Federal Finance Minister Hafeez Sheikh has complained of the army of ministers, advisers and bureaucrats, proving a burden on the budget. He made this complaint while delivering the inaugural address to the annual conference of the Pakistan Institute of Development Economics on Tuesday. This complaint from the Finance Minister is both incomplete and dangerous. It is incomplete because Dr Sheikh did not explain why he found he was unable to enforce the requisite financial discipline. The statement was dangerous because he made it while justifying the amnesty scheme which will enable the whitening of concealed wealth. It indicates that while Dr Sheikh knows how revenue is to be raised, he does not know how to limit expenditure, which is another reason why he should not hold office. Dr Sheikh must know that the amnesty, like all others, is a one-shot enterprise, while expenditures are incurred every year. As Dr Sheikh said, the amnesty schemes would face opposition in Parliament, but as he did not point out, Parliament has on its benches many of those who do not pay any tax, even though some of them have as many as four vehicles. Dr Sheikh has perhaps found he has come up in opposition to cabinet colleagues who do not so much see office as a responsibility, as an opportunity to lead a luxurious lifestyle at taxpayer’s expense. Habits have been spoilt, not just by that opportunity to live at others’ expense, but by obtaining loans from international financial institutions.

Dr Sheikh did not mention the gaping loophole of agricultural income, which is untaxed, and which is earned by Assembly members both national and provincial. This loophole will have to be closed if the taxpaying culture is to be put in place. Dr Sheikh should notice that the same set of persons is spoiling his equation on both sides. Once members, not only do they protect the exemption for agricultural income sedulously, but they also jostle for membership of the cabinet, not because they want to solve the people’s problems but they want to live luxurious lifestyles at taxpayers’ expense.

Dr Sheikh does not hold office just to extract loans from international financial institutions, but to impose necessary financial discipline on the government. As he rightly pointed out, a peaceful transfer of power after the coming elections was also necessary to avert unbearable economic loss. However, he should have pointed out the equal need for financial discipline, which apparently can only be made possible if ministers control themselves, and do not give in to their desires. Dr Sheikh pointed out the complicity of bureaucrats in this excessive spending. Unless he brings this aspect of government finances under control, he will not bring about the sort of economic stability needed by the government in this financial year.