Budget Debate 20133394 09 Apr, 2013
Mr. Trotman: Thank you, Mr. Speaker. I rise to make my contribution to this 2013 Budget which was presented on 25th March, 2013 by the Hon. Dr. Ashni Singh. I want to begin by saying that this Budget propels a crisis not only here in the National Assembly but also throughout Guyana. I think it is unfortunate that the Government side believes its own propaganda that everything is hunky-dory in relation to this Budget. I would advise that that side of the House take more time to go in the streets and talk to the people individually, not in orchestrated meetings, but in meetings in which they will be able to get frank opinions about what people feel, and they would be surprised at what people feel.
I want to begin my contribution to the 2013 Budget debate by alluding to two developments which took place by addressing two issues which took place during the Hon. Minister of Finance’s presentation.
The first has to do with the broadcast of his presentation via the public address system outside of the Parliament Buildings.
I believe that the second issue, which I will also refer to, when juxtaposed against the first, will expose the Government’s undemocratic behaviour.
The decision to broadcast from the National Assembly assumes tremendous importance, particularly in the context of a motion that was passed in this House on Friday, 10th August, 2012, which states:
“1. This National Assembly declares that the right of citizens to assemble and to demonstrate peacefully should not be hindered by the Guyana Police Force or any other agency or institution of state;
2. The Guyana Police Force should relocate its barricades so as to allow freedom of assembly within a closer proximity of the National Assembly, Public Buildings; and
3. The Parliament Office makes arrangements for the broadcast of National Assembly sittings in the environs of the National Assembly.”
It cannot be overstressed, Mr. Speaker, that the resolved clauses of the motion I referred to called for three distinct courses of action, which are intended to help to enshrine democracy in this country of ours. You will recall that during the debate on the motion, the Minister of Home Affairs attempted to belittle the proposal to broadcast from the Public Buildings by claiming it would be a nuisance and disruptive to agencies and organisations in close proximity to the National Assembly, including the sittings of the Assembly. What has transpired is that the system was used successfully and the Minister was proven to be wrong.
My only complaint insofar as the broadcast was concerned was that little or no advanced publicity was given to the public about its implementation. While offering congratulations to you, the Clerk and his staff, I am compelled to say that I hope you will now move to institutionalise the arrangement and, further, I hope it is not the intention to broadcast now and in the future only selective Members’ presentations.
Sir, if that is the intention, Parliament Office will be guilty of aiding and abetting a crime against the people of this country and making a mockery of the third Resolved Clause in the motion. Already, we have seen that it is only the Minister of Finance’s speech which was broadcast, thereby making a mockery of the motion. As I had said during the debate on the motion, people want to know what their representatives are saying when they are in here and nothing should preclude them from knowing and being involved in the process. This becomes even more important in light of how some Members’ contributions are being dealt with by the National Communications Network (NCN) and other media houses. Parliament Office is obliged to do all within its powers to give real meaning to the motion.
The intention was never about partial implementation of the motion, but implementation of it in all of its aspects. It is clear that Clauses 1 and 2 of the motion are yet to be implemented in keeping with its spirit and intent. The barriers around the Assembly are more restrictive than before. We, in this honourable House, have to be concerned about the lengths the Government is prepared to go to in order to derecognise and trample on the democratic rights of citizens. That behaviour makes a mockery of the Minister of Finance’s boast of the efforts of the People’s Progressive Party/Civic (PPP/C) Government to build a better Guyana for all Guyanese.
The second issue I wish to refer to is in relation to the Minister of Finance’s lament in his speech of the positions the majority of the Members of this House have taken in respect to issues of national importance over the months of the life of this Tenth Parliament. He dared to lecture us on the wisdom of our actions and, in his arrogance, demonstrated a pronounced weakness in the thinking of the PPP/C, which is its failure to come to grips with the reality of the situation.
The PPP/C Members credit every action of the majority in the House as an obsession by the majority to prove the importance of what they like to call the one-seat majority. They talk as if that one seat is represented by a single vote. The reality is far different from what they pretend and would like their constituents to believe. If one thing is true, it is that on 28th November, 2011, a shift took place in the voting pattern in Guyana, which sent shock waves down the spines of the leaders of the PPP/C. That shift saw more than 10,000, not one - I repeat, more than 10,000 persons - abandoning the PPP/C and voting against that party. The leaders of the PPP/C are trying their best to understand what that development means for their future existence. They are wondering how many more will abandon them in the months ahead. But like the proverbial ostrich, which hides its head in the sand, they seem not to want to understand that in taking the actions they took, 10,000 and more voters had demonstrated the extent to which they had become fed up with that party and had deliberately aligned themselves to forces they have confidence in. By doing so, those persons took a conscious decision to mandate the majority to a course of action that irretrievably changed the status quo.
What is taking place in this National Assembly is, therefore, what the people want. Some people call it by the fascinating name – people’s power. By whatever name it is called, it represents a determination by the people of this country that what existed prior to 28th November, 2011, would no longer prevail.
Let me take this opportunity to offer some advice to the Hon. Minister of Finance of this minority Government. You should get out of your ivory tower and go on the streets. You will be surprised when you hear what people are saying. You will hear them saying to the majority that in the PPP/C there is a criminal cabal and a dictatorship to dismantle and dismantle it we must.
We who sit on this side of the House are obliged to respond to the demands of the majority of the populace. The Minister of Finance and the rest of the leaders of the PPP/C and the remainder who sit on the opposite side of the House had better get used to that idea and do so quickly. It seems to me that the Minister of Finance’s and the Government’s concept of democracy is that the Government talks and cracks the whip and the majority jumps. That is why even when he talks about consultation, he honours the principles of it in the breach. If consultation enjoyed a high, meaningful priority on this Government’s agenda, we would have been dealing with a budget today which, I am sure, would not have been as contentious as this one is. As the situation now stands, the Budget, in its present form, must not suffice. It must be changed to reflect the true situation in the country or must be voted down.
I want to touch on public sector wages, salaries and other benefits. As I sat listening to the Minister of Finance unveil his plans for 2013 on March 25th, it occurred to me that he was engaged in a lengthy exercise, one that consumed more than three hours of spewing what I described as pure rhetoric - hot air. One could not escape the feeling that as we sat through his web of fantasia, he was engaged in rehashing a set of principals which he has been making year after year. What was even more disturbing to me, but not surprising, was that he completely ignored the proposals made to him by APNU and AFC for relief to the most vulnerable categories in the society.
Sir, it boggles the mind that throughout his lengthy discourse he gave no real thought to enlarging the earning power for that large group of people who fall within the category known as public sector workers. When will it be improved? Is it that Government’s intention to address the grave anomalies… What the Minister, however, did was to play his usual con game when he tried to give the impression that workers earning in excess of $50,000 per month will, from year of income 2013, benefit…
Mr. Speaker: Hon. Member, the reference to the Minister playing a “con game” does not rest well with me. I ask that it be withdrawn. Words used have been “sleight of hand” and things like that but “con game” connotes negatively... It does not sit well. I am asking that it be removed and be replaced by other words.
Mr. Trotman: I would say “unacceptable”.
…that workers earning in excess of $50,000 per month will, from year of income 2013, benefit from a huge package of relief, as reflected in the reduction of personal income tax from 33 1/3 per cent to 30 per cent. What the Hon. Minister of Finance deliberately failed to do was to point out that there is a very large number of workers in this country who earn far less than $50,000 per month and for those who earn in excess of that amount, in money terms, the astronomical relief he alluded to amounts to 3 1/3 cents on every dollar they would be required to pay. With an inflation rate of 3.5 per cent, the low paid worker is not better off in real terms.
There can be no substitute for immediate increases both in the earning power to cushion the effect in the rising cost of living and improving the allowances and other conditions of workers.
Let us not pretend otherwise. The much sought after increases in salaries and allowances should be seen by the Government as an investment in people and not merely as a payoff.
It endows workers with the capacity to address, albeit minimally, the problems posed by the escalating prices in goods and services which occur with great rapidity. Where is the increased allowance that nurses and other personnel employed in the health sector have been clamouring for 20 years after the last measly increase was given? Why are retired nurses who are reemployed and, I believe, contracted, are not being paid the gratuity and other benefits paid to other contract workers? Are they in fact contracted? If they are the Government is obliged to pay them their entitlements because they are giving service over and beyond the call of duty in an effort to give meaning to the troubled patient care delivery system. What about the conditions of work for all other public servants? When will they be improved? Is it Government’s intention to address these grave anomalies only when strike action is taken? I submit, therefore, that the failure to address these questions with the urgency they deserve is unconscionable and it is intended to impose greater burdens on an already enslaved group of workers. In that situation, it is incumbent on the majority in this House to encourage and be part of workers’ efforts to improve their lot.
On the question of Governance, I want to say that the Minister of Finance in his Budget Speech devoted only two paragraphs to the very important issue of Governance. In the one sentence, first paragraph, he tersely stated that:
“…events which have unfolded since the 28th November, 2011 General and Regional Elections, particularly in the National Assembly, have tested the mettle of our governance systems and political maturity”.
The second paragraph merely referred to ongoing reviews of Guyana’s Treaty Obligations- a subject which could have been better treated in an earlier section of the Minister’s speech dealing with Foreign Relations. This section on Governance merited much more extensive treatment since, with “good governance” Guyana’s growth rate would probably have been in the double digits, seeing that the economy is moving from a very low economic base.
The Minister is reluctant to deal with the subject of governance because of the indefensible behaviour of his Party, which, having lost its parliamentary majority, seeks to make the Opposition ineffective by tying the latter up in the courts and the President, acting like a General Secretary rather than a Head of State, refuses to sign any bill with which his Party is not in agreement.
Guyana would have seemed a more stable society and welcoming environment for domestic and foreign investors and a more attractive alternative location for those skilled and semi-skilled would-be emigrants, if the President, soon after the last election, had sought to engage the Opposition in inclusive governance arrangements or some form of genuine shared governance. Rather, there was a rush to form a one party executive government, in keeping with a 20-year-old tradition of “winner-take-all”.
Good governance relates to the effective implementation of democratic practices; the full participation of all stakeholders - political, civic and private sector; fair and equitable treatment for all, including non-traditional supporters; transparency and effective disclosure; regular and timely reporting to those whom the elected are supposed to be representing - especially information concerning the results of feasibility studies and related choice and identity of foreign joint venture partners; accountability, particularly with respect to the determination of project costs, and a level playing field relating to the bidding and tendering process. What has taken place since 1992 is a refutation of all of these principles. Despite the solemn agreements under the 1999 Herdmanston Accord, the current regime persists in blocking the formation of a Public Procurement Commission and so kickbacks continue to proliferate with recipients of the illicit gains sheltering under a non-functioning asset declaration system and a non-existent Integrity Commission. The resulting corruption accounts for a significant loss in Guyana’s potential rate of economic growth. This loss is not reduced as perverse thinkers would want to believe, but magnified by a suspicious lack of enthusiasm about going after known drug lords masquerading as businessmen.
Public Sector workers’ interests are not being served, since the Public Service Commission, Police Service Commission, Teaching Services Commission and Judicial Services Commission exist only in name, with the Government imposing arbitrary and discriminatory contract and non-contract employment conditions and levels of remuneration devoid of opportunities for bargaining by the workers’ representatives. In addition, senior appointments at the various Government agencies are based on party loyalty, rather than merit and professional qualifications, resulting in a loss of operational efficiency. Merit and professional qualifications are not a major requirement for promotion; a classic example being the position of Auditor-General. In certain cases, the favoured are not fired or if fired they are not placed before the courts, despite gross financial misconduct as for example with National Communication Network (NCN). Similar party loyalty buttressed by strong bouts of cronyism accounts for the grotesquely unfair nature of the recent distribution of radio licenses and related frequencies.
Non-adherence to rule of law has therefore become the norm. Outrageous examples of flouting of the law abound, including failure to implement court compensation awards for public officials’ misconduct and deliberate misinterpretation of the Chief Justice’s decisions concerning the ability of Parliament to make amendments to the Budget. Even more criminal is the Government failure to recognise the dictates of the Guyana Constitution, with respect to the financing of independent agencies such as GECOM, the strict conditions for access to the Contingency Fund, and the need for all revenues, including those of the parallel Treasury, that is National Industrial and Commercial Investments Limited (NICIL) and Lotto and Guyana Geology and Mines Commission (GGMC) funds, to be placed in the Consolidated Fund. In this regard, the current Minister of Finance needs to be disciplined by this House for gross violations of the Constitution. His conduct seems to know no bounds or any sense of professional decency. How can a Minister of Finance be Chairman of NICIL and therefore, in fact, he is reporting to and advising his very self. This is an absurdity. And how can someone remain as Minister of Finance when his wife is one of the main officials responsible for auditing the State’s finances? Is not the conflict of interest pellucidly clear to all and sundry?
The truth is that every decision of this Government is informed by arrogance and the expectation that an ever loyal and partisan constituency will return it to power. Consultation is not its watchword. Thus, for example, attempts could have been made to increase the electricity tariff in Linden and appropriate the Plaisance Community Centre playfield, without any consultation with the communities.
This is a reflection of the outrageously partisan nature of the state-owned media. However, in a more general sense, there is clear need for a ministerial code of conduct. What is also required is a sharpened awareness of ministerial responsibility, as evidenced, for example, by the uncaring reaction to the tragic shootings of peaceful demonstrators in Georgetown and Linden.
Finally, Government needs a complete revamping of its governance framework. Power needs to be de-centralised at both the central and local government levels. At the central level, the 1980 Constitution needs further amendment, including diminution of the power of the office of President. In addition, critical institutions are required to be established or strengthened in order to provide much needed checks and balances. At the local government level, there is need for strengthening and extensive reform, including a diminution of the power of the Minister of Local Government and a strengthening of regional and municipal powers vis-à-vis those of the central government. Will this power hungry minority Executive Government facilitate such structural change or will it continue to stymie constitutional progress? Above all, the plural society that is Guyana requires a new paradigm of political cooperation and an attitudinal transformation, particularly on the part of those who have been in office for the last 21 years and who deserve a failure grade of “F”, as far as good governance is concerned.
On the matter of corruption, I want to say that when I listened to the Junior Finance Minister speak to Government’s proposals to address the question of corruption, I wondered which planet he came from. It is clear to me that he does not understand that when you are part of the problem, you cannot be part of the solution. Listening to him, I got the impression that he has promised a miracle to resolve this tremendous crisis. It seems as if he has not learned his lesson. He ought to know since 28th November, 2011 when he promised the People’s Progressive Party/Civic (PPP/C) that with Jesus’ assistance, he will deliver Guyana to them and failed, that he is incapable of delivering miracles.
Mr. Speaker: With respect, Hon. Member it was quite a notorious statement and that would not be accurate. So if we are going to make a reference to the statement, let us be accurate. I think what the Minister publicly said was if Jesus was in Guyana, he would be voting for his Party. That is what was said.
Mr. Trotman: May I say that when I listened to him he was inferring that Jesus would have been by his side listening…
Mr. Speaker: That is a fair inference you may draw; you may put it that way.
Mr. Trotman: Corruption is institutionalised in this society and the establishment of an audit department and the conducting workshops with stakeholders will not allow for its eradication. The way to go is for the Government to start by stopping the attempts to deceive people about the way forward. They must put in place the much needed Procurement Commission to oversee the award of contracts, establish the National Assembly Budget Office to oversee how appropriations are being dealt with and consult with genuine patriots on the other mechanisms that are required to deal with the problem and implement the proposals they make.
As is normally the case, the reliefs which have been identified would benefit those who already live in great comfort and place the disadvantaged in an even more disadvantageous position. It is worth noting that among the proposals for improving the living standards of the poor and the powerless, from the majority side of the House, are recommendations for the reduction of Value Added Tax (VAT) and increasing of the old age benefits to $15,000 per month. These have been ignored while benefits to cronies and friends have been increased, for example the reduction of the Property Tax will mostly benefit the property class.
I note that the Minister spent a lot of time talking about poverty alleviation. I wonder if the $1.1 billion appropriations for the Ministry of Education’s School Feeding programme for school children cover the cost of providing to those children on the coast whose parents are unable to provide a meal at lunch time, as was recommended by the A Partnership for National Unity (APNU) via me a few months ago.
Let me remind this House that I had brought to the attention of the National Assembly and the acting Minister of Education, Hon. Dr. Frank Anthony, a situation which indicated that a large number of young male and female students on the coast are without meals at lunch time and are forced to beg, and in some cases steal, to satisfy their hunger. As a result, they are exposed to the demands for sex by some so-called benefactors. I had requested that a pilot study be undertaken in Georgetown to ascertain the validity of the concerns I expressed. The acting Minister had pointed to the milk and biscuits distribution as Government’s attempts to address the problem and had requested that I provide details of the incidents so he could check, but I told him the best source of information is the recommended pilot study. My question at this time is: has the pilot study been undertaken? If not, why not?
Let me make the point that while the milk and biscuits distribution provide some form of relief, it is not given to each child and is not a substitute for a hot meal at lunch time. Additionally, how many Ministers in this House would allow their children to consume a meal of milk and biscuits every day?
This matter should be of great concern to the Ministry and steps should already have been taken to address the problem. We cannot pretend to be concerned about the plight of young people and, when information is provided which underscores the depths of depravity in the society, we pass the buck to others. We talk about the high rate of pregnancy in schools and then we refuse to identify with a situation which points to one of the reasons why pregnancy among our female students and buggery of our young male students is as high as it is in the school system. I believe that the majority in the House will willingly support an appropriation which is intended to address the problems of providing a hot meal at lunch time to each needy child throughout the school system. I, therefore, want to use this opportunity to call on the Minister of Finance and the Minister of Education to address this oversight in the 2013 budget allocations.
I know that the APNU and the Alliance For Change (AFC)’s regional representatives have spoken eloquently on the matter of local government, so I will not touch that. I was not here to hear Minister Ganga Persaud’s presentation, but I was wondering if he has dealt with the troubling question of Regional Executive Officer (REO) Mr. Harsawack and his delinquencies in relation to his handling of resources of the…
Minister of Education [Ms. Manickchand]: On a Point of Order, please, Mr. Speaker, I have great respect for the age of the Hon. Member, but the Hon. Member is repeatedly breaching the rules of this House. He just defamed a person who cannot stand here and defend himself and for whom he has no evidence of delinquency. There has been no finding of delinquency about this person’s work.
Mr. Speaker: I believe that a no-confidence motion was passed by the majority of the councillors of Region No.8, and that is a notorious fact. Whether or not action has been taken is a different matter. Certainly, it is the opinion of the majority of councillors that they have lost confidence in this particular officer.
But, Mr. Trotman, to make a statement of delinquency without being able to support… anyone can come and say anything.
Mr. Trotman: Mr. Speaker, my support for the statement lies in the fact that a motion was moved and passed and the Minister was written to about the motion. The Minister was asked to remove the person.
Mr. Speaker: In that case Mr. Trotman who would be delinquent? Not Mr. Harsawack. If you call on the Minister to act, if there has been a demand on the Minister to act and for whatever reason you cannot then target… [Minister Ganga Persaud rose] One second Minister, we are not at you. I am just saying that if there has been a demand made on the Minister to take certain actions and those actions have not been taken, I do not even know if he has been formally called on, then if it is in that context you cannot accuse Mr. Harsawack of being delinquent. That is the point that I am making.
Mr. Trotman: Mr. Speaker, Mr. Harsawack has been delinquent in relation to how he carried out his functions and what flowed from that was the no confidence motion and the Minister also is delinquent because he has failed to address the motion.
Minister of Local Government [Mr. G. Persaud]: Mr. Speaker…
Mr. Speaker: One second Mr. Minister. What I would say is that until such time that we have the actual document before us setting out what transgressions they were - if any - I would not allow you to say he was delinquent which led to, because we do not know the basis of, and it is not a subject matter in this House for us to just say he was and therefore. I know there was, but truthfully I have not been able to see the motion, I have not been able to see the resolve clause. It is not in the body of this House and, therefore, we cannot just say the man was delinquent. We know a motion was passed. [Interruption] We have to take judicial notice of something that is before us. I know something was done. That is the most I would allow you to say, that a motion of no confidence was passed, but not to say to describe him as being delinquent or otherwise.
Mr. Trotman: Mr. Speaker, would it help if I lay over the documents in this House?
Mr. Speaker: It would help, but you have about two and one half minutes left in your presentation. So far, Mr. Persaud, because we are dealing with a Point of Order, I do not see the need for you to rise for anything.
Mr. G. Persaud: Very well, Sir.
Mr. Trotman: In concluding Mr. Speaker, I want to say two things; first, some home truths: Guyanese are surviving, not because of the so-called stable economic environment, but because of their wits, combined with remittance flows, fortuitous foreign investments related to high commodity prices, and illicit proceeds from the drug trade.
Guyanese are surviving in gold mining activities in the forbidding interior terrain, not because of Government provision of access roads and other infrastructure, but because of favourable international prices.
Guyanese are surviving, not because of Government provision of basic needs, but in spite of wasteful, corrupt and distorting Government expenditures, including notable white elephants.
Guyanese are barely surviving in the hotel industry, not with the help of any Government subsidies, but with the threat of Government’s Marriott financing crowding them out of the industry.
This Government is wont to take credit for certain recent economic developments, but the truth is that the Government is more of a hindrance than a help.
It is the product of the abovementioned various economic factors that contribute to macro-economic stability and not the much vaunted Government policy intervention.
What we currently have in Guyana can be characterised as a case of “public failure and private success”.
Secondly, I want to use this opportunity to bring to your attention a saying which goes like this, “Might Is Right Until Right Gets Ready.” I want to repeat it, “Might Is Right Until Right Gets Ready.”
What it refers to sir is the way in which governments use and abuse power and the people’s eventual response, which is inevitably, vicious. Many governments, including this PPP/C Government, have a way of believing that because it controls the military apparatus of the State they can and do use brutal measures to coerce citizens to obedience of their dictates. That only works for a while. History is replete with instances where the people, even after years of tyrannical behaviour from ruling parties, have risen up and thrown off the yokes of tyranny. In Guyana the situation is not dissimilar. The crisis which is partly reflected in this Budget, require an urgent solution. In this crisis we have been presented with a wonderful opportunity not only to reflect on where we are but to determine where we are going. Mr. Speaker, let us, even at this late hour, craft the kind of budget, which will take Guyana beyond where it is. The consequences for this country, if this cannot be done, are too grave to consider. The people are waiting to hear from us.
Thank you, Mr. Speaker. [Applause]
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