‘Success of Parliamentary Budget Office depends on non-interference’
By Shamindra Ferdinando
Dissident SLPP MP Gevindu Cumaratunga yesterday (21) said that President Ranil Wickremesinghe should give up the Finance portfolio to ensure that the Parliamentary Budget Office (PBO) could achieve the objectives it was established for.
He said that political interference in PBO couldn’t be prevented as long as the appointing authority, in this case the President, also served as the Finance Minister.
Cumaratunga, who is also the leader of civil society group Yuthukama, said that having declared that the executive shouldn’t hold any ministerial portfolio, other than Defence, President Wickremesinghe has held the Finance portfolio since July last year.
When The Island pointed out that the Opposition had been quite clearly divided over the PBO and seems to be unable to reach consensus on such a vital issue, lawmaker Cumaratunga said he raised the issues at hand during the debate on the Second Reading of the PBO Bill on Tuesday (20). The Bill was passed without a vote.
MP Cumaratunga said that none of the concerns raised by him were addressed as the Parliament enacted the Bill to pave the way for PBO mandated to forecast budgets and also estimate the costs of election manifestos upon request.
According to the Bill:
“The Parliamentary Budget Office shall be an independent body and accountable to Parliament.
(4) The independence of the Parliamentary Budget Office shall be respected at all times.
(5) No person shall cause undue influence, or interfere with the operation and administration of the Parliamentary Budget Office.
“The objectives of the Parliamentary Budget Office shall be to assist –
(a) Parliament in the performance of its public finance responsibilities under the Constitution; and
(b) Any recognized political party or any independent group, through the provision of independent, non-partisan analysis related to the budget, the medium-term economic and fiscal outlook, and the cost implications from a financial, revenue and expenditure perspective of policy proposals as provided for in this Act.
Subject to the provisions of this Act, the Parliamentary Budget Office shall provide analytical assistance to –
(a) any Committee or Member of Parliament on matters related to public finance, including budget proposals, economic and fiscal forecasts and projections, and costing of proposed policies and Bills; and
(b) a recognized political party or an independent group to cost any proposal in its manifesto in the period immediately before an election; and
(c) Parliament, generally, by providing analyses and briefings on matters necessary for or conducive to the objectives of the Parliamentary Budget Office.
Addressing the Parliament on Tuesday, the MP questioned why President Wickremesinghe couldn’t choose one of those MPs who voted in the House last July to elect him as the President to complete the remainder of Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s five-year term, as the Finance Minister.
The very purpose of the PBO would be undermined if the President constitutionally empowered to approve the recommendations of the Constitutional Council regarding the two key appointments to the proposed outfit, also served as the Finance Minister, MP Cumaratunga said.
Referring to the significant role the Public Finance Committee played in the overall PBO operation, MP Cumaratunga questioned how President Wickremesinghe intervened to appoint Dr. Harsha de Silva as Chairman of that Committee. The Yuthukama chief alleged that the President shouldn’t have under any circumstances summoned only members of the Public Finance Commission and advised them especially against the backdrop of the relationship between the watchdog committee and PBO.
MP Cumaratunga also expressed serious concern over the PBO receiving direct funding from external and domestic sources at the expense of its independence. Referring to the USAID funding Parliament and the Bar Association, the MP underscored the pivotal importance in the government ensuring sufficient funds for the PBO.
MP Cumaratunga pointed out the contradictory government stand regarding outside funding. The President advised the Archaeology Department against receiving external funds but in the case of PBO it could do so, MP Cumaratunga said.