.

The government could form a special select committee to do just that and, honestly speaking, they should order such a parallel investigation into the dealings during the 1998 to 2008 government.

But, we are in the here and now. The unions that recently protested in Belmopan and continue to negotiate with government over their ‘salary adjustment’ is a contemporary problem.

The super bond’s payments are in the present and will continue for at least two decades into the future, even with the promised cash-flow savings of the new terms.

The University of Belize students who are saying they cannot afford the subsidy cut is a contemporary problem. And all these problems are concurrent with the high cost of living that has many poor families struggling to make ends meet.

Do we have time for this?

So here’s the real question: Do we really have time to be playing politics with the very committee that the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association has declared as the most important standing committee?

To the government that labelled itself a transparent and accountable administration: Remove the unnecessary roadblocks to the PAC’s work!

To the people of Belize: Remember that transparency and accountability are not gifts from the political pantheons, and they cannot do us any good in the realm of only the theoretical: the twin terms are best served via a functioning and practical system—one which the PAC and these committees ought to have represented.

The current PAC has agreed to hold meetings in public. It is, therefore, important for the citizens of this democracy to invoke their legal rights and involve themselves in this process, because, while we have elected leaders, that doesn’t relieve us of our responsibility in this process.

It is, as former US President Lincoln envisioned: a government “of the people, by the people, for the people.”

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