Policies: Good. Politics: Can do better

Policies: Good. Politics: Can do better

Nine days and over 80 hours of debate later, what is one to make of this year's marathon Budget debate session?

The first three days had 54 MPs speaking, mainly in support of the Government's fiscal policy. This year, the star was the $8 billion Pioneer Generation Package that promises generous subsidies for those aged 65 and above, which won support from all.

Parliament then went into what is called the Committee of Supply to scrutinise the budgets of the Prime Minister's Office and 15 ministries.

Traditionally, MPs file motions to propose cuts to the budget - of a token sum of $100 - to open the floor so the budget can be debated. When the issues have been debated to everyone's satisfaction, the "cuts" are withdrawn. This year, 452 "cuts" were filed.

The Government's Budget invariably then passes intact, and uncut. Does this mean the entire exercise is just one of rubber-stamping the Budget and that it's just a waste of time?

I would say no, for two main reasons. First, the annual debate presents a valuable progress report on the Government's policies.

Parliamentary proceedings are open to the public - so anyone is free to spend nine days in the air-conditioned public gallery to watch the debates live.

Second, the debate gives what I would call a "leading indicator" of politics.

Progress report

A mid-term progress report at this juncture is important for the People's Action Party (PAP) Government, which saw support slide to the lowest level since independence during the May 2011 General Election.

The Government's five- year term ends in October 2016.

This year, MPs appear satisfied with progress made on the once- hot issue of housing, as Leader of the House Ng Eng Hen observed when he wrapped up the debate.

He added that "the honour of hot seats" instead went to the ministries of Health, Transport and Manpower.

On health, many questions were asked on the transition of MediShield to MediShield Life, with MPs seeking clarity on premium affordability and coverage. On manpower, the plight of older workers was a key concern.

On health and manpower, MPs' report might read: Satisfactory, but can do better.

On transport, MPs asked if frequent train breakdowns were a new norm for commuters. One called the situation "appalling". Even Transport Minister Lui Tuck Yew admitted that satisfaction in public transport had fallen.

But he pledged an expansion of the public bus network. The expansion of the MRT system, meanwhile, will take years but is on track.

For the ministry, MPs' report might read: Can and must do better.

On social issues, the Ministry of Social and Family Development (MSF) has expanded childcare and kindergarten places and subsidies; introduced subsidies for home-based care; and is testing respite care options to relieve caregivers.

These are longstanding issues raised by social service advocates such as MPs Denise Phua and Seah Kian Peng, both of whom took pains to acknowledge the progress MSF has made.

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