Budget Speech - Mr Keith Scot—20143476 31 Mar, 2014
Mr. Scott: Mr. Speaker, allow me, Sir, to express my appreciation to you for affording parliamentarians and the parliamentary staff the opportunity to pay homage to our fallen Colleague, the late Hon. Deborah Backer, Madam Deputy Speaker, by having her body fittingly lie in state in the compound of the Public Buildings.
Diminutive Debbie was like the small hummingbird that flits from flower to flower after which each flower fulfils its destiny. So, too, each person that she touched found fulfilment in the knowledge that they were in the company of one who cared for her fellow mortals. We always sat together at each break in the parliamentary proceedings and it was fascinating to hear her soft analysis of Gail, Amna, Raphael, Khemraj – it was always first names – or how a motion or a Bill should be approached and handled. After that, we had quiet talks about the progress of our families. Yet, in a nanosecond, a loud hail up would be given to Mr. Neendkumar or Ms. Shadick. Debbie is now in the company of the political and parliamentary giants and women greats of the past, those who have passed, like Janet Jagan, Jane Phillips-Gay and Margaret Ackman-John. Now, the bird is on the wing. Goodbye little bird. Goodbye Deborah Osman Backer. Adios Mariquita Linda.
Allow me to congratulate Dr. Ashni Singh, the Minister of Finance, for once more presenting a budget to this House and also for his longevity for being able to survive so long in presenting budgets that are well known for their size rather than for their substance.
We keep hearing about the attacks on this side of the House in that we ought to be able to present alternative solutions to the projects and ideas that the Minister of Finance presents. Let me say that this is not the role of the Opposition. It is the role and duty of the Government and Minister of Finance to come to us with projects. Our job is to help them by pointing out the areas where there can be improvement, and that is exactly what we do when we stand and talk. It is not that we are attacking for the sake of attacking; it is because we have the nation at heart. When we see something that is not correct, something that can be improved, money is being channelled and wasted – we in the committees can attest to the areas of corruption that we point out at the committee level – we stand up and oppose or point out what should not happen. It is not that we are against it. We want to see Guyana go forward. Mr. Minister, please understand how we think.
I have heard it said on the radio that it takes seven minutes for a man to fall asleep. If that is correct, during the presentation of this Budget, we would have fallen into that comatose state 25 times. The sustained and unusual silence on both sides of this House indicated the mighty struggle that was waged against that desire. The Attorney General and the Alliance For Change (AFC) must have had advance notice. They took countermeasures.
The Minister of Finance himself, a victim of the somnolent mood that he had induced, titled his budget, A Better Guyana for All Guyanese, when, in fact, he really meant to use A Partnership for National Unity’s (APNU) Manifesto title, A Good Life for all Guyanese. As they say, coming events do cast their shadows.
As in the past, once again, the presentation of this 2014 Budget is without the active involvement of the mass based party, APNU, and of that of the AFC. It exposes the trend of arrogance of this Government and the contempt that they have for us. They lay bare the belief in their mantra that one party – their party and their party alone – can develop Guyana. Now, they come to us today hoping for an endorsement of something for which we did not participate and something for which the Guyana Trades Union Congress (GTUC) and labour bodies did not participate. How can you expect us to really endorse something in which we had no hand in crafting? How can you expect us not to want to attack you when you stand up here and we hear for the first time about projects that have never existed before, moneys being voted for bridges when areas such as the Soesdyke/Linden Highway cannot be driven on and people cannot see where they are going at nights? We know that it is too dark to travel and nobody is stopping to say that rather than giving money to a hospital that is not ours, let us put some of that same money towards having a lighted Highway.
They seek to yoke us to this Budget that offers no meaningful relief to the poor, no increase in wages for workers and no vision for good and accountable government.
When we talk about 5% as being an increase, it is the same old that we had last year. How could they talk about 5% when we need to have 20% as a living wage, when we need to have discussions to know exactly what the real living standards and requirements are? Only then can you know whether a 5% is meaningful or not. We can say right now that 5% cannot work.
We are not here to quarrel. What we are asking you for is a return to the collective bargaining table so that you can involve unions and workers in what is best for them and you would then really know what is required to pay them and what you can afford to pay. The money that you are going to spend on Amaila, the money that you plan to spend on the Airport, those billions can be redirected and channelled in such a way that the very workers who are, today, crying will be in a better position to live comfortably and yet look for better projects.
When we come to sugar, there are “bailouts” - the popular word and the mantra of this Government. Bailout seems to be the quick resort for this Government when it comes to their pet projects like sugar and even rice. When sugar loses, the solution is a bailout and when rice makes a profit, the force of habit donates more money to more bailouts. Hence, they boast, on one hand, about the amount of rice that is going to be exported to Venezuela and, yet, at the same time, talk about giving bailouts. How can one give bailouts to a profitable institution? This is where we, on this side of the House, are saying that unless you talk to us, you might very well find yourself guilty of giving away the taxpayers’ money.
Professor Clive Thomas in his Stabroek News newspaper edition of 30th March, 2014, tabled the annual losses of GUYSUCO, 2000-2009. He called it ‘Mired in a Sea of Losses and Bailouts’. The Finance Minister, himself, in his 2011 Budget Speech, at page 20, said:
“To say that 2010 was a disappointing year for the sugar sector would be an understatement of considerable proportions...”
Nothing has changed since then. The labour force still keeps leaving in the sugar estates. The production still keeps falling. I will not call out the falling annual production figures at this point. I did that last year. Yet, Skeldon Estate’s colour is getting whiter and the Government now wants to donate $6 billion. This is like throwing good money after bad. This we cannot accept under these conditions.
APNU offered solutions during the year before the last and last year for this industry. Our problem, Comrades, is that when these solutions are offered, you seem to think that we just stand up and talk. [Ms. Teixeira: What solutions?] Our side has offered, in the past... Let me repeat some of them. Get out your pen - a competent board of directors; that is one of the things we offered last year. Once you have that - right now your directors are at sea - they will be able to craft new policies, depoliticise the entity and diversify the production that you have. Instead of attacking us and stating that we want to close down GUYSUCO, instead of slandering our names that we want to close down... [Ms. Teixeira: You said so.] This is false. It is not so. [Ms. Teixeira: It is so.] We are as committed to the survival of sugar as any PPP Government. Do not ever forget that our ancestors were the bedrock of sugar in this country.
Nowhere in any previous budget have I found any gift of taxpayers’ money donated to any industry that is making a profit, as I said before, but, amazingly, rice, the flagship of success with a guaranteed market not only in Venezuela but the West Indies and Latin America on the horizon, has been awarded $500 million. Are we that rich to give handouts to places like GPL and now to rice while we refuse to give living wages?
The 2012 World Bank Report rated Guyana as the third poorest in the western hemisphere and the poorest in South America. If we have that poverty, what was Mr. Irfaan Ali speaking about concerning our progress and the money that we are making when these people have us pegged as the poorest in South America? I do not understand. This is a bit confusing to me. All I am saying is that I am confused. We would like to see employment go up, Minister Ali. Minister Ali was just regaling us with the numbers that we would have created 600 jobs here, 200 jobs there, 300 jobs somewhere else so he gives the illusion to you that employment is being created, that people are being given jobs. [Mr. Ali: Illusion? It is fact.] Why then does the American Government tell us that 49% of the youths are unemployed in this country? I do not even want to use those figures. I do not think that as a Guyanese, I ought to use the American Government’s...
Mr. Speaker: Hon. Member, your time is up. You will have five minutes to conclude your presentation.
Mr. Scott: I do not wish to use those figures. If the Government gives us the employment figures for this country, then we would be able to do two things: refute whatever America says and, secondly, only then can we measure whether jobs are being created or not.
The GPL tells us that fuel prices remain high and they have not increased tariffs for a long time. This scenario is painted to justify their allocation of $3.7 billion in 2013. For that year, they got $11 billion. In the year before they got $6 billion. They are still to tell us in what way we are benefitting from those bailouts that they received in the past before they can go further. [Mr. Ali: Oh, is it GPL now?] Yes. What they have not told us is that the 2013 IDB Report pegged Guyana as having the highest cost of electricity in the Caribbean and yet they continue to deliver unreliable service to consumers. We cannot support any request for bailouts for this entity.
In the past, our solutions to GPL were rejected – no new directors, no new professional managers, no non-political people in place, nothing done to reduce line losses. Let us reintegrated the business men and bring down the rates of electricity at the highest level and then one can know whether we can have any money to give to them.
The cleanup campaign of Georgetown has left us dumbfounded. When we hear the Minister admit that a serious sanitation problem abounds in the capital and other places, the blame for this disgrace must be placed at the foot of the ruling party. From 1994 to now, there has been a deliberate policy of wilful neglect of the capital city and the rundown state of NDCs and City Councils add to the woes of villages. What happened to the cleanup motion that was passed in this House? Why was nothing ever done? Why were all attempts by the City Council to raise funds and to effectively manage the city stymied? Why are the outfalls not dredged to prevent flooding? One billion dollars to clean the country and $500 million to Georgetown... Who will manage this money? For too long, citizens have suffered. We demand that the President assents to the Local Government Bill. We are ready for Local Government Elections, ready to recruit a qualified Town Clerk, and ready to end micromanagement of the city and other local authorities. Elections of people’s representatives will deliver a clean city, a flood-free city, and usher in the role of local democracy. It will have success where $1 billion will fail.
The tourism sector is yet to take off, even after spending money each year. Various schemes have been flouted. One year, we have spent a lot of money talking about having Essequibo as a harbour for winter for yachts. I have not seen any as yet. We talk about bird watching. Are there yachts which come in winter here as was in the scheme that you outlined? No. You talk about bird watching. How many people have arrived in this country to watch birds? Those birds are a different kind of birds. Nothing is being done...
Mr. Speaker: Hon. Member, you will have to start wrapping up now. Please wrap up.
Mr. Scott: I wish to warn people about the proposal that intends to have a hospitality institute. I advise you to visit the Bahamas, Jamaica and those other places that have tourism and tell me whether after you have seen what the product is of those institutes, whether you want your son and daughter to follow in the footsteps that you will see. I have seen it and I will not comment on what you would find but if you want, go and see and then come back... Why not think in terms of development? If you want tourism, find ways of encouraging Guyanese... [Dr. Singh: Why do you not elaborate?] I am doing it now! Find ways to...
Mr. Speaker: Mr. Scott, do not be bated. You do not have the time to go and follow every little thing that is dangled in front of you. My suggestion is to stick to your script and wrap up your speech and make the points you intended to make.
Mr. Scott: This Budget fails to address the cry for a living wage for workers. It fails to bring pensioners the basic cash that... We had asked for $15,000. We are still to get to that stage and inflation is taking it even higher. By next year, one will need $20,000 a month and we demand that our attention to the old, the aged and other places be given some attention. For as long as the poor continues to be marginalised, no amount of money spent on projects will deliver a prosperous and contented people. Thank you. [Applause]
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