The mote and the beam



Friday 19th May, 2023

The Committee of Public Enterprises (COPE) has striven over the years to meet the people’s expectations as a parliamentary watchdog outfit. Together with the Auditor General and others, it has exposed numerous state institutions for their shortcomings, accounting irregularities, avoidable losses, waste, and corruption. In some cases, it has even prompted corrective action to be taken. Thankfully, the COPE continues its efforts to enforce accountability in the public sector and rationalise government expenditure, deserving praise for its good work.

Recently, the COPE held a meeting with a group of representatives from vocational training institutions to discuss the Auditor General’s findings on their performance and shortcomings. The proceedings of the meeting are now public. During the discussion, a committee member criticised the officials present for not having basic information about their institutions; he said they should be ashamed. This remark must have resonated with the public.

Our opinion of the state bureaucracy is not very favourable, as it is plagued by corruption and inefficiency, much like the political authority. Decades of politicisation and the lowering of public professional standards under successive governments are to blame. There are still some upright public officials who do not enter into a Faustian pact with politicians and other crooks, but they are unfortunately the exception that proves the rule. Consequently, the public is elated when COPE, the Committee on Public Accounts, etc., take on state officials. However, these parliamentary watchdog committees should uphold natural justice and allow the officials under scrutiny to express their views and defend themselves; the MPs should adhere to the principle of audi alteram partem or hearing the other side. Regrettably, a very senior health official faced the wrath of an MP, who effectively frustrated his attempts to defend his position, during a parliamentary committee meeting. This incident has left a negative impression on many.

There are instances where parliamentary committee members take moral high ground and lash out at public officials for their failures, just as the COPE did when it reprimanded decision-makers in vocational training institutions for their lack of familiarity with their institutions’ affairs, particularly the courses they offer. One cannot help but agree with COPE’s standpoint that public officials should remain informed about the happenings within the institutions under their purview and have necessary information readily available. After all, we live in an information-driven world. However, the question remains: Do the legislators practise what they preach to others?

Last year, when the government declared that the country was bankrupt and had no choice but to default on its debt, many MPs from both the ruling coalition and the opposition claimed that they had been unaware of the dire state of the economy until that time. They sought to shift the blame to the officials of the Central Bank and the Finance Ministry, accusing them of having withheld vital information about the economy and the possibility of a debt default. These same individuals portray themselves as all-knowing when they criticise their political rivals and even ‘disclose’ the amounts of funds allegedly stolen by the latter. Yet, when faced with accountability, they readily profess ignorance!

Article 148 of the Constitution grants Parliament total control over public finance. The MPs therefore have a duty to fulfil their fiduciary responsibilities diligently to the satisfaction of their constituents. Failing to do so would be a neglect of their raison d’être. It is disturbing that most MPs are absent even when crucial financial bills are put to the vote. Although the government claims to have the support of over 120 MPs, only 79 voted in favour of the Inland Revenue (Amendment) Bill in December, with a mere 36 voting against it, in the 225-member House. The annual budget debate reveals the legislators’ lack of comprehension of the Appropriation Bill; they present weak and unfounded arguments. Parliament has become one of the most underperforming state institutions. Shouldn’t MPs put their own House in order before asking others to get their act together?