Sound judgement key to effective budgeting

Preparations for the two-day COVID-19 mass vaccination programme somewhat diverted attention away from the Parliament’s historical passing of the Government’s $982 million 2021/2022 budget midnight Thursday.

There were a number of milestones achieved that night, following the conclusion of what was a marathon session of the House that day, wrapping up close to two weeks of parliamentary debate.

The passing of the Fa’atuatua i le Atua Samoa ua Tasi (F.A.S.T.) Administration’s 12-months money plan confirms the return to normalcy, following five tumultuous months that saw the elevation of the new Government and the end of Human Rights Protection Party (H.R.P.P.) rule in Samoa after close to four decades.

A lot happened between the Court of Appeal’s declaration of the F.A.S.T. Government’s legitimacy in July and the passing of its first budget late Thursday, most of them unsavoury conduct which we hope doesn’t get repeated in our nation’s proud history, though one or two are currently the subject of legal proceedings which depending on the court’s position could impact the standing of some of our leaders going forward.

Nonetheless, let's celebrate our few successes in recent months and the passing of a budget brought down by the nation’s first female Finance Minister, Mulipola Anarosa Ale-Molio’o following a general election and a somewhat chaotic government formation period, has to be one of those few success stories.

As the Cabinet Minister with custody of the Government’s annual budget, it is her responsibility to ensure her Ministry takes carriage of the money plan to ensure it is implemented effectively, while maintaining control on expenditure and promoting revenue collection during a period of economic uncertainty.

The Opposition took Mulipola to task during budget debate over how the Government intends to fund a number of its party’s key policies, which the F.A.S.T. assured voters it would introduce if it got the mandate from the people.

A key policy of the F.A.S.T. Administration is its $1 million district-focused development grant, which came under a lot of scrutiny during recent debate following revelations that the Government had only allocated $11 million and not $51 million as announced prior to the April general election.

The grant will garner a lot of interest as it is an attempt by the Government, through its “community development” policy in the party’s manifesto, to channel public funding directly into the community which can become a catalyst for change by providing economic support for individuals and families.

However, the challenge for the F.A.S.T. Administration is the governance of these grants, to ensure they are fit for purpose and channelled to development projects in the 51 constituencies and not squandered.

Only two other countries in the region have similar development grants: Papua New Guinea with its District Services Improvement Programme (D.S.I.P.) and the Constituency Development Fund (C.D.F.) of the Solomon Islands.

The ability of the Speaker of the Legislative Assembly, Papalii Lio Masipau to maintain decorum within the chamber over the two-week duration of the House’s sitting while ensuring the legislators stayed focus, also warrants commendation.

All Members of Parliament, including the 18 from the H.R.P.P. who were sworn-in last Friday, had a responsibility to the nation to ensure the Government’s budget was scrutinised before being put to the vote and Papalii ensured they were reminded of their responsibilities up until the budget’s passing midnight Thursday.

At the end of the day these are no ordinary times, the collapse of Samoa’s economy following the shutdown of the tourism sector, as well as the global impact of the COVID-19 pandemic means we remain susceptible to external shocks.

Emergency support within the Government’s budget to vulnerable groups including poverty-stricken families, women and children as well as the elderly through policies such as the pension scheme are critical to ensuring there is continuity in service delivery to those members of the population.

Parliamentarians’ demands for funding of Government-supported projects should also be reasonable, knowing the pressure that the public purse is coming under, due to dwindling export revenue and the need to support vulnerable groups while ensuring flexibility in financial support for the country’s ongoing COVID-19 response.

Nonetheless, Minister Mulipola faces a tough job ahead managing the budget while trying to sign off on her party’s election promises over the next 12 months. 

Perhaps, her F.A.S.T. colleagues need to be reminded that this is a one-year budget, and there is nothing wrong with spacing out development projects over the 5-year term of this Parliament. It kind of makes sense in these testing times.

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