Budget Debate 20133588 09 Apr, 2013
Mr. Ramjattan: I rise on this occasion - I think it is for the 21st occasion - in this National Assembly to speak on the budget debate, this time it is budget debate for the year 2013. It is important that the necessary protocols be exercised. One such being is to thank the Hon. Minister of Finance for coming with a budget, knowing that there are challenges internationally, locally, regionally, and also thanking the Ministry’s team, for presenting and laying it in this National Assembly.
I must immediately say that we, in the Alliance For Change (AFC), feel that the budget would have been even a better one had there been a realisation of the points that we made and presented to the Minister, some weeks before, being incorporated into this budget.
We had started a tripartite consultation process since about mid last year. We had indicated a couple of points that we would like to see in the budget. I will come to that at the appropriate time in my presentation. I want to make mention before I reach there that it can be encapsulated very well, that is, the debate on Budget 2013, with certain words that the Reverend Dr. Gilbert had stated last year.
I was taking a look at some of the Hansards, as to some of the speeches made, and I thought that this one rings very well. It has to do with what he was saying that indeed we are where we are and it is better than where we were. Indeed, the Alliance For Change is not going to deny that we are better now than where we were, but I want to insist that incorporating what the Opposition had suggested we could have been far better than where we are.
Last year, taking the Hansard and trying to collate some of the points, which were made, it was the distinct impression that any profound reading of such debates and the discerning of them would reveal that there is something about our politics that is a drag on this Guyanese community and that drag is keeping us back.
I had mentioned a couple of points, in relation to it not being the complete picture to the financial status of this country, when there would have been a huge set of moneys in National Industrial Commercial Investments Limited (NICIL)’s account - public moneys. Huge sets of moneys in certain bank accounts, which the Auditor General had indicated clearly ought to be put into the Consolidated Fund, and even huger sums in the Guyana Geology and Mines Commission (GGMC)’s account, the Guyana Forestry Commission’s account and the Guyana Gold Board account. I had made the point, and I want to emphasise it here, that these moneys ought to be placed into the Consolidated Fund because they are public moneys and such ought to be brought to our attention, in this honourable House, for us then to make the allocation. Yes, the Minister has the right, under the Constitution, to lay the budget. We have every right, however, to indicate where we feel money ought to be cut, where money ought to be placed, in other areas, so that we can have, what we regard too, that which is beneficial to all and sundry in this country.
A budget, of course, is priorities being placed and positioned. On that score, it is not as if we do not love the people of this country if we were to say that the moneys that were going from NICIL to a Marriott Hotel ought to go to the building of a brand new permanent bridge across the Demerara River. What would have been wrong with that? We are stating that at this stage it might be better a priority than a Marriott Hotel. We are saying that we could have started up with certain moneys, even if it is grants or loans, a state development bank through which credit could have been gathered for entrepreneurs. It is our love also for people that encourages us to state that those are proper priorities which ought to be implemented. That is why we are saying that an accommodation with the Opposition, which in this case, in the new dispensation, is the majority, is an imperative. We have to listen to each other; especially the Government has to listen to the Opposition. The political posturing that went on with Madam Gail Teixeira, indicating that we seem not to think, in terms of positive for the people and that we are all bad persons over here, is not necessarily true. We are saying that we ought to make those accommodations to ensure that what collectively, collegially, is best for Guyanese ought then to be the contents of this budget.
Our growth in the early 1990s saw levels unparalleled in this country. Our politicians, if I may say those leading politicians, if they be honest to themselves, cannot compromise that fact. I had watched and I had expected us by virtue of that growth rate of 7, 6 and half and 8% in those early years and with those directions and trajectory would have caused us to go into the middle bracket income, nearing a Latin American and Caribbean economic heavyweight. We were only, in a sense, seeing a mirage. Why has that not happened, Mr. Speaker? I would want to suggest that it was a problem of our politics, which had got in the way, and that politics is, in a sense, dragging us down.
The Hoyte and the later Cheddi Jagan’s initiates, both Presidents of this country, against poverty created a hope of high growth and inclusive democracy with a wonderful long-term plan called the National Development Strategy(NDS). There was a transformational shift under President Jagdeo’s shoes with the emphasis on Low Carbon Development Strategy (LCDS), not an entirely bad strategy, but it was the front behind which there were a number of domestic localised policies and projects which were - I must be honest - riddled with corruption, nepotism, unaccountability and micromanaging. This bred the inefficiencies, the indiscipline and, what I would like to call, the executive lawlessness which has led to a widening inequality and a smashing of the public’s hope.
Yes, there is plenty moneys and there were projects and indeed, as I have indicated in my introduction, we have moved forward, but much of these moneys cannot be said is realising the targeted beneficiaries. We must then make the assessment and even conclude, as a result, that the heavily hailed employment and educational schemes have not built the skills people must have now to participate in our economy.
I say these things knowing that we have to be frank, first of all, to ourselves and to the larger community which we represent. It solely has not produced, for example, workers for the Marriott Hotel, our educational and employment projects, or has it created employees for an environmentally safe mining industry. Why then there is this dashing of hopes?
Politics in Guyana is deeply fragmented and which makes consensus hard to come by and the perceptions and reality, by the community out there, of us politicians are that we are scamps; we are thieves and we have grown even tenfold more in terms of accountabilities since the Dr. Jagan era to now. As a result we are seen as deeply inefficient when not seen as incompetent, and we are seen as most self-serving. This reality, for those who stifle their consciences and denied this, has undermined and eroded the huge authority which could have been associated with accountable politicians, which could have brought a servant exemplar status to our vocation.
This has occurred largely because during the course of the years there was a series of scandals commencing from early in the year 2000 to this day. There are sweetheart deals for construction contracts, privatisation arrangements…, which once was Bookers’ Guyana, today being the big B’s Guyana, the granting of real estate’s development rights in exchange for a very valuable considerations, and more recently including the grants of radio licences to, what I would like to say, friends and favourites, and even families, in a most outrageously deceptive manner. This kind of political leadership consequent upon its gaze being on other things has lost sight of its supervision of a whole range of institutions, the police force to being with, the court systems, our public service, even the army, which now leave these institutions integrity in tatters.
The political leadership of this country, rather than recognising these failures and working to restore moral order, has evaded responsibility. I want to say that Guyana’s moral universe is shrinking. Graft and greed have caused it. The political leadership then – to use this word – scapegoats – if I may be permitted to use that term – this dysfunction in the present circumstance, scapegoated to the one-seat majority of the Opposition as if this one-seat Opposition majority is the culprit. We have to damn that fiction, as it were, Mr. Speaker. It is not the majority Opposition that is the cause of this dysfunction; rather it is the management and governance style of that political leadership, which I talked about, and its subordinate bureaucrats. It is characterised by that management style, that governance style, by huge discretion, by a stifling centralisation and, worse, still staggering secrecy.
I want to give some examples of those huge discretions. I endorsed the view that Government must have discretion. It is a tool and an asset for a Government that must be made available to it. In Guyana, everyday, more and more, the PPP/C Government is never good at justifying its use of this discretion to constituencies affected by such decisions. We have seen that for some time now. Remember President Jagdeo and his grant of duty-free exemptions to Queens Atlantic. What was his justification, when it was then critique by an icon of industry, Dr. Yesu Persaud? He was said to be ignorant of the laws of Guyana, but he was vindicated when certain laws were brought to the President and when indeed we had come here to legalise an illegality. Of course, of most recent vintage is Dr. Luncheon’s justification’s about the grants of radio licences. He justified the discretion to grant radio licences to the present holders on the ground that it is in keeping with a commitment to break a monopoly. Laughable, as you may say, Mr. Speaker, but this brings tears to those who ought to have been granted, and with tears there is a vexation of the spirit. I need not tell you what that could bring.
As regards to centralisation and secrecy, as two components of the management and governance style of this political leadership, I want to say this: the admixture of those two, centralisation and secrecy, has caused me to coin a term in this National Assembly called control freakism. We have some control freaks around the place. It was wrought out of my experience of seeing how this leadership, across there, loves to control everything. Even when I was a Member of the People’s Progressive Party (PPP), and sitting at that end, the control of scholarships was a regular thing to noticed; the attendance of people at seminars, the public purse it wanted to control entirely and the Assembly here - everything from apples to zebra. It had wanted to control the local government process, Hon. Member Mr. Ganga Persaud, the subvention amount, never wanting to enhance decentralisation which could see more people, with more ideas, making even better decisions. This is what brings on a paralysis in our country governance and management at every turn and at every point and whatever the forum is. This is the reason why on the Access of Information Act, the Hon. Member Ms. Gail Teixeira can say - to quote her from the Stabroek News - “but soon as the information has finished disseminating there is urgency to operationalise the Act.”
Ms. Teixeira: I did not say that.
Mr. Ramjattan: That is the reason why…
Ms. Teixeira: Mr. Speaker, I have no problems with what I say. I am not responsible for what the newspaper states that I said.
Mr. Ramjattan: I took what I saw her saying from the television and that was what was effectively reported in the newspapers. If I am wrong I will withdraw it. The trouble is that I heard her effectively saying that.
Mr. Speaker: Members, this is apposite time for me to note that Mr. Nagamootoo had undertaken to provide documentation and he has provided it. It is available. I will leave it with the Clerk.
Mr. Ramjattan: That is the reason also why the Regional Executive Officers (REOs) in certain regions, not controlled by the Government, have such huge difficulties getting their plans and budget approved. Region 8 is a prime example. The Alliance For Change has the chairman for that region and, of course, we all know that the Government proposed to the councillors, therein, a certain budget and the REO, we understand, presented something else to the Ministry of Finance. If we are going to talk about local governance and when there are the councillors, by majority, in a democratic process coming up and them itemising, basically, what they would want for their territory, why then confine them to that which the REO would later come with?
It was until Hon. Member Cathy Hughes, AFC Member, asked the question about radio licences, we never would have known that they were allocated since November, 2011. That was a state secret. It was until the question was asked and the Hon. Prime Minister had to then produce the answers. It was two days before the then President’s term expired he did so. If the question was not asked we might have very well not known the holders and their names. That is why we saw the Cheddi Jagan International Airport expansion only out for the first time… I learnt of it through the Gleaner newspaper from Jamaica and then Kaieteur News printings it here. Even - I think the name is Kofi Dey, out of India – the India Times had to tell us about the big forestry investment in Guyana by this Indian entrepreneur.
There is so much more that is hidden, which, perforce in the coming days and months, will be fathomed and discerned and unearthed by this one-person majority Opposition. It will be in the interest of this country that we do that job of bringing all these sleight of hand to the public fore. As I have said last year, we had as, what I will regard, an excessive financial responsibility through what were found in the NICIL and the GGMC accounts, and all of those. It is for these reason too why the political leadership of the PPP/C seems not to want to have the operationalisation of a public Procurement Commission. The genuine operationalisation of this Procurement Commission will be a scourge of the PPP, in this the second decade of the year 2000, just as the operationalisation of the Auditor General report under the Hoyte’s administration, so it was the scourge of the PNC.
If we the politicians love the people we must love scrutiny and we must learn to live it. We must give the people out there that charge to blow the whistle when they see corruption and cronyism. It is not to do as such as was done to that young man, Pablo Singh, at NDIA, when he found certain were things going wrong there and came out with his internal auditors report he was being chastised, more than anything else. That is wrong. We would never, then, as a result get a culture of wanting to speak out. What are we going to have when we bottled all of these personnel with all of these instructions that they would want to see as a content of their report? We are going to have fear being built, and fear in the country, fear in the governance processes, fear in the management processes are not going to being the interest of this country.
The result of this kind of politics and governance forces Government to maintain a façade of pro poor rhetoric. [Ms. Teixeira: That is why it troubles you.] Yes. It is exemplified in certain statements, that pro poor rhetoric in the content of the Budget 2013 presented by the Hon. Minister. [Mr. Neendkumar: Tell me where are they?] There are large doses of it as to what and what the poor will benefit from. It also forces this political leadership to do outreaches, to disadvantage ethnic groupings for natural political survival [Mr. G. Persaud: You are going wrong, Mr. Ramjattan.] It does. I have seen that. It urges also a cuss down ad hominem politics - buse down. It is calling people jackasses, calling them, at Rose Hall, Canje ground, fool, and so on. It even forces opportunistically, as is the recent platform of this Government as it appears, a state big business kind of reality.
Ms. Teixeira: The word donkey or the word that the Hon. Member is using “jackasss” is not considered a parliamentary word.
Mr. Speaker: Hon. Members, it is unparliamentarily to refer, in this House to another Member. Mr. Ramjattan is quoting what a Hon. Member was called, outside this House, by someone else. It is quite in order. You are not referring to another Member in here by that term.
Mr. Ramjattan: Look, it is here, what the President said about one of his colleagues of over 40 years. I support what is good for the Guyana Chronicle is also good to be brought here.
This association then creates demands, a certain raw political survivorship of the elite. We welcome an admixture of the state and the market, but we do not want to see, as Dr. Jagan would have wanted not to see, the state cuddling with only certain big Bs only. We have to create the condition that all and sundry must have the opportunity and justified criteria for owning lands, for owning radio licences, for getting contracts, for getting other things, and state resources.
A yawning inequality can be the consequence of misapplied admixture of state intervention and the role of the market. This inequality then breeds political polarisation; it breeds mistrust; it breeds resentment; it breeds the accumulation, on the one side, of the haves and, on the other, the have-nots. There is a distortion of the democratic process, the democratic system, in which money increasingly confers the political voice and power. I am seeing that happening. The big boys in this country are becoming predominant.
These pointers, which I am addressing, largely come from an article that I read from a very prominent politician out of Latin America, Oscar Arias, that this budget is going to have troubles because our politics have troubles. It is based on the obscene gesticulation just now and it will not bring that good politics that we want in this Parliament, so as to ensure a peaceful deliberation here. He said it in an article in the Foreign Affairs, January/February of 2011. It is so very much applicable to what we are and what is happening here. It is the opening essay edition of the Foreign Affairs and he is talking about Latin American and Caribbean politicians here. This is what he sated at page 5:
“Once elected they interpreted their mandates as carte blanche to do whatever they wanted, including prosecuting their opponents, shackling the media and trying to twist the system so as to stay in power at all cost. Too many of their country’s citizens meanwhile are contented to allow these leaders to proceed, perhaps seeing their messianism and demagoguery as the exit of the prevailing regional labyrinth of underdevelopment.”
Those are great words from a great man, Oscar Arias. Latin America has vastly more controllers than entrepreneurs. He went on to say a lot more about how we are the ones who… We are even tight to hold onto pain and sufferings rather than go forth, sometimes, not being very certain. It generates not only anxiety, but paralysis, that kind of management and governance style.
He even quoted a passage from another very important former President in the region, Osvaldo Hurtado, recently, when he said:
“Latin Americans do not trust legal institutions and actors, whether Government courts or private lawyers. In deed the deep-rooted centuries old custom of flouting the law has been a more powerful influence in the continent of the countless laws passed over the centuries to regulate economic, social and political relations. Latin American legislatures have probably passed more laws over the past 175 years in than their counterparts anywhere in the planet yet have never so many laws be ignored by so many, for so long.”
The thing captures exactly what we have here in Guyana, and we can talk all we want. We can talk about we can have great budgets but if we at this level of the politics, and the culture, and the norms of the community, cannot have a handle on how we are to govern ourselves, how we are to see that there is greater citizenship by participation from the community around us, we are not going to have any progress made.
We want to help the private sector and we did, as part and parcel of our deliberations and even consultations with it, a comparison of the taxes in relations to other Caribbean countries and Guyana. The scenario here is painted in which Guyana is probably the most taxed country in the English speaking Caribbean. Our rates are over 10 and 5% and this tax comparison, I have given to the press, in a press conference that we held, and had urged the Minister of Finance to let us in as to what is happening to the tax committee - the Tax Review Committee. We now understand that all that was said last year that “Hold on, Mr. Ramjattan and Mr. Granger, and the rest of our team, we are going to ensure that this committee will come up with some recommendations.” Lo and behold! It has probably met, but there is nothing which has been done in relation to that Tax Committee.
That kind of tax reduction is going to ensure…, as we have been saying when comparing against Barbados, Trinidad and Jamaica. Indeed, a logical dispassionate arrangement can lead to one’s thinking that there might very well be a reduction in the amount of taxes collected, but what we have been told by the business community is that once taxes are reduced taxpayers will pay. We have to live with that reality, as the economist will say, that when it is too high a number of the entrepreneurs and businessmen start hiding - evasion and avoidance. They have been pleading for reduction of corporate taxes and we, in the Alliance For Change, also have been pleading for a reduction of the Value Added Tax. We were, last year, being told, in minute detail, that reduction of Value Added Tax was not going to help poor people. The thing is relative; it will help poor people. The poor people, by the way, as we go about this country, all the way, will ask, “Mr. Ramjattan, Mr. Nagamootoo, when you all will bring down that tax?” It is all over the place. Then I tell them - that is why I generally walk with the arguments of the Minister of Finance to places where I go - that this is what the Minister of Finance said: “It is the rich people who are going to benefit more that al yo, so because the rich people are going to benefit more that al yo, we do not want you all to get that little respite.”
It is an argument that I find rather specious; I find rather illogical, but that is the argument. I am urging that there be, as quickly, the reconvening of a new committee, if that has to be, so that we can have analysis of our taxes just as when there were the actuaries coming in to see what disaster Dr. Roger Luncheon’s chairmanship and other board members caused to that National Insurance Scheme (NIS), to the extent now that it is going bankrupt or will soon go bankrupt. That is hard earned moneys but, of course, we will come to the budget, we might very well ask for a bail out. I think that is one of the propositions.
In addition, I want to make mention of certain things that we, in the Alliance For Change, had proposed as part of our ideas in the budget. I had them here, somewhere. They had to do with the fact that we are concerned about the people’s welfare. We had made a ten-point plan in relation to what we would like to see in the budget. I notice that when it is being stated that we do not care for the people, I want it to be understood that when we ask for public servants increases, we care for the public servants; when we ask for a reduction of Value Added Tax, we care. It is not that we do not have this country at heart. When we ask for the public Procurement Commission to be established, we care. We want cronies and corruption to come to an end. Even if there is none, the public Procurement Commission will come here and say so and the kudos will be held for the benefit of the Government.
It will be a proud day when the Procurement Commission comes and says: “Mr. Ramjattan, what you were alleging were all false.” I will stand up and say… [Mr. G. Persaud: We do not need a commission.] Of course, we need a commission. That is why we are saying there has been a plethora of constitutional breaches because it is there in the Constitution and it has not been operationalised. There is supposed to be an Ombudsman and we cannot name one for the last five or six years. There is supposed to a Public Service Appellate Tribunal. Have the members of the Public Service Appellate Tribunal named? No. We have a Constitution full of fancy institution of the scrutiny and for the benefit of workers and public servants and procurement contracts, and what do we have? None is being established to the extent that it could start doing its work. I want to say that the ultimate reason is because this Government talks scrutiny but does not walk that talk.
We had asked for certain other things, certain vehicles duties and taxes to be reduced, in keeping with the Low Carbon Development Strategy (LCDS), that is, electric cars, and so, when they will start coming in. We talk about an increase to the $15,000 for the old age pensioners. We love the people too just like the Government. The Government must not get the impression that when we present to it that which we would like to see, it is about a smashing of the workers and the proletariat and all the middle classes. No. The impression is given as if we are the dragons, as if we are the bad Johns of the place. When we said that we would like, first of all, now, to make whatever alterations and amendments to the budget, understand that in the context that we are thinking of the people out there. No, said the other side - absolutely no. They Members said that we want to do damage to the workers of this country. That is the last intent we would have ever had. As a matter of fact, it is not a part and parcel at all.
The reconfiguration of a budget, which could have occurred during a more sincere dialogue process, is now not there. We have to do what we have to do to ensure that that Government across the floor comes to its senses. When it starts tighten up we are going to start lighten up.
Thank you very much Mr. Speaker. [Applause]
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