Negotiating our common future…The 2022 Budget

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File photo: Finance Minister Ken Ofori-Atta going to present a budget in parliament

The 2022 Budget Statement was introduced by the Minister for Finance, Mr. Ken Ofori-Atta, against the background of addressing current challenges of the economy, investing in the future of the youth, and putting public finances on a sustainable path. Last year, the Budget was shaped by threats posed by COVID-19. In 2022, 2023 and 2024, attention may shift to the final stages of Government support for the pandemic recovery; restoring public services, improving living standards, and repairing the public finances amid demands for infrastructure and mounting public debt.

During this period, Ghana’s economy will be confronting two major issues: public borrowing and taxation. The Economic Management Team will be compelled to map out strategies either to reduce borrowing and increase taxation, or to reduce taxation and increase more borrowing. Sadly, Ghanaians continue to demonstrate resistance against more borrowing and more taxation. While debt sustainability levels should of concern to all Ghanaians, a drop in revenue mobilization should be equal concern to all well-meaning Ghanaians.

However, case studies across the globe indicate that governments used and continue to use both public borrowing and taxation as a dominant source of public finance.  Currently, Ghana appears to be divided along political lines on both public borrowing and taxation. This division is rooted in the current balance of power between the ruling New Patriotic Party (NPP) and opposition National Democratic Congress (NDC). Both sides currently hold 137-137 seats, with an independent MP tilting the balance slightly in favour of the NPP.

Power relations

It was always predicable that the current composition of Parliament would compel the Executive and Majority Caucus to adopt consensus-building on pertinent economic issues – unlike the previous Parliaments when ruling parties held a majority. From election of the Speaker in January 2021 to the disruptive behaviour of some members of Parliament during presentation of 2022 Budget, the signals are clear that our Parliament will never again be the same.

The annexation of the Speaker’s seat by the MP for Ashaiman Constituency was perhaps the tip of the iceberg. The conduct of that MP was not only repugnant but also shameful, and constituted an affront to the image and brand of the country. The MP’s simple apology of “I am sorry” is untenable. Further disciplinary action should be taken against him, much as any ordinary Ghanaian would have been hauled to the Privileges Committee for dragging Parliament’s name in the mud.   Currently, the Minority may be having their way but they should be cautioned – that discerning Ghanaians are closely monitoring their actions and inactions. My advice is that the Minority will become more credible if it builds its capacity in tracking public expenditure, instead of trying to derail government’s revenue mobilisation for the sake of political gain.

Spiral of salience

Perhaps Minority MPs are trying to emulate other MPs across the world who resort to violence during Parliamentary sessions, rather than consensus-building. In mass communications research, the cultivation theory assumes that mass media have strong, long-term effects on audiences, based on the common messages they present to audiences. The premise of the cultivation theory is that heavy viewers of television are more likely to mimic what they see on television. The most cited cultivation effect deals with the large amount of violence on television, which convinces regular television consumers that the world is a more violent place than perceived. Misconduct of that level, especially when it is perpetrated by personages like the MP, is alien to Ghanaian culture; and the earlier our MPs stop it, the better for the image and brand of Ghana.

Voting procedure

The chaos in Parliament started on November 26, 2021 when the Minority through a controversial voice-vote rejected the Minister of Finance’s attempt to negotiate with leadership of the House before approval of the 2022 budget.  Subsequently, the Minority on orders of the Speaker of Parliament supposedly ‘rejected the budget’ through a voice-vote.

The Majority Caucus challenged Mr. Alban Bagbin’s decision to use 137 Minority MPs to reject the 2022 Budget Statement. The Majority Caucus argued that: “Article 104 of the 1992 Constitution and Order 109 of the Standing Orders of Parliament requires that at least 138 MPs be in the House at the time of the vote. Undoubtedly, Ghana’s democracy is facing its biggest challenge since 1992 – given the balance of power in Parliament. How Ghana emerges out of this conundrum will depend on both sides of the House and, most importantly, the ‘neutrality’ of the Speaker of Parliament.

Demands of the Minority

The Minority Caucus demand for some specific districts and budget lines be captured in the budget as a condition for its approval is not only divisive but also counterproductive. Perhaps, in 2023, the Finance Minister can be asked to include the construction of a seaport in Tamale before the budget would be approved.  Such use of Parliamentary power will become a dangerous precedent for our young democracy, which needs consensus and compromises from both sides to survive. During the disturbance, one ill-advised broadcaster working with a media organisation in Accra mooted the idea of an insurrection. Really, an insurrection in whose interest?

E-levy and Youstart

Perhaps, the most contentious issue was the 1.75% E-levy proposed by the Finance Minister. I am enthused by the indication that a whopping one million jobs will be created under a newly introduced initiative dubbed ‘YouStart’. According to the Finance Minister, The YouStart initiative will draw GH¢1billion each year from the budget to create one million jobs. A bulk of this one billion cedis will be drawn from proceeds of the E-levy.

Reading the section on job creation, nowhere did I find that the jobs will be created for a section of Ghanaian youth to the neglect of others.  In other words, the 2022 budget statement is a national budget that seeks to address national economic problems. Unemployment among the youth is one of the biggest economic headaches, and no one should pretend that this is not the case.

So, if a budget is meant to address unemployment, no interest or pressure group should try to subvert the plan. We need to be reminded that resolving unemployment among the youth is for our common good. Therefore, the divisive politicking that characterised presentation of the budget was needless. Both sides should be guided by the need to protect our common future, especially in providing hope for the youth.

Bracing for the worse

As indicated earlier, what transpired in Parliament could be a foretaste of what will happen in 2023. This calls for the Majority Caucus led by Osei Kyei Mensah Bonso and the Finance Minister, Mr. Ofori-Atta and his team to brace for the worse.  This far, I think Hon. Mensah Bonsu and his team proved beyond doubt that it always takes a measured response to overcome such difficulties. Many were those urging the Majority side to respond in equal measure. But little did they know that a boot for boot response would have disrupted both government and parliamentary business, and perhaps pushed Ghana to the brink as some journalists and media organisations wished. As things stand now, Ghana does not need two radical sides of the House. Rather, for the sake of our future, especially our children, we need some level of maturity and responsibility to debates on national issues.

That said, the Majority Caucus and Government’s Economic Management Team will have to sharpen their negotiation and communications skills to enable them promote the spirit of ‘give and take’.   Much as the Minority have the numbers to stand up to the Majority, they should always look beyond party considerations by promoting compromise, with both sides making concessions for the benefit of Ghanaians. Besides, both sides of the House need essential communication skills to promote clarity for the sake of inclusive economic growth. Perhaps if the Ministry of Finance had done public education and sensitisation on the E-levy before publishing the budget, it might have shaped public opinion in its favour.

Negotiation requires planning to determine or predict desired outcome.  Therefore, the ability to prepare, plan and think ahead is crucial to a successful development negotiation. Planning is a prerequisite to communicating with key stakeholders to avoid misunderstanding, as in the case of the 2022 budget brouhaha.  The best negotiators enter a discussion with an eye on the ‘best alternative’ toward a negotiated agreement.

Emotional intelligence

In fact, when I watched both the voting for the Speaker and 2022 budget presentation in Parliament, one thing that came to mind was ‘emotional intelligence’. Experts describe emotional intelligence as the ability to control our own emotions while recognising others’ feelings. Being conscious of the emotional dynamics of your opponent during negotiation can allow a negotiator to remain calm and focused on the core issues. In fact, had the Majority Caucus responded with equal measure, the Minority Caucus might have succeeded in their bid to scuttle the entire budgeting process – with dire economic and financial consequences for Ghana.

Furthermore, the ability to influence others is an important skill of negotiation. Influence is very critical in the face of outright provocation like the attitude of the MP for Ashiaman.  However, negotiators must be both persuasive and assertive where necessary. Assertiveness is what the average NPP supporter is demanding from their Parliamentary leaders.  Also, negotiation requires the ability to foresee problems and anticipate possible solutions. I am not sure if the Minister of Finance and Majority Caucus anticipated that the Minority Caucus would resist such a vital national issue in the manner they did. If they had anticipated that, they would have fashioned plans to counter the opposition plan. Being able to find unique solutions to problems may be the determining factor in negotiating economic development.

Above all, patience is the cornerstone of economic negotiation. Rather than seeking a quick conclusion, negotiators are encouraged to practice patience for the sake of the planned outcomes. In this regard, the Finance Minister and Majority Leader, Osei Kyei Mensah Bonsu, demonstrated their acumen in negotiating in stormy environment. Rather than vilifying the Majority Leader and his team for their measured response to the provocation, I would rather they be commended for keeping their heads above water. Calmness is better than hotheadedness in leadership. As John Maxwell famously notes, “Everything rises and falls with leadership”.

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