Miserly defence budget: Time to act


Much is being made, rightly so, in military and industry circles of the paucity of the defence budget versus the armed forces’ mandate. The Department of Defence last month suggested it is now R7.3 billion underfunded, while the 2008 annual report suggests a figure of R10 billion.

Minister of Defence Lindiwe Sisulu has largely made peace with the fact that this years’ budget is totally inadequate and is now focusing her attention on directing the money available to where it can do the most good. Meanwhile she is also pinning her hope on future budgets and is to engage the National Treasury accordingly.

Speaking to journalists including myself at Makhado on Monday,Sisulu made the point that the budget allocated to defence is entirely beyond her influence and indeed it is. Treasury has a very firm hold on the purse-strings, something that is difficult to fault with so many spendthrift departments and parastatals around. Just this month labour director general and Black Management Forum president Jimmy Manyi was caught attempting to inflate his budget by a round R1 billion.

The contrary to this type of largesse is the cutting of the BAE Systems Hawk lead-in fighter trainers’ flying hours from 4000 to 2000 and pegging that of the Saab Gripen at a mere 550 this year and 250 for the next two. The Air Force considers 1120 hours “optimum” for the new fighter. No doubt that is itself a trimmed figure that takes into account last years’ recession and other priorities in this year’s government spending.

Some years ago then-Portfolio Committee on Defence chairwoman Thandi Modise threatened to veto the defence budget as a protest against this type of false economy and underfunding. That never happened because Parliament did not have the power. The defence budget was, and is, part of the larger budget that is enacted by way of an annual Appropriation Act. MPs could only pass or veto that. To my memory no Appropriation Bill has ever failed to pass Parliament, because to do so would be a major vote of no confidence in the government and would indicate that Cabinet did not even have the support of the bulk of governing party MPs. As John Vorster said in another context, it is a prospect “too ghastly to contemplate.”

Constitutionally, the executive answers to the legislature and from this flows that they should have some say over spending and spending priorities. In Sout Africa, that is the case from this year as the The Money Bills Amendment Procedure and Related Matters Act 9 of 2009 is now in effect. The law, passed by Parliament despite the opposition of Treasury, allows MPs for the first time in SA history to amend money bills that they previously either had to accept or reject in total. MPs could therefore decide to increase the defence budget, for example, or amend the defence department’s spending priorities.

To the point now: The Standing Committee on Appropriations is now inviting interested parties to submit written submissions on this year’s Appropriation Bill that was tabled together with the 2010/2011 budget on February 17. The Money Bills Act requires Parliament to conduct public hearings and for the Standing Committee to report on the Appropriation Bill to the legislture before MPs vote on it. This year’s public hearings will be conducted at Parliament on Tuesday, May 4, coincidentally the same day that Sisulu will present her defence budget vote.

Submissions can be emailed to the Committee Secretary, Ms Thoko Xaso, at [email protected] by no later than noon on Tuesday (April 27). Xaso can be reached at 021 403-3716 or 083 709 8489.

As citizens it may be a useful opportunity to test the value of public participation and the power of Parliament under the new Act and to make submissions on the paucity and defects of the current defence budget. Georges Clemenceau, the French prime minister, journalist and physician famously said “La guerre! C’est une chose trop grave pour la confier à des militaires” (War is too serious a matter to entrust to military men). So is the defence of this Republic and the grave deficit in funding for that purpose. We, all of us, who feel strongly on the matter, should send a submission to the Standing Committee that makes clear the danger and the consequences for the country. We have four days.