Budget Debate 20133113 08 Apr, 2013
Ms. Shadick: I have had to get use to speaking at late hours of the evening these days. As I rise, Sir, this evening to make my contribution I ask your permission to read instead of just speak because it is late.
As I rise this evening to make my contribution to the debate on the budget for the year 2013 which was presented to this honourable House on Monday, 25th March, by the Hon. Minister of Finance Dr. Ashni Kumar Singh, under the theme Overcoming Challenges Together, Accelerating Gains for Guyana, I must congratulate all the staff of the Ministry of Finance who was involved with their Minister in formulating a budget which seeks to address the needs of all Guyanese, as we move to modernise our country while continuing to build, restore and improve its infrastructure.
As promised by successive manifestos, there is a definite path which this Government is travelling upon, a path which is designed to place Guyana firmly in the 21st century, while ensuring that every citizen benefits from improved infrastructure, social services and all those other amenities which are considered absolutely necessary for a happy and productive life.
Before I address budget issues proper I feel that it is incumbent on me to address an issue which I do not consider a budget issue but for which there has been much reference to in and out of this House, some references more emotive than others. I am referring here to the allocation of radio frequencies by the former President and Minister of Information, thus ending the monopoly on radio in Guyana.
There have been many accusations of the former President having to give away a limited commodity to his friends, to family and to PPP/C cronies. Those accusations have been made vociferously and very clearly, both in and out of this House. Never, however, have I heard it mentioned, in here or outside, that there is one broadcasting entity, not a company, but an individual, which was issued, not one, but two, licences to broadcast by way of television in Guyana. Those licences were granted long before the year 1992. The PPP/C is not accusing the people who were in Government prior to the year 1992 of cronyism or giving frequencies to people. In fact, that is one of the entities which is yet to comply with the new Broadcasting Act and submit the proper documentation to be licensed now.
The board of the Guyana Broadcasting National Authority understands that the new law, and the new regulations, and the new requirements are new. We are prepared to work with everybody. As long as there is compliance licences will be issued to that entity for both stations, because once a licence is issued it cannot be revoked, except for cause. To this date, we have not found any cause.
With regard to radio licences, issued in the year 2011, the Broadcasting Act is very clear as to the functions of the board and the authority, that prior to the Act all approved broadcasting companies and agencies, all broadcasting licensees, had to apply for permission to continue under the Act within 21 days of the Act being brought into force. That order was made on the 28th August, 2012. All of the entities applied are to continue. All of the entities were written to giving permission to broadcast and without exception every entity was asked to apply to be licensed under the Broadcast Act of 2011 - every single entity. There have been no exceptions and no exceptions will remain. Among those continuing broadcasters would have been those entities that were granted licences to broadcast by radio in 2011. There were 10 and added to NCN there are now 11. I think that effectively breaks the monopoly on radio. I say very clearly that the board of the Guyana National Broadcasting Authority has never discussed revocation of any licences. It is not authorised to revoke any licence by law except for cause and no such cause has been brought to us. Regardless of rumours, regardless of heads of media agencies that arrange people to picket their own media houses in an attempt to bully… I listened to the Hon. Member Mr. Harmon who said that the Chairman of the Guyana National Broadcasting Authority must do this and that. Well, I have never succumbed to bullism and I do not expect to succumb to bullism. I will not head a board which will buckle to those things.
It was not only arranging picketing of their own media houses. One honourable gentleman, who is attached to another media house, walked, I understand, from a report in the newspapers, 17 miles and protested article, according to the newspapers, 282 of the Constitution of Republic of Guyana. I know about the Constitution, but I do not know that it has an article 282. While I retain that dubious honour of being the Chairman of the Guyana National Broadcasting Authority, I wish to assure the Hon. Member Mr. Nagamootoo, and anybody else who thinks that he or she can say to me to revoke the licences and make them null and void, that the law does not allow me to that.
I must, however, while I am on this topic, say that the board has been very active. It has been ambitious. It had set itself a date that it would have finished processing licences. It had set the end of March, but all kinds of things happened, but I have to assure this House that 36 continuing broadcasters submitted documentation and applications to be licensed under the Act. Of that 36, 14 have complied with all of the requirements and so those are well on their way to being granted licences. The others have pieces here and there, a list of this and that. The board is with them because it understands that it is a new process.
I also need to say here that with respect to Region 10 and its application for a licence, I have said this publicly and I am saying this again in this House, the board is only authorise to grant broadcasting licences to a company or a trust, not a country or a region. I have asked those who have any influence with the administration of Region 10 to tell it to please register a company or form a trust and get a trust deed and make its application. The board has made a commitment that as soon as the relevant documentation is sent to it, it will hold a special meeting to scrutinise what is going on, to make sure that the residents of Linden get television broadcast through a station that is properly licensed under the Act, even though, that will be a new station.
I will leave the broadcast issues; it seems to be a very emotive issue. I have heard all kinds of things but I have not heard any legal reason or any legal argument which says that these are not right. [Interruption]
I now move on to budget issues. I must say that on the first day of this budget as I listened to the Hon. Member Carl Greenidge, I was appalled as he was denigrating the provision of $1 billion to support GuySuCo’s financial requirements for its transformation plan. As he reacted, while on his feet, to an intervention from the Government benches, he very clearly suggested by his retort that GuySuCo and the sugar workers were the Government’s problem, not the Opposition’s.
I should not have been surprised really, having lived through a period when the actions of the then Government, of which the Hon. Member was a part, showed their total lack of concern for another large group of hard-working persons in another agricultural industry. I refer here to the thousands of rice farmers who learned the hard way, that they were not the then Government’s problem either. The Guyana Rice Marketing Board was shut down and the Rice Producers’ Association was deemed to have outlived its usefulness. In the year 1990, when only just about 93,000 tons of rice was produced, Guyana had to resort to importing rice from Italy in order to meet local consumption demand. That was a shame. In order to survive, thousands of small farmers were forced turn their rice cultivation lands into pasture lands.
When the PPP/C took over the Government in the year 1992, it rescued the rice industry. [Interruption by Mr. Greenidge.] I would appreciate of Mr. Greenidge stop grumbling and mumbling and trying to disturb me. It found then, and continues to find now, viable markets for rice and paddy and so restored the livelihood of thousands of rice farmers. By using appropriations in successive budgets over the past 20 years, it helped the rice industry to grow from strength to strength so that in the year 2012 rice production was 422,000 tons with a projected production of 440,000 tons in the year 2013. I just heard the Minister of Agriculture said that it will reach 450 000 tons in the year 2013. Rice farmers now, once again, live with dignity.
I want to inform the Hon. Member, and more importantly I want to assure the sugar workers of this country, that just as how this Government did not abandon the rice farmers and the rice industry, in their time of need, so too it will never abandon the sugar workers and the sugar industry no matter how often or loudly the Opposition shouts “bail out” or “black hole”.
I am, however, curious about the Hon. Member’s off the cuff remark that the sugar workers are the Government’s problem, not the Opposition’s. Is the Hon. Member saying that no sugar worker voted for the APNU at the last elections? Is there no Opposition constituency among the sugar workers of this country? Is this why GuySuCo and the sugar industry are not the Opposition’s problem? The sugar workers deserve an answer.
Before I leave the sugar Industry I would like to answer a question posed by Dr. Rupert Roopnarine a bit earlier during his presentation when he asked the question whether it could be true that Dr. Raj Singh is going to take up some position and be paid US$25,000 per month and have two houses, among other things. The short answer to that, through you, Sir, to Dr. Roopnarine, is no. There have been no concluding negotiations between Dr. Singh and this Government or GuySuCo. There is certainly no agreement to pay him US$25,000 or to have him live him two houses. Though, that is a bit difficult for me to understand how it could happen.
I now wish to address the issue of another “black hole” so branded by the same Hon. Member Carl Greenidge, GPL. This year GPL is to benefit from a sum of $5.8 billion as support to meet cash flow requirements. This is provided in order to prevent an increase in electricity tariffs which will be inevitable if the company has to meet increased costs for fuel and other consumables, the prices for which, due to external influences, increase year after year. This intervention is about people, and the Government’s concern for all Guyanese, because, as I wish to point out, those 166,000 consumers, who receive electricity bills, are only about a quarter of all the beneficiaries of electricity services, many of whom are children.
A further sum of $5.4 billion is provided in the budget for upgrading and improving the transmission network of GPL and the loss reduction programme. This, I am sure all of us can agree, is very necessary at this juncture.
In comparison and in contrast, a sum of $2.9 billion is provided in this budget to subsidise the electricity cost of just 10,363 electricity customers in Linden and Kwakwani in Region 10. It is interesting to note that this sum is exactly a half of the sum provided for 166,000 other GPL customers and no one has called Linden Electricity a “black hole”.
I was reminded, as I listened to the presentation made by the Hon. Member Mr. Neendkumar, a few days ago, when he listed all of the interventions that this Government made, Linden Economic Advancement Project (LEAP) and Linden Economic Advancement Fund (LEAF), all the things, which were happening in Linden, then I am left to wonder whether Linden should not have been called a “black hole” instead of GuySuCo and GPL because the Government keeps putting things in and not getting anything out of it.
I have listened to, and read in sections of the local media, suggestions that the sums provided for GPL and GuySuCo, but not Linden Electricity, should be used instead to provide salary increases for public servants and to give increases to old age pensions. I have a weakness for Mathematics and at the risk of being called immodest I can claim to have been, at one time, one of the best Mathematics teachers in this country. I will try to apply some simple arithmetic here. I am going to give the benefit of the doubt to those who made this suggestion, and I will include teachers, policemen and soldiers for this salary increase. From the information I have been able to gather from the various agencies, there seems to be about 12,200 public servants, 10,000 teachers and 7,000 military personnel making a total of 29,200 persons. According to what is being advocated, those 29,200 persons will get an increase in salary and 166,000 GPL customers including the 29,200 people, some of whom, by the way, live in Region 10, will have to pay increased electricity charges. Is this the arithmetic the Hon. Member is giving us? Is this the arithmetic that the Opposition wants us to have, that everybody must pay increases and these people will get the percentage increase on their salaries, but they do not have to pay the increases too? Then we are going to hear calls that the increase was given but it had to be paid for the increase in electricity because the bill has gone up, and all kinds of things.
The $1 billion set aside for GuySuCo, if saved from the “black hole”, will negatively affect 18,000 sugar workers and their families, a total of about 160,000 individuals, while 40,000 old age pensioners will get an increase in their pensions. Is this how the Opposition represents the interests of their constituents? How do we measure the interest of 40,000 as against 160,000?
I know that the PPP/C got less than 50% of the votes at the last elections. Is the Member saying to us that the GPL customers, the GuySuCo workers, and so on, did not vote for the APNU and that it has no constituency there? Is it that its constituencies are the old age pensioners and the public servants and the teachers? Is it that that is being said because it does have to represent the interest of its constituents? That is what is important.
But then in the infamous words of the Hon. Member Khemraj Ramjattan, last year, when it was pointed out to him that the budget cuts would leave cleaners, drivers and other such workers without jobs, those who suffered from the recklessness of the Opposition were referred to as collateral damage, probably copying the former President of the United States of America, George Bush’s description of all the thousands of innocent women and children who died without even being part of a senseless war. I know the Opposition likes the policies of the United States of America. That is why I made that comparison.
This is the same Member, who since February of this year, or probably before that, vociferously, gleefully and publicly declared his intention to cut the budget, a budget which he had not yet seen. This is yet another instance of the irrational wielding of the power of a one-seat majority.
We are well aware that the PPP/Civic got less than 50% of the votes cast at the last elections in year 2011, but unlike the Opposition, which is obviously high on the power of its one-seat majority... In this budget, as in the past 20 budgets presented by this Government, provisions have been made, and have always been made, for 100% of Guyanese, regardless of how they cast their votes, and from that course we will never ever waver.
Unless I forget, I must point out to the Hon. Member Mrs. Volda Lawrence, who by the way made a presentation which was somewhat more constructive that many others from the Opposition, that this electricity assistance of $20,000 annually applies only to pensioners who get electricity bills; it does not apply to all old age pensioners. I must remind her, because of what the Hon. Member said that some pensioners were being asked to contribute towards the electricity in the homes in which they lived. I need to remind her that if among her constituents there are adult children who are so heartless as to demand that their old, aged parents contribute to electricity bills from their pensions, those parents need to be educated that they have the right and recourse, under the existing maintenance law, to legally demand financial support from their children. That law exists. I will keep saying it until people understand that they can educate their constituents that this exists. While I am addressing that I must address something that the Hon. Member Ms. Amna Ally suggested, tonight, and I think her remarks were that we should stop building new schools and we should repair the ones that need repairs. Well, as you know, since in the year 1992 we have been doing both, we have been building and we have been repairing and we will continue to do that.
As I listened to the vitriolic contribution of the Hon. Member Ronald Bulkan, as he lamented that Region 6 got more money than Regions 7 and 8, which are controlled by the Opposition, and that this amounted to discrimination in favour of Government’s supporters, I am stumped. It is the same Member who sits on the Special Select Committee discussing the Local Government Bills, and who is adamant in that committee that fiscal transfers to local government bodies must reflect the geography, population and functions of those bodies. Now, the committee is still to agree on a formula by the way, but yet here is the same Member is lamenting that Opposition controlled regions do not get moneys equal to those regions controlled by Government.
I wish to, at the risk of sounding as a teacher, which I am and will always be, point out to the Hon. Member that allocations are made in the budget according to the specific requests and needs of each region, having regard to geography, population and function. Simple arithmetical division, which the Member seems to want, he wants the total to be divided by 10 because, according to his presentation, that is what we understood. Simple division cannot work. What will result is that we will have equal distribution, but what we strive for is equitable access. If he can appreciate the difference, then I would have been successful.
I do agree with the Hon. Member Jennifer Wade, that all is not well. All can never be well. There will always be problems. I am one of two Government geographic constituency Members of Parliament for Region 3, and I can assure the Member that in Region 3 all is not well either. There is a lot to do in Region 3. Earlier, the residents of Wakenaam protested the inadequate transportation arrangements between Parika and Wakenaam, resulting in hardships to the people and that is true. I wish to assure the Hon. Member, and the residents of Leguan and Wakenaam, that the situation is being addressed and the arrangements being put in place by the Transport and Harbours Department (T&HD) should alleviate the hardships. Very often, as Members of Parliament, we have to make representation on behalf of our constituents, we all do. I have to make and you have to make whenever these situations arise, but this is our duty as Members of Parliament. I have seen Members of Parliament from the Opposition benches sitting with Ministers and making representation for their constituencies. They do it on the quiet and they do it on the sly and then they get up, stand up here, and, as you know, cuss up and say that these things are wrong.
Too many times Members of the Opposition wait for budget debates to score political points when they could have made representation all during the year to improve life in their constituencies.
All Members of Parliament are elected to this National Assembly by citizens who expect representation, and we all, whether part of the Government or Opposition, have a right and a duty, to approach the relevant Government Minister or agency and request interventions according to our constituents’ needs.
Budget debates should be an opportunity for constructive dialogue and criticism, not for political posturing.
I listened to the Hon. Member Mrs. Garrido-Lowe, a few nights ago night. I wish to say that the incident she described should have never happened, but once it did, then it was her duty to take whatever action, which was necessary, to get justice for the victims. That is the responsibility of every member of society, and more importantly, we, as Members of the House, have a fiduciary duty to the vulnerable in our society.
Among the ranks of the Opposition, Member such as the Hon. Dawn Hastings is in the minority. The Hon. Member stood up there and made suggestions as to how the money in the budget could be allocated to better the lot of people in Region 7. It is up to the Government, having listened to that to see how those needs could be accommodated and how that could be done. Everybody else got up and said, according to Dr. Roopnarine, “the glass is empty; this budget has nothing”. At least the Hon. Member identified the provisions and gave some suggestions. What we need here is rational alternatives based on people’s needs. No one benefits from all this posturing for the cameras. At the end of the day Guyana will suffer if we cannot find common ground.
I am the Member of Parliament for Region 3 and I am very excited about all the plans for Region 3. With the realisation of plans for a second bridge across the Demerara River, mining for bauxite in Bonasika, the soon to be completed world-class synthetic track at Leonora and a new access road for the residents of La Parfaite Harmonie, one of two of the largest housing schemes in the country, Region 3 can become the place where people want to live, away from the hustle and bustle of Georgetown.
We plan to establish a legal aid clinic on the West Demerara shortly, so that Region.3 residents who qualify and need it can have easier access to legal services.
In Region 3, much was achieved using the allocation for the year 2012 of in the budget and much more will be done using the allocation for the year 2013, even though it must be said that there is yet a lot more to be done.
This budget has much for many. Every sector, as well as aged and socio-economic group, is catered for and all Guyanese, except the 33 people who normally sit on the opposite side. Every other Guyanese recognises that this is a good budget. This is a sad situation, but it is true.
As I understand it, annual budgets are about continuing development, and development is about people, and people expect to live in security and comfort, in the knowledge that the representatives they elected, when they cast their votes, will act in their best interests. This is why it was so disappointing to witness the shenanigans of the Opposition Members, when in retaliation for not having had the Hon. Minister of Home Affairs resigned or removed from office, despite their best efforts, opted to vote against a necessary piece of legislation meant to control and criminalise the clandestine and illegal movement of firearms. This was at the time when CARICOM was making representation before the United Nations for an Arms Trade Treaty. Recognising their folly, they then, announced that it was a good and necessary piece of legislation so they will bring it to the House as an Opposition Bill.
Well, that course of action may not be possible under the existing law, so even in hindsight, the Hon. Members of this House need to be honest with themselves, and to the people who voted for them, and to recognise that it is only by working together with and reaching common ground, and I am referring to Dr. Roopnarine’s, almost at the then end of his presentation, where people need to come to compromise to work together in the interest of all the people of Guyana. That is all we are asking for. As a show of that, I am going to issue an invitation to the Members of the Opposition that on the first day of the consideration of the Estimates let us all, 65 Members of this House, line up out there and be led by the one person of the 33 Opposition Members - let them choose and they must choose tonight; I do not want them to quarrel as to who must lead - and we will walk in twos, one Member of the Government, one Member of the Opposition. Let us walk down here and show the people that we can walk together and we will work together in their interest.
Sir, I commend this budget to this House. [Applause]
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