Legislators hold Biti to ransom

biti_budget_roundup... House of Assembly united to sink Finance Bills
HARARE - Zimbabwe Finance Minister Tendai Biti is being blackmailed by legislators from all the three political parties in the GNU, who are threatening to torpedo his 2011 national budget until he grants them US$3,000 monthly salaries.

While Biti has staunchly resisted the demand to increase parliamentarians’ salaries from US$400 to US$3,000 and even absolved himself from responsibility to pay the legislature, analysts say he has little power to resist them.

The legislators have said the 2011 budget will not be passed and the House of Assembly is united across the political divide in plans to sink the Appropriation and Finance Bills.

Goromonzi North Zanu (PF) MP Paddy Zhanda was unequivocal in his threats to block the budget. “We sit here in this august House and approve a budget that excludes us, a budget that allocates money to non- performing parastatals – because there are individuals who have sentimental values of those parastatals. What for?” Zhanda said.

If the legislators have their way, their pay rise will dwarf what ordinary Zimbabweans earn and could provoke anger from the general public and the media. The legislators have said they have reported to work for almost two years without pay, getting only a US$400 monthly allowance.

If legislators do not pass the State budget, they will not receive even their allowances paychecks until they get a state spending plan together. Most of the lawmakers have no other jobs and little control over budget formulation, although they were invited to input during the consultations.

In his 2011 spending plans, which Biti tabled in the house last Thursday, he had not factored in a pay rise for the legislators. But angry legislators say the money is there and the minister would only need only US$12million to bankroll a salary of US$3,000 for the legislators. The legislators also expressed outrage at the budget overruns on foreign travel for ministers, which topped US$29million between January and October, meaning each and every minister blew almost US$1million in travel this year.

“If we give ourselves an honest salary, where a government minister is given US$5 000, the Head of State at least US$10 000 or more, the Members of Parliament US$3 000, that budget alone for the year, only requires US$12 million,” said Mwenezi East Zanu (PF) MP Kudakwashe Bhasikiti.

“The US$12 million is such a small figure which will enable the members to function properly and at least to give more time to their legislative business.” Zhanda said the State was taking good care of ministers and judges neglecting legislators.

“When the other two arms of the State the Judiciary and the Executive are given Mercedes Benzes from day one, body guards, maintenance, fuel and everything we are getting offroaders,” Zhanda said amid applause from all the benches.

“The ministers are given two cars, they do not bear the cost of maintenance, no insurance on their part. Madam Speaker, there are Members of Parliament who are walking on foot here, who could not even cover their vehicles with insurance and there are people walking on foot, here who cannot even maintain those new cars. This is unacceptable at all costs.”

Kuwadzana MDC MP Lucia Matibenga said it was sad that legislators were rubberstamping hefty spending for other government departments yet they were getting peanuts. Warren Park MDC MP Elias Mudzuri said MPs had become “laughing stock” to a point where they were literally subsidising the State.

Biti has said the action being taken by the honourable members are not supportive of the noble objectives to sustain the economic stability because they will trigger demands for salary increments by other sectors.

“These will lead to a wage spiral, hence creating inflation and further weakening our competitiveness and threatening the nascent economic recovery,” said a banking analyst. He said the salaries the MPs were demanding far outstripped the country’s GDP per capita.

In the budget, Biti raised spending from US$2.2billion to US$2.7billion as he sought to add momentum to economic growth, which is rebounding from post-election violence in 2008, drought and effects of the Zimbabwe financial crisis characterised by record beating inflation.

Political analysts said the parliamentarians would have their way despite Biti’s opposition to the salary increases.

“They will definitely blackmail him. When he takes the money bills to the house, they will say to him, we are not passing this thing unless you give us what we want,” said Ronald Shumba, a Harare-based analyst.

“They want to use Parliament as a field of accumulation, not legislation. If they don’t get this money, they will raise it through corruption. It beats the whole notion of democracy.”

But Uzumba Zanu (PF) MP Simbaneuta Mudarikwa said: “We are not a liberation movement, we are a government.”

Parliamentarians have tried to justify the pay rise demand by saying that they are traditionally expected to pass on some of their salary to constituents to keep their support.

The MPs’ move come as President Mugabe has declared an election next year just after Zimbabweans vote in a referendum on whether to adopt a proposed new constitution which will, among other reforms, lead to an election the MDC wants to be free and fair. Analysts say the idea is to buy some “political financial insurance” ahead of time, just in case they lose the crunch 2011 election.

The legislators want Mugabe and Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirai paid at least US$10,000 a month, government ministers US$5,000, and them US$3,000, the speaker of parliament US$4,000 and say these figures are manageable given the available resources, including gold, diamonds and platinum.

“Our problem really is our priorities as a government,” Buhera North MP William Mutomba said. Parliament best demonstrated the frustration during a postbudget debate, where plans to block the budget were mooted. I want to get paid! shouted one MP.

Legislators are not making a salary, but they are also not forced to brown bag their lunches. The state has continued to pay legislators for food and lodging when they are in Harare, usually at the Meikles, Sheraton or Ambassador Hotels and a small per diem allowance. Legislators do not have to submit receipts to show how much they actually spent on food and lodging.

“We have a situation where I do not stay in a hotel and I drive back to Murewa but Parliament can not pay me for my private accommodation,” Mudarikwa said. “They would prefer to pay Meikles, Sheraton, Ambassador or any other hotel. This type of behavior is not acceptable. Parliament is not part of the Zimbabwe Tourism Authority, they are there to serve the interest of MPs.”

Some MDC legislators are reluctant to talk about not getting paid because they dont want to sound like whiners and they know they are not seen as sympathetic characters in the drama playing out in Parliament against Biti, the MDC secretary general.

In separate interviews for this story, several legislators were quick to spin their answers into themes that sounded like campaign rhetoric. The entire Legislature is up for re-election mid next year, unless if their respective caucuses of the tripartite GNU alliance manage to stop Mugabe.

But legislators also used the opportunity to say why they continue to do this work.

Its not about the pay, they said.

“We will not go on strike, neither will we exonerate ourselves from doing our duties because we are paid living allowances. No, we are only saying, as from now on, let us have these issues clarified and let us have the correct starting salaries,” said Bhasikiti, who tabled the motion. I implore the Minister of Finance to allocate more money in the 2011 budget to address the plight of Members of Parliament, including ministers and all civil servants; and propose that government establishes a Parliamentary Service Commission as a matter of urgency.”

Opposition leader Simba Makoni said that the GNU leadership was incompetent and did not care about improving the lives of ordinary Zimbabweans but enriching themselves and accumulating power; and he hopes voters notice in elections next year that both MDC and Zanu (PF) have been lousy, greedy leaders.

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