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Dissing budgets, dodging bullets, becoming a more grown-up polity

Comments / {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}} Views / Friday, 27 November 2015 00:00



Radical budgets call for reinvigorated critical engagement by Civil Society. Governments that dodge bullets and clampdown on media commentaries by their mandarins – culpable of conflicts of interest (or not); or worse, chicanery – may read as an epitaph, and not a eulogy, of “good government”...


Civil Society must grow up sooner than later. Sooner than some of its juvenile politicians, perhaps? Later than it could have and should have, certainly! There is more to GOOD GOVERNANCE than a ploddingly rule-observing administration keeping to the straight and narrow by the skin of its teeth. (While a few delinquents behave badly in the House like it was still 2010.) There must also be the well-intentioned #critical engagement of the polity that desired a sea-change in Government – and not into something richer (and still, for all that, stranger) than was first envisioned in the heady days of ‘revolutionary’ election campaigns past...dfh

Something happened. Something happened to Government between January and November of 2015. Something happened to Civil Society between August and October of the same year. Government grew stronger in numbers and support in Parliament (the UNFGG and UPFA-x mind-meld), and steadier in its purpose as the panacea that parliamentary politics had needed (‘national government’) but had not the political will to effect. But it has grown sicker as compromises were made so that the vision could be implemented (19A-); slacker as its morals and ethics unravelled in an attempt to keep the centre strong (bond scandal, Avant-Garde, nepotism in high places); more stoic in dealing with its own turpitude (a prime ministerial clampdown on commentary to the media by his mandarins). Civil Society, to be sure, once arose from its externally induced Rip van Winkle-like slumber at the turn of the year... Since then, however, it has gone from euphoria to euthanasia – Like those inebriated partygoers who inevitably progress from being >jocose to being >bellicose, >morose, and then >comatose. 

Looks like governments – good, bad, and ugly – like it that way. They like their polities ‘supplicant’ (lobbying for their parties of choice, burning shoe leather on the campaign trail) and/or ‘suppliant’ (pleading with the powers that be for political favours, now that the boot is on the other foot and the servants of the people who made so many election promises have become their masters). And according to those equally critical powers that be – who not so surprisingly consider criticism of Government “treason” now, as far sterner regimes once considered criticism “treason” – the only thing that Civil Society is good for is to >carp, and >cavil, and >condemn, and heap >calumny on their rulers, and generally bless their blessed leaders with a ton of >contumely. 

They might have a point. Our bark is worse than our bite. We criticise as if it were a laxative to cure our dyspepsia or the blocks caused by the present dispensation. But continue to stomach the panoply of ills that our mortal polity is heir to with nothing more than the occasional emission of hot air (public protests) or cold smelly gas (legalistic critiques in the press). We gripe and grouse. But can’t grow visceral enough to engage critically with Government with a view to changing it for the better. Civil Society is constipated.


Dissing budgets

One aspect of this flatulence is apparent in the responses to the nation’s financial status quo as evinced in the budget for 2015/16. Some business leaders were anxious that the proposals would be too ‘radical’ (as, in fact, some were). Other segments of Civil Society were content to mouth their own apprehensions (realistic as well as really unfounded) before the event and platitudes (both positive and negative) after. Editors of newspapers and their news and/or features editors were more concerned with the ‘popular’ interpretation of fiscal measures proposed (“What does the common man think?” “How does the average citizen feel?”) than with a reasoned evaluation and assessment of Government’s fiduciary acumen. High taxes taking hits for the lowbrows! 

In the limit, no one is wiser or wealthier. Except, perhaps, for the likes of former Central Banker W. A. Wijewardena and the ilk of those who read his insightful analysis, *Budget 2016 and the EPS of Yahapālana Government*, in this paper (23/11/2015). The main point about Civil Society’s responsibility he made there being that we have missed the budget-engagement bus. Or to quote our expert-writer: “Budgetary numbers are never monitored either by Parliament or Civil Society Organisations, though a mechanism for such evaluation has been provided by the enactment of the Fiscal Management (Responsibility) Act of 2003. 

In terms of the Act, several fiscal statements should be issued by the Minister of Finance in order to ‘increase public awareness of Government’s fiscal policy and to establish standards for evaluating the Government’s conduct of its fiscal strategy’ … In practice, the statements issued by Ministers of Finance had been eulogies made about themselves and the success of their economic policies. Though this was the game plan played by Ministers of Finance neither the Parliament nor Civil Society Organisations took the Government to task on this count. Hence the rosy budgetary numbers presented in Budgets were always missed, with no concern about their disastrous impact on good governance or the credibility of the Government.” Can Civil Society take a hint?


Dodging bullets

Another arena in which Civil Society falls flat on her face – often literally – is in response to the literal and metaphorical baton charges carried out irregularly by Government. When peaceful student protestors are brutally attacked, we lash out in righteous anger at law enforcement’s offending arm. When Cabinet Ministers appear culpable of conflict of interest, we agitate for their removal rather selectively – The ones we don’t like because they were clearly partisan to the previous regimes must go; Other sitting members may be allowed to stay even if they are evidently sitting-ducks for a polity with more teeth, or integrity. 

If politicians have short memories in re promises made, Civil Society seems to have more selective remembering apparatus as regards promises broken or potential unfulfilled. No one talks about ‘Zero Civilian Casualties’ now (except as a byword in propagandised State terror). No one mentions ‘Zero Tolerance Against Corruption’ (other than as the exception to the rule – under a $The Usual 10% Off The Bottom$ political milieu which looks good in comparison to a pseudo-military dictatorship that was rotten to the core). In a political culture of dissent and engaged critique that has been born again, we’d expect more meaningful engagement. 

Where is the well-intentioned #critical engagement of the polity that desired a sea-change in Government – and not into something poorer and far stranger than was first envisioned in the halcyon days of long-dead policy manifestoes? Why is there not more to GOOD GOVERNANCE today than a gallingly procedure-following Government sticking to the rule of law – at best – and failing in virtually many of the same areas as its predecessors did – at worst – save for the egregious violence and endemic corruption that was the legerdemain of our previous regime? 

Lately the incumbent administration is doing more than it could have or should have, perhaps, towards getting back on The Right Path to Righteous Rule rather than the fast-track to self-righteous self-congratulation. Sooner than later some of its leading politicians are seen to be maturing, perhaps. Civil Society, with all of that being said, can’t afford to take the continuity of GOOD GOVERNANCE’s slowly-being-re-established character for granted; and so it can and must keep this Government’s nose to that grindstone with clearer, sharper, less self-indulgent #critical engagement.

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