I TOOK sometime the past week to carefully go through the Transitional Stabilisation Programme released by Finance and Economic Development minister Mthuli Ncube on 5 October. My honest assessment of the plan is that it is a very good document that Members of Parliament and citizens in general have an obligation to closely monitor in order to ensure all the commitments are implemented and targets realised.
guest column: John Makamure
Zimbabwe has never been poor at policy formulation. It is implementation that has suffered over the years, mainly due to lack of political will. So rather than become serial critics, whose criticism is sometimes devoid of substance, it is high time citizens and their elected office bearers track implementation of these policies, and then criticise on the basis of empirical evidence.
After reading the transitional programme, I came to the conclusion that some of the criticism is unjustified. For example, there is this whole huge cry for drastic expenditure cuts to address the unsustainable fiscal deficit. I was one of the citizens who felt government was paying lip service to this issue until I read the plan and discovered that the minister had gone to great lengths to outline in detail the specific expenditure reduction measures and timelines. Surely, this is a departure from the past when general statements would be made about expenditure reduction and not followed through.
Some of the key measures include identifying areas of overlap, duplication and non-essential services in the civil service; mergers of units/departments, outsourcing and process re-engineering; comprehensive restructuring of the civil service to create a leaner and efficient service; reviewing the unsustainable budget outlays on vehicle procurement and usage; comprehensive review of public enterprises, including privatisation, merging and liquidation of identified entities; cascading the public finance management system to all districts and local authorities; introducing e-procurement; further review of Treasury subventions to all quasi-government institutions, inclusive of tertiary institutions that have internal capacity to raise and collect income through various fees and charges; reviewing sitting allowances for Members of Parliament and reductions in budget travel expenditures.
Misuse of government motor vehicles has been a major drain on the fiscus. The minister announced various penalties for such misuse. It is the duty of Parliament to ensure the penalties are enforced. Failure to do so means such pronouncements will remain on paper. The Auditor-General has been reporting gross abuse of government assets, including vehicles. This has to come to a stop through enforcement of the penalties.
The minister was candid about the dangers of relying on Treasury Bills to finance expenditure. Treasury Bill issuances from 2017 to June this year stood at 4,3 billion. Of this amount, government debt accounts for $2,9 billion (69% of total issuance). The government debt component comprises financing towards command agriculture, grain procurement, inputs support to the vulnerable households and various government creditors, including Zesa Holdings, NSSA and Zinwa, among others.
Now that there is a public commitment to curtail use of Treasury Bills, Parliament and citizens should closely monitor if this commitment is being met, especially the announcement that Treasury Bill issuances will be undertaken within the framework of the national budget, and that the funds raised shall be directed towards infrastructure development.
The minister must report regularly to Parliament on the country’s debt profile, and what the debt contracted has been used for. Section 300 of the Constitution requires the Minister of Finance to report to Parliament at least twice a year. Quarterly reporting is strongly recommended under the circumstances.
Of significant importance to track is the announcement by the minister that the public service wage bill shall be reduced from 68,9% of fiscal revenues in 2017 to 50% of fiscal revenues by 2020. Other wage bill containment measures include maintaining freeze on filling non-critical posts; enforcing retirement policy; introduction of a voluntary retirement scheme; adoption of lean administrative structures; introduction of a new policy on personal issue vehicles; rationalisation of foreign service missions; reviewing conditions of service for locally recruited staff at diplomatic missions; and relating outlays on bonus payments to the national budget. Parliament should insist on half-yearly targets for easier monitoring of this commitment.
The statute for the management and control of public resources is the Public Finance Management Act. The minister announced that regulations for the Public Finance Management Act, necessary for operationalisation of the Act, were now ready and awaiting approval. Once approved, they were expected to strengthen public finance management, including easier enforcement through clarifying on the penalties for contravening provisions of the Act.
The Parliamentary Portfolio Committee on Budget, Finance and Economic Development must make an input into the regulations before they are approved by Cabinet. And once the penalties for misuse and theft of public resources and non-compliance with the Act are clarified, it is the duty of Parliament to demand regular reports from Treasury on officials caught on the wrong side of the law and the penalties imposed. It is my view that the current penalties which give options of a fine or imprisonment, are not deterrent enough. Parliament should quickly engage the minister for tougher penalties.
Now that the detailed Transitional Stabilisation Plan is in place, with clear targets and timelines in some areas, the ball is in Parliament’s court to monitor implementation through inviting the minister to regularly report on progress.
Where targets and timelines for implementing some of the measures have not been provided, Parliament must demand that these are provided as a matter of urgency.
And there will be need for an appropriate legal framework enacted by Parliament for some of the measures to see light of the day.