CUSTOMS (AMENDMENT) BILL 2013 – Bill No. 2/2013
Mr. Greenidge: Mdm. Deputy Speaker, I think it is somewhat unfortunate that the Minister did not take the opportunity to defer the Bill before us. The story he related about the history of this Bill is worthy of some attention. Let me say first of all that whilst it is clearly true it was a Member of the Opposition that sought the approval of the House to defer consideration of this Bill on the last occasion let me just remind the Minister, or maybe I am telling him for the first time because he did not know, that request on the part of the Opposition was done at the request of the Minister of Finance. It arose because the Minister of Finance had not concluded is deliberations with the private sector. That is an obligation he had. He failed to do it. Do not let us be told that we have an obligation to implement or to agree to a second meeting at this stage simply because we had asked for the deferral. We did not ask for it by virtue of wanting something ourselves. We were facilitating the Government because at that time, as now, hanging over the head of the Government was court action. The court action arising from the lawlessness that has always characterised the manner in which this Government operates. The Minister gave us the story, which sounded very good, of legislation which needs to be passed in order to satisfy CARICOM requirements. There is no legislation in CARICOM. We have no obligation in CARICOM to implement this so-called environmental tax. It is not an environmental tax first of all and, second, there is no obligation to implement it in the manner that the Minister suggests.
The CARICOM became involved in this exercise because in implementing customs legislation the Government discriminated against foreigners who were exporting to Guyana. That is source of the problem. The legislation that is before us has arisen in a bid to correct a lawless act. It is not the first time either that the Government has passed legislation knowing that that legislation is not in conformity with the CARICOM Treaty. That is the source of the problem. The reason why the request for the deferral arose was because the Government wanted to be sure that when they laid the legislation to correct that they would have the support of both sides of the House. What is more we told them, certainly on the A Partnership for National Unity (APNU) side, that we wanted to ensure there was time for the private sector to consider the matter and be satisfied and be sure it was not going to be disadvantaged. The Minister of Finance assured us he would allow for the time and wanted us to bear in mind the Caribbean Court of Justice (CCJ) hearings. The point is there was an agreement at the time and that was premised on the report the private sector would have commissioned; a report that was to address, perhaps, a more efficacious means of dealing with this impost. That is the background to this exercise. I think it unfortunate that the Minister – maybe he is not aware of all the – should be suggesting that there is bad faith on this side.
More specifically, the idea there is no substantive criticisms of the legislation is wrong because, as I said, the private sector’s intent was to have someone look at the proposals with a view to coming up with some alternative means of treating with the matter.
If I may say, the issue that is captured by the Bill is only environmental in the sense that it discriminates between two categories of containers. I would suggest, notwithstanding the problem of the CCJ’s hearing in June – and we are still not yet in June – that the Minister conveys to his colleagues our suggestion, not only that the matter be deferred but that they reflect upon the structure of the tax itself so it could be properly called environmental. I have explained that first of all it is really not originating from an obligation in CARICOM; it is the manner in which it is imposed that gives rise to that. I am saying as far as environmental is concerned a tax that simply levied upon imports of a particular category of goods cannot be called environmental unless it has some sort of a discriminatory mechanism that penalises the items/imports that are less degradable than those that are easily bio-degradable; that is what is commonly an environmental tax, one that enhances the goal we set, that is to ameliorate, to attenuate the impact of solid waste and non-biodegradable items on our environment. A tax that simply imposes a duty on all containers cannot be described in such a manner. So this is a rather generous interpretation of the meaning of the word.
I am suggesting that whilst we wait for this matter to be properly concluded with the private sector that the Minister takes the opportunity to put in place a proper environmental mechanism. Just in case the Minister is not aware, again, there are a number of mechanisms that are associated with environmental taxes. Apart from the general principles I have stated there are specific programmes throughout the United States that have been applied since the 1970s; there are programmes throughout the European Union and in the rest of Europe from which they can draw. I lived for quite a while in some of these jurisdictions in which there was, first of all, an educational programme so that the public is made aware of the needs of an environmental programme and their role in that exercise.
Second, that mechanisms are in place to encourage the separation of waste, the imports, and activities by the manufacturers so that preference is given to the use of bio-degradable containers. As I said, there are a range of mechanisms. I have them here but I am not sure that it is appropriate to detain the House on this at this stage. We can do it if the Minister seeks to bring the Bill at another time and does not take these into account. What I am saying at this stage is that this is not an environmental tax; it is an abuse of the term.
The question of its urgency is one that I think is subject to interpretation. I do not deny there is a court case at the CCJ and the Government will have to address that matter. If it loses the case it will lose money. But the problem that give rise to that does not reside here in the House. The legislation that caused the Government to be subject to such action is caused by the Government’s insistence on passing legislation which does not confirm to its international obligations and, more specifically, to its treaty obligations under the Chaguaramas treaty. The court case which carries the threat of financial sanctions is something we should try and avoid. But there still remains the need for the Government to conclude its discussions with the other parties and also for them to ensure that we are satisfied so that the legislation can go through without fear of opposition.
The key word I have been hearing all afternoon seems to turn on patriotism. Suddenly the Opposition is being called on to be patriotic and to pass this legislation, or this type of legislation, without a murmur just to show they are patriotic and have the interest of the country at heart. I think a more reasonable requirement would be for the Government to consult before bringing the legislation so we have no difficulty in supporting the proposals they bring before the House. I am tempted Mdm. Deputy Speaker, to recite Samuel Johnson’s aphorism in which he refers to the tendency of certain elements to have resort to patriotism. You know the expression Mr. Nandlall, “patriotism is the last refuge of a scoundrel.” That is the story that faces us today. You have a serious matter before us and instead of trying to resolve it in a manner that is constructive and expeditious we are being offered a recipe with one option: support what the Government wants in the time it sets or you are deemed to be unpatriotic.
We cannot support the Bill at this time. Let the Minister bring it back in due course.
Thank you very much. [Applause]