Budget 2021: Strong, formidable and convincing

Strong, formidable, convincing - Those were the words used by Opposition Leader Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim in September to claim he had the numbers to form the government.

However, in the most crucial parliamentary 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 Budget 2021 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 Pakatan Harapan 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 Thursday (Nov 26) 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 as a whole in general.

The Budget will only be 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 was “passed” on Thursday when there is still one more stage of voting. Last year, news portals did not dare report that the Dewan Rakyat had "passed" the Budget until it had 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 the Dewan, Opposition included, has agreed to the Budget in principle.

At the end of the committee stage, the third reading will see a vote where only a simple 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 a bloc voting in order to try to unseat the government.

In 2017, the Budget was passed at the third 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 and 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 Parliament from the Yang Di-Pertuan Agong; to which the King will either grant, or His Majesty may simply select a new government the same way His Majesty did in February this year (which would be wise as it is chaotic to hold a general election in the midst of a pandemic) after the prime minister resigned, and withholds 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 Parliament to authorise 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 for a ride by Pakatan. 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 being strong, formidable and convincing.


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