Budget 2021: Strong, formidable and convincing

Budget 2021: Strong, formidable and convincing

Strong, formidable, convincing… those were the words used by Opposition Leader Dato Seri Anwar Ibrahim in September to claim he had the numbers. But in the most crucial vote to date, what was observed was stability on the side of the government. The Opposition MPs weren’t able to muster the courage to stand up, and the Budget was passed. For now.

This does seem counter-intuitive, but Anwar has again implied that this is part of some grand strategy to take down the Government; unconfirmed sources say that he has offered to resign as the opposition leader if he fails to command a majority in the Dewan Rakyat. Is this one of his stories again? Perhaps best to leave it to PH to iron things out.

The real issue at hand is whether or not the Budget has indeed failed. Many are saying that the Supply Bill, or Budget, has not passed, and that there is still another vote at the end of the Committee Stage where the Budget can still be defeated. Is this true? Perhaps it is best to understand these stages.

The Budget, like any common Bill, will be read out thrice. The first reading notifies that the Budget is going to be presented; there is no voting yet at this stage. Then we see the start of the Policy Stage; what we saw on November 6th, 2020 was the Second Reading at the end of the Policy Stage where MPs will take the first vote, this being on whether or not they agree with the Budget’s as a whole in general.

The Budget is only “passed” by the Dewan Rakyat after the second vote during the Third Reading at the end of the Committee Stage. I have no idea why some news portals announced that Budget 2021 has “passed” on Thursday when there is still one more stage of voting. Last year, news portals did not dare report that the Dewan Rakyat has ‘passed’ the budget until it has survived the Third Reading vote.

But before we come to that final Dewan Rakyat vote, we first enter the Committee Stage, where only small amendments to the Bill can be made and voted for at the third reading. This is because if the Budget passes at the Policy Stage, it is taken to mean that they Dewan, opposition included, has agreed to the Budget in principle.

At the end of the Committee Stage, the Third Reading will see a vote whereby only a simply majority is needed for it to pass. Usually this is done by voice vote too, but at times when the opposition is very strong, they might want to ask for bloc-voting (berbelah bahagi) in order to try to unseat the government. In 2017, the Budget was passed at the 3rd reading via a voice vote, which surprised many as Pakatan was expected to ask for bloc-voting and yet failed to do so.

At any vote, if the Budget is defeated, there is a Westminster model convention that interprets this to be a vote of no confidence, and the Prime Minister & Cabinet must resign. The logic behind this is that a Government that cannot spend money, cannot function. This has happened in countries like Australia where Prime Minister Arthur Fadden resigned after Parliament rejected his budget, but this has yet to occur in Malaysia. So if we choose to follow this, then the PM will either resign and ask for a dissolution of P’ment from the YDPA; to which the YDPA will either grant, or his Majesty may simply select a new government the same way His Majesty did back in February this year (which would be wise as it is chaotic to hold a General Election in the midst of apandemic) after the PM resigns, and withhold consent to the request for the dissolution of Parliament as per Article 40.

But one thing is certain: the frontliners will still be paid; Malaysia won’t see US-style government shutdowns due to Article 102 of the Federal Constitution which allows P’ment to authorize by law any form of urgent or unspecified expenditure for part of the year, even if the Budget has not yet passed, and Article 104 (1) (c) further allows the urgent expenditure under Article 102 to draw from the Consolidated Fund.

So what happens afterwards? Well the Budget then goes to the Dewan Negara: but that is a story for another time.

But one thing is for sure, the people have been taken out for a ride by Pakatan Harapan. The Opposition has spent weeks telling their voters about how important it is to reject the Budget… only for them to fail to stand up. If they fail again in the coming vote, it is very telling that perhaps in their current form, it would be hard for them to stand up for what they say they believe in. So much for strong, formidable and convincing.

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