The screaming headline read; “Minority vows to resist '30 seconds' VAT Law.” The Deputy Minority Leader in Parliament ‘swore blind’ that his side knew absolutely nothing about the increase of VAT by 2.5 per cent, and duly walked out of Parliament when the measure was forced through. He promised that his side would use every legal means to prevent the implementation of the new VAT rate. The Deputy Leader’s sentiments were to be echoed by his boss on the same platform.
“The devil is always in the details” is the latest installment to come to my aid from my depository of home-truths. And I was not to be disappointed as I combed through the words of the Minority leadership with a ‘fine toothcomb’ as if ‘looking for a needle in a haystack’.
First the Minority ‘swore’ that the government had “sprung a surprise on everybody by pushing through the bill and would not even allow a debate on it.” This was given as the reason why the Minority walked out of Parliament. At a subsequent press conference, the Minority boomed that the circumstances that led to the increment were disgraceful to parliamentary democracy and good governance.
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Here comes the sleight of hand. Buried somewhere within the threat to resist the new law on account of non-consultation was the admission that the “House had been considering the VAT bill since July this year, only that no specific number had been mentioned as to the applicable rate.
This disclosure was later confirmed by a long winded press statement read by the Minority Leader which only added to the confusion. That statement conceded that the bill had already been through a second reading in Parliament and its policy and principles had already debated.
Let us speak plainly and honestly. If the Minority concedes that a VAT Bill was laid before Parliament as far back as July, we are entitled to know what was intended to be achieved by the bill. We are also entitled to know if the bill was referred to the Finance Committee of Parliament for detailed scrutiny. And did the Finance Committee review and produce a report from its deliberations, and if so, what did the committee look into and what did it recommend? Was the action that led to the walkout as a result of the consideration of the report of the Finance Committee?
It turns out that all the fuss and confusion in Parliament was simply about the seeming surprise sprung on the Minority by the introduction of a further amendment which simply announced the actual rate of increase for VAT. If my reading is correct, where was the unprecedented severe breach of Parliamentary process as claimed by the opposition?
If indeed, the Minority is convinced by its claim, why has it not taken immediate steps to manifest its threat to resist the new rate but has passed on the mantle to Ghanaians and the TUC to do its bidding for it? And why did the Minority fail to answer the Gh¢ 130,000(US$64,000) question of whether it would abolish the increase if it came to power or not?
I have given this very long narrative as the latest example of the collusion of both sides of Ghana’s Parliament to put its own interests ahead of those of the public. The Parliament, which is elected to be the representative of the ordinary Ghanaian, is fast becoming a house that colludes with the Executive branch to put the material and personal political interests of MPs ahead of the overall interests and welfare of the people who put them there.
I repeat that this is the latest not the first. The collusion between Parliament and the Executive has been a feature of our governance throughout the 4th Republic. Emoluments and entitlements of MPs have been swiftly waved through and done in secret, at times of the Executive’s needs for the passage of urgent bills. Monies have been found to make these payments when we are supposedly starved and dying of funds to pay for the School Feeding Programme and the maintenance of our basic health through the NHIS.
MPs have been “sweetened” by being given their own shares of statutory funds intended for the general good and welfare of their entire constituents. From District Assembly Common Fund to School Feeding to the NHIS and so forth, MPs can disburse grace and favours to selected constituents who are already supposedly catered for under the common pool. ‘Small mercy’ that Seth Terkper put a temporary halt to the disbursements of these sweeteners.
Yet in the midst of this appalling reality, the Minority Leader, on a major platform, calls for the strengthening of Parliament’s capacity and powers to check the doings of the Executive branch of government. “What for?” I bellow loudly. On the record so far of Parliament’s scrutiny of the Executive, I fear that more powers will simply lead to more collusion in terms of putting the private interests of members ahead of the public good.
In case you think I am being unnecessarily harsh, let me regale you with the tortuous journey of the Right to Information Bill (RTI) laid before Parliament for eight years under President Kufuor without being passed. It has now been revived and made a flagship legislation by President Mahama who announced it with a flourish at a rare appearance at a press conference. The ‘commitment’ to pass the RTI Bill was reinforced by the recent gargantuan speech on corruption.
But as many of you may have heard me moan and moan and moan, an RTI Bill whose contents remain shrouded in secrecy is one great farce. But the greater farce is that the Minority in Parliament has not said “boo” nor raised a finger, let alone a fist against the darkness that surrounds the bill. Despite the promises made to pass it soon, the RTI Bill is yet to be laid before Parliament for its first reading. And yet the silence of the Minority remains eerily deafening.
The fact is that the proponents of the RTI Bill have told me time and again that the party of “Ka bi na me nka bi”( participatory democracy founded on free speech and expression) has a greater abhorrence and fear of the RTI seeing the light of day outside the darkness that engulfs it in the chamber. So rather than press for the people to be given the ammo to know “fiili filli” about the goings on of those who act in our name and on our behalf, Parliament in its collective on all sides has elected for obfuscation and “kuluulu”
This is why I have come to the sad but true conclusion that Minority in Parliament is simply firing blanks from dummy bullets which only graze the Executive and cause flesh wounds rather than piercing through the heart to cause grave and mortal damage.
On the current showing, President Mahama should stop worrying about social commentators. He and all his predecessors have had a compliant of Parliament willing to do their bidding for the best possible alleviation of MPs poverty, instead of that of the teeming millions of Ghanaians.
Parliament is about to embark on a debate on the 2014 Budget. It has the powers to reduce the excessive waste of GH¢ 8.9 billion planned as over expenditure. For once, tell the Executive to behave as all of us have to, that is, “Let Ghana live within its means and not leave our children and grandchildren with mounting debts when they will probably have no jobs to fend for themselves
The writer is Chief Policy Analyst, Ghana Institute for Public Policy Options, GIPPO