WONG CHIN HUAT : Budget 2021 : How parliamentarianism works.
26 Nov 20
COMMENT | After rumours that the second reading vote on Budget 2021 may be postponed, it now appears that it will go ahead today.
As the government’s budget (technically called “supply bill”) may be rejected by the Parliament for the first time in Malaysia, it is important to understand how parliamentarianism works, so as not to fall prey to misinformation and disinformation.
Here are some basic facts:
First, scrutinising the budget is a key function of the Parliament. To ask MPs to unconditionally support a government budget is to ask them to abdicate their constitutional function.
Second, only ministers and deputy ministers are obliged to vote for the government’s budget while both opposition parliamentarians and government backbenchers have a free choice. Government parties have no power to stop their backbenchers from voting down the budget but can punish them afterwards.
Third, an outright defeat of the budget is equivalent to a loss of confidence in the government. Following this, the prime minister’s choice is to either resign or request for a fresh election. To seek a proclamation of emergency after a budget defeat is a coup against democracy and constitutional monarchy.
Fourth, passing a budget only requires a majority of MPs who vote, not a majority of all the MPs (112 votes). Truancy or abstention is effectively a 50% “No” vote for a government MP, and a 50% “Yes” vote for an opposition MP, if it becomes a showdown between both sides.
Fifth, a budget defeat will only affect next month’s salary of the prime minister and his ministers, not civil servants. Articles 99 and 102 of the Federal Constitution allow the Parliament to delay the budget and approve expenditure before passing of the budget. A government shutdown because of a budget stalemate only happens in post-1980 America. Spin doctors, please check your geographical location before fear mongering on this.
When can the budget be defeated?
Many mistake that if Muhyiddin survives today’s vote, then he survives 2020.
Not true. The budget can be defeated outright at the end of both the second reading (today) and third reading (Dec 15), and defeated indirectly in countless opportunities at the committee stage between them.
A budget passed for the second reading (policy debate) can still be defeated at the third reading (final approval). As a budget defeat is an alternative form of a no-confidence vote, it is perfectly legitimate for MPs to vote down a budget at the third reading if they have lost confidence in the government.
Like love, confidence is a subjective thing. If you lose it, you have lost it. Complaints cannot undo the loss.
Partial defeats in the committee stage?
More interesting are the partial defeats that may happen in the committee stage. Starting from the Prime Minister’s Department, there are 30 ministries’ budget lines to be approved. Each needs approval by the House, which upon the request of 15 MPs, has to take the form of actual voting (called “division”).
This means 30 (less when some ministries are bundled together) opportunities for the opposition to vote down the government. Of course, a mere rejection vote with no solid ground would invite accusations of “playing politics” or “damaging national interests” and public backlash.
However, if the opposition tables a motion with a solid ground, like the abolition of Jasa (government’s spin doctor unit) and transfer the money to some productive uses, as what Tuaran MP Wilfred Madius Tangau has proposed, the government will face a dilemma.
If the government concedes, then it is a compromise and not a defeat. The government stays on while the budget gets modified.
However, if the government is bent on defeating such a motion, then it must ensure its victory. Otherwise, its defeat will raise the question of whether the government has lost its majority.
To rescue the prime minister, a motion of confidence in him must be immediately tabled and won. Hence, a budget defeat in the committee stage is only a partial defeat because it can be restored.
However, if the prime minister dares not to table a motion of confidence, then his loss of majority would be confirmed by his fear. And a series of partial defeats will constitute a full defeat.
Muhyiddin his own worst enemy?
With the vacancies in Batu Sapi and Gerik, the government’s lead over the opposition is now 112 to 108. With Tengku Razaleigh Hamzah shrewdly boycotting the budget, the government’s lead will be reduced to three.
This means the absence or abstention of just four government MPs alone can bring down the government, even without outright defection, unless at least one opposition parliamentarian is also conveniently absent.
The reasons for absence on both sides can be very innocent: food poisoning, chest pain, headache, minor accident and plenty more.
But who really decides whether the budget will get passed? Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin himself.
Why? Neither opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim, Razaleigh nor any other potential contender for the top job can build a “positive (majority) coalition” for an alternative government.
If they can – which requires the defection of substantial government MPs – Muhyiddin’s government would have collapsed months ago, as no royal blessing or speaker’s rulings could save Muhyiddin.
The difference the budget makes today is the chance to first establish a “negative coalition” against Muhyiddin before a “positive (majority) coalition” can be negotiated by the opposition and rebels.
The negative coalition needs not 112 votes, but simply one more vote than Muhyiddin’s supporters. This enables revolt by truancy, which in turn allows rebels to claim innocence before Muhyiddin if the plot fails.
Here is the puzzling part – Muhyiddin seems to be his worst enemy by tabling a flawed budget, which is orientated towards GE15 instead of Covid-19, allowing his enemies to build a negative coalition.
Muhyiddin helps the opposition and Umno to echo each other even though they can’t agree to form an alternative government for now.
Leading a de facto minority government, Muhyiddin has two Commonwealth examples to consider emulating.
The first is Canada’s nine-month prime minister Joe Clark (1979-1980). His Progressive Conservative Party held 136 (48%) out of 282 seats, against main opposition Liberals’ 112 (40%), New Democratic Party’s 26 (9%) and Social Credit Party’s 6 (2%).
He proposed a budget with a gasoline tax that caused the friendly Quebec opposition Social Credit to abstain. With three Conservative MPs overseas or in hospital, Clark lost his budget at 133:139 by a full force opposition of Liberals and New Democratic Party.
Clark went down in history for his “inability to do math” because he acted as if he could govern without some opposition’s support.
The second is New Zealand’s current Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern. From Malaysians’ lens, New Zealand would be an unstable country during her first term (2017-2020), and Ardern a weak leader heading a minority coalition government.
Since her Labour Party won only 38.3% of parliamentary seats while her partner New Zealand First Party obtained only 7.5%, Ardern had to sign a “confidence and supply agreement” with the support of Green Party (6.7%).
But Ardern has led New Zealand through two crises in her first term: the Christchurch massacre and the Covid-19 pandemic. This enabled her to form New Zealand’s first majority government in October, the first since the country’s switch to the mixed member proportional (MMP) electoral system in 1996.
Muhyiddin’s propagandists – unfortunately, some journalists included – should stop telling Malaysians to choose between the budget or election.
The real choice for Muhyiddin is to either make compromises with the opposition or risking a defeat at any time from today till Dec 15. If he is as mathematically challenged as Joe Clark, he must step down instead of locking down the country under emergency just to save his job.
WONG CHIN HUAT is an Essex-trained political scientist working on political institutions and group conflicts. He currently leads the clusters on the electoral system and constituency delimitation in the government’s Electoral Reform Committee (ERC). Mindful of humans’ self-interest motivation while pursuing a better world, he is a principled opportunist.
The views expressed here are those of the author/contributor and do not necessarily represent the views of Malaysiakini.