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Parliament clashes with Finance Minister over scrutiny of National Budget

Nuku'alofa, Tonga

From the House by Pesi Fonua

Minister of Finance, Hon. Dr Pohiva Tu'i'onetoa. 30 May 2019.

Debate by Parliament over Tonga’s 2019-20 National Budget got off to a fractious start yesterday morning, 10 June 2019.

It became clear when the House settled down to address their main agenda for the day, which is to debate over the 2019-2020 National Budget, that there was a disagreement between the Ministry of Finance and the Legislative Assembly over how Parliament scrutinises the National Budget.

The procedure has been that the Minister of Finance must first table the National Budget into Parliament, in order for the House’s Standing Committee on Finance and Public Accounts to go over the budget, before it is tabled into the House for its deliberation.

However, there is a reluctance by the Ministry of Finance to follow that procedure for the second year in a row.

Siaosi Sovaleni, the People’s Representative for Tongatapu Constituency No. 3, told the House that the Ministry of Finance had not been cooperative. They had not allowed the CEO of the Ministry to clarify issues in the budget to parliament’s Standing Committee on Finance.

The Minister of Finance, Hon. Pohiva Tu‘i‘onetoa told the House that his response was “No” when the Standing Committee requested that the CEO of Finance attend the committee’s session on the budget.

Rules of Procedure

Under the Rules of Procedure of the Tongan Parliament the Standing Committee of the House on Finance and Public Accounts shall be responsible for all matters pertaining to the:  

  1. Collection of all public income
  2. Proper expending of all public monies
  3. Annual Estimates
  4. Accounts of the receipts and expenditure of all Government ministries or bodies including the financial accounts
  5. All reports of the Auditor General , including reports of the result of efficiency or management audits.
  6. All accounts and expenditure of the Legislative Assembly (including how village grants and constituency allowances are expended and accounted form, and
  7. Any other matter in connection with annual estimates and public accounts.

The six members of the Standing Committee on Finance and Public Accounts are made up of two representatives of the Cabinet Ministers, the Nobles and the People. The current Committee members are: Chairman – Tevita Lavemaau, and members Siaosi Sovaleni, Lord Nuku, Lord Vaha‘i, Hon. Pohiva Tu‘i‘onetoa and Hon. Poasi Tei.

The working procedure of the House for the National Budget was for the Minister of Finance to table the National Budget to Parliament. Then it is tabled into the Standing Committee on Finance and Public Accounts, before the Minister of Finance presents his Budget Statement and the National Budget to the House, to be debated over in Parliament’s Whole House Committee.

Can't work together

However, after a few aggressive verbal exchanges the Chairman of the Standing Committee on Finance and Public Accounts, Tevita Lavemaau, admitted that they could not work together with government ministries over the National Budget. He reminded members that the role of the committee is to advise the House on the budget.

The Minister of Finance told the House that “our role is to draft the Budget.”

The Speaker admitted that there is a clash between government and the House and its committees, and the Chairman of the Finance Committee had tabled a motion to the House.

After lunch it was agreed for the Minister of Finance to present his Budget Statement, and then allow the Standing Committee on Finance to continue with its work.

Instead of following procedure to allow the Standing Committee on Finance to do its job and work with the Ministry of Finance before the Minister presents his Budget Statement to the House for debate, they agreed that the Minister may present his Budget Statement (a summary of the Buget) to the House first. After that the House may return the Budget Statement to the Standing Committee to look at.

This seems likely to prolong the budget debate in the House.

Bill for the National Budget

The Bill for the National Budget 2019-20 had its first reading and it was passed with 14-0 votes

The Bill had its second reading before the Minister presented his Budget Statement. (The Bill needs a third reading before it goes to Privy Council and the King for assent.)

The Minister of Finance expressed his concern over a comment that was made by the King, at the opening of Parliament, that the Government has no vision on the economy of the country.

He then went on and outlined what he called “Nine Visions” to be implemented by government ministries. He did not get very far with the vision because it was time to close for the day.