Should Budget 2021 fail, is a govt shutdown inevitable? Not quite, say constitutional experts

“Well, shutting down indefinitely is illegal. That’s why they keep going by way of declaring an emergency.”

(MMO) – Following the tabling of Perikatan Nasional’s (PN) Budget 2021, the administration’s first major Bill, mixed reactions from both its allies and the Opposition have fuelled talks of a myriad of possible outcomes should the Budget fail to gain the approval of Parliament.

Among these whispers are strong claims of an inevitable government shutdown triggered by a failed Budget, with state news agency Bernama even comparing it to the 35-day shutdown imposed by Donald Trump’s United States government in December 2018.

A shutting down of the government would ostensibly stall funding to all civil operations and block desperately needed allocations and aid meant for those hard hit by the economic downturn, especially frontliners battling the Covid-19 pandemic.

With Finance Minister Datuk Seri Tengku Zafrul Abdul Aziz issuing a veiled warning to lawmakers that a failed Budget would lead to unpaid salaries for public servants, it is no surprise Malaysians believe such an outcome might actually come to pass.

According to constitutional experts, the short answer is: yes, it’s a potential outcome, but, no, not a foregone conclusion.

Advance Tertiary College senior law lecturer and academic director Daniel Abishegam explained to Malay Mail that unlike in the US where Trump does not need to command the majority support of the Congress to administer or impose a shutdown, the situation here is very much different.

“This won’t happen in Malaysia because of our constitutional arrangements. Or at least it should not happen,” he said when contacted.

Abishegam then agreed that by convention, a sitting prime minister like Tan Sri Muhyiddin Yassin should resign if a Budget tabled by his administration fails to pass through Parliament; his other option is to advise the Yang di-Pertuan Agong to dissolve the Dewan Rakyat paving the way for general elections.

The senior lawyer cited Article 43(4) of the Federal Constitution as provisions that require the Agong’s intervention, which states how the prime minister shall tender his resignation and subsequently his Cabinet, effectively shelving the administration, if he ceases to command the majority support of MPs.

“If the Budget in Malaysia is not passed, [it would] be regarded as the prime minister no longer has the confidence of the majority in the house.

“So with an election, a new government with a clear majority will be elected and they will then pass the Budget,” he added.

Meanwhile, lawyer Fahri Azzat, who despite conceding that a shutdown is a potential outcome, felt that such drastic measures being imposed by the shaky government would not go unchallenged.

He said despite the absence of clear constitutional provisions to limit how long the shutdown can be imposed, an indefinite shutdown, if enforced by PN to press lawmakers into supporting their Budget, would essentially be against the law.

“It is a principle of law, not a constitutional provision. That’s where the courts will have to come in to resolve these differences of opinion.

“If they do it, I am pretty certain there will be a legal challenge against it,” he said, referring to the shutdown.

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