HONOURING THE 21ST AUGUST, 2012 AGREEMENT BETWEEN THE GOVERNMENT OF GUYANA AND THE REGIONAL DEMOCRATIC COUNCIL, REGION 10
Minister of Public Works [Mr. Benn]: Thank you, Mr. Speaker. In response to the presentations on the motion entitled “Honouring the 21st August, 2012 Agreement between the Government of Guyana and the Regional Democratic Council, Region #10”. In making a response and with some due consideration to the way the motion is written and the way the presentations have gone so far, I think I need to be pretty specific on some of the issues raised and the history on certain issues so that we would have a clear perspective on what occurred and so that we should not be brought into a position, from my viewpoint, of perhaps misleading people or some people.
Mr. Speaker, I want to state again that there was no desire, no interest nor intent to have any situation at Linden degenerate to a point where people were killed - and I refer to the highly unfortunate and regrettable deaths of Lewis, Somerset and Bouyea - and that there was no intent by any person to go out there and to have people killed or injured. And the insinuations in the motion and the way the presentations were made suggest, somehow, that the Government, that the Ministers, and that President Ramotar, are implicit in some arrangement, some undertaking, to have such an event happen. I would like to point out that a couple hours after the incident did happen, President Ramotar had his senior advisors called in. In fact, his senior advisors along with his Ministers came to him and undertook there and then to have a Commission of Inquiry established and that the Leader of the Opposition and other leading Opposition elements also met on the same evening with the President where he informed of his decision to have a Commission of Inquiry established and to investigate fully the circumstances leading up to the unfortunate incidents.
The way the motion is couched, given the nature and the circumstances of the events and also to what has happened with respect to the establishment of the committees and the inability to have these committees functioning and the reasons why the committees have not, in one instance...established at all properly and, secondly, has been unable to continue, as in the case of the Electricity Committee. I find that this motion is cynical; it is cynical because the delays related to the proper and full establishment of the committees, the delays in relation to even when the one committee was on the way, the vacillations, the unending, irresolute discourse, the ‘no shows’ with respect to members of the committee from the other side of Region 10...there were always postponements and delays, ‘no shows’ and, as the Hon. Member, Mr. Lumumba, said, “Even when some members were present, they were not even present.” And so I find this to be cynical.
The question of power in Linden is the overarching problem with respect to its sustainability and its continued economic development. And I am not talking about political power because I thought that the question of political power was already established. That there is a party in power and they have the region, they have the council and they have the dominance in the political activities and the leadership in the region. So the question of political power is one that has been resolved already. The question of power related to the motion and all these events as is being pointed out was the question of electrical power and what do we pay for it - energy. This has been an overriding question in Linden and in Region10 for a long time. It was said here, in the WHEREAS Clause that there was an intended withdrawal of the subsidy – true.
It was said in the First AND WHEREAS clause:
“AND WHEREAS the Government continued to take action to impose the increase in the cost of electricity on the people of Linden in total violation of the people’s right to be involved in decisions...”
I am of the view that the party in power in Linden did have discussions and did have some undertakings with the Hon. Prime Minister with respect to the increases of electricity rates in Linden and that the increase in electricity rates in Linden was clearly pointed out to be a ramped increase staged over a number of years and that the increases in electricity in Linden was related to the continued question of GPL and the question otherwise as to whether there would have been an imposition, an increase in electricity rates for the Coast, where people were paying $65 or more dollars per kilowatt/hour for electricity, when Linden was paying between $5 and $15 at most for commercial rates for electricity.
The Prime Minister knows all the details and the Prime Minister has been a very nice man on this issue. The Prime Minister continued and I have been very critical, I would apologise and also say to the House, to the Prime Minister on the question of power in Linden over all of these years. Part of the reason for me - maybe it is personal and, again, I do not want to go into the personal thing... When I went to Linden - and I worked there for ten years - the Hon. Prime Minister worked for 25 years. I came and worked for ten years and, for me, those were wonderful, exhilarating years at the professional level but the overriding question of power and cost of power in Linden is what brought us down. Because when, towards the end, we were only generating ten megawatts of power in Linden and when our largest stripping machine, the No. 7 dragline, needed seven megawatts of power to peak out on load and when it was needed, when we went into what were called extended dragline bench operations, which I had a large part in introducing, to improve our stripping capacity because the dragline would work for four or five months and then sit down for the rest of the year, waiting for the stripping to advance... When we could only generate ten megawatts, at best, of power and the dragline needed seven megawatts of power at peak load...If it sat by itself, it only needed four megawatts of power. If it dug and it swung under load, it needed seven megawatts. From the beginning, from Friday afternoon until Monday morning, there was no power for the dragline to dig. The dragline sat even when we had the technical reason and we had the opportunity to optimise the use of the major stripping equipment in the mine and it was because people were wasting the power down the line. We were afraid to load-shed; we were afraid to raise the cost of power; we were unable politically; we, perhaps, did not have the political will to say, even though it was known throughout the company and we said it throughout the community, we needed to have seven megawatts of power for that dragline to work. So stripping fell behind and after a while there was nothing to do. It did not matter. The plant had to come down. There was no ore to ship to the plant. There was nothing to do. We had to yield the position in Linden. And in spite of all of that, this Government said, and I supported and I fought amongst the hardest, even when the previous administration said that they were going to close down the Linden bauxite operations and even when it was also said that we will close down the operations at Araima, I was the hardest fighting there to make sure that we continue the operations. The Prime Minister and others are aware of this issue and of the torrid fights we have over this issue and the enormous risks we thought we were going to face because of this problem. [Ms. Baveghems: That is history. We want to hear about what is happening now.] It is history and it is the history which has us standing here dealing with this issue and this matter.
It is true to say that not paying for the power, not paying a sustainable rate, a responsible rate, has meant that the power has always been wasted in Linden. It was not available for the operations of the mine. It was not available even at the end for the community when things got very bad. We yielded the position. We went into Omai and got them to come in and we argued and we fought and we got it continued and power came again because the sets came over from Linden from Omai. We made that happen. Even when we yielded the position, we did not close the operations and it is upsetting when people say sometimes, and couch it in ethnic language, that the Government and people wanted to close down the operations and close off the people at Linden and Region 10. It is greatly upsetting! What about the rest of people? Is it not more appropriate that the energy is conserved by paying a little more for it, that you pay attention, that you do not leave on the lights all day, that we do not be fêting and making noise from Friday afternoon until Monday morning and nothing else happens, the plant closes down? Is that not the more responsible position? Is it not better that we give the people arrangements which will allow them to encourage economic activities - young people - so they would move on to new situations and to develop economic activities which will employ people in Linden? Is that not a better use for the power?
In this motion here, there was talk about a peaceful protest and the mover of the motion was indeed one of the prime leaders of the protest action in Linden and the person for whom she brought greetings, assurances and so on, with respect to this issue, the Regional Chairman of Linden, was also a prime mover of the protest action. We are being told here, in what I say again, I believe is a cynical attempt, that this was a peaceful protest. But I would like to go and, perhaps, read into the record what the Commission of Inquiry, to which we all agreed and we got imminent duress from the Caribbean to be the Commissioners of this Report of the Linden Commission of Inquiry, the Hon. Justice Lensley Wolf, O.J, retired Chief Justice of Jamaica, Chairman; the Hon. Justice Cecil Kennard, O.R, C.C.H, former Chancellor of the Judiciary, Guyana Commissioner; Hon. Justice Claudette Singh, C.C.H, former Justice of Appeal, Guyana Commissioner; Senator K.D Knight, Q.C, Jamaica Commissioner; Ms. Dana Seetahal, S.C, Trinidad and Tobago Commissioner...
On the question of whether this protest was peaceful, paragraph166 in the Report of the Commission of Inquiry, page 54:
“The Lindeners applied to the appropriate Regional Police Authority for permission and received same with conditions attached to ensure that the rights of the citizens were balanced. The evidence revealed that the conditions were breached and therein was the birth of the ensuing problems. The evidence clearly established that the bridge was blocked at several points both by persons and foreign material e.g. logs. Persons going about their lawful business were unlawfully denied access to the bridge and some were set upon and beaten.”
“The police in those circumstances had the obligation imposed by law to prevent that unlawful action from taking place and/or continuing. It is noteworthy that a Member of Parliament who was at the scene on the 18th day of July when much of this was taking place or had already taken place stubbornly refused to accept that the protesters had resorted to unlawful means to carry out what would otherwise have been a lawful endeavour. To him the police ought not to have intervened because the protest was for a just cause. The justice of a cause seldom if ever justifies a breach of the Constitution and certainly in this situation we are of the view that, whilst we empathize with the citizens, resorting to unlawful means could not have been condoned by the police. What is of utmost importance is a consideration of whether the police acted appropriately in dealing with the situation. ”
This is what the report states; this is the Report of the Commission of Inquiry. [Mr. B. Williams: What does it state about the behaviour of the police?] Mr. Speaker, the Hon. Members on the other side also have the Report of this Commission of Inquiry and they are free to quote from whatever section they want to quote from. I am quoting from the sections which speak to the question as to whether the protest was peaceful, as is suggested in this Motion here brought by the Hon. Member, Vanessa Kissoon. I suggest that this question of a peaceful protest has been settled in the Report and that the protest...certainly there were a few persons that were there and were willing to protest peacefully, but certainly the prime movers, one of whom said that they were there at the bridge when the shooting occurred, encouraged the blocking of the bridge, that they encouraged the unlawful behaviour, that the reasons for the ensuing problems resulted from the leadership there and also that the actions undertaken were as a result of a peaceful protest being hijacked by irresponsible leaders and by a violent fringe element - a violent fringe element! And in the days following, the people of Linden suffered and Guyana suffered for months for a situation which should not have happened and which resulted because of irresponsible, reckless leadership from the prime movers and leaders of the protest.
I do not believe that we should have in this motion here references to a peaceful protest, but that, maybe, we should only talk about protest, giving the findings of this Commission of Inquiry or otherwise we should say that the Commission found... This was a lawful Commission. We paid a lot of money for this. There is a lot of hurt in relation to this matter. We should say that the events degenerated to a point where because of violent action by some persons the protest resorted into unlawful activity.
I would like to again point out that the Government side has always been willing, ready and facilitatory with respect to the meetings, with respect to the buildings and with respect to the staff. We have a building, Colgrain House, which has always been prepared for the meetings to take place; it has not happened.
The question which needs to be asked is in whose interest is it that this matter be delayed? Having mislead, I believe, the people of Linden to believe that any increase in the electricity of tariff is wrong and is a bad thing for Linden – which I do not agree with – whose interest is it to delay having a report in 60 days on these critical matters for Linden? “We tell the people we aint paying” was said in this House. It was said in this House before all these events occurred. It was said in this House while the Prime Minister was willing, able and already engaging leaders on the other side with respect to this matter. The Prime Minister thought he had their support. The Prime Minister is a nice man, but then the protest was hijacked by others and things took their course. The Colgrain House is still there, the staff is still there, the computers are getting dust; we are ready, able and willing to facilitate, we want this to happen. Having told the people out there - maybe from the other side that it is a good thing - we are not going to pay, no paying is taking place. The power continues to be wasted; there is no conservation of power going on there.
We have been waiting there all the time. We have held meetings, waited for people to show up for the meetings and they either show up late or not at all and when they are they are there is no useful result of the meetings. Then there have been no meetings for months because it went abeyance. We want this to happen; we want to have a clear dispassionate review of the situation which does not involve ignoring the history of what went on up there. We want an early resolution of this matter. We want the committees to come into play; we want to have a result. We want the people of Linden to have the opportunity to choose and be led in a responsible manner with respect to this issue with input from both sides of this House.
The Hon. Member Roopnarine talked about lessons in the form of struggle. Of course, there are lessons to be learnt there. Arising out of the situation in Linden, we have had what I think is a tragedy with respect to the issue of Minister Rohee and his leadership because there was the position that Rohee had given instructions to people on the ground to exercise lethal force. The Commission of Inquiry has pointed out that there is no evidence, nothing to show that did occur. So the Opposition went out on a long limb high up in the air suggesting that Minister Rohee did this. Having climbed out on the limb, it is difficult to back track. In spite of all the evidence, it is difficult for them to say that we were mistaken, let us move ahead. All the bills and all the things which relate to Minister Rohee and his Ministry arising out of this issue have come here and have been shot down. It is unfortunate, it is wrong and it hurts the people of Guyana. I want to point out again that the issues of the Bills which recently came here, all of which arose out of that situation, have nothing to do with Minister Rohee. If Minister Rohee is here tomorrow or not here, (those Bills) still has to be acted upon. In the meantime, we suffer in the absence of those Bills.
It is my belief that this motion, the way it is couched, the way it is presented, needs redrafting. This motion is only intended to present some damsel in shining armour with respect to the incidence in Linden; the prime movers of the protest in shining white armour. This motion continues to engender in Lindeners and the people in Region No. 10, a continued sense of victimhood; the sense and the paralysis of victimhood. So you continue to do things in ways which does not help the community, which does not help people at the individual level and which does not help the country. We all want Linden to succeed and that is why we have always voted for Linden; that is why we have always put money into supporting Linden; that is why we have always gone out at great risk to ensure that the prime economic activity in the Region was supported. That is why we established Linden Economic Advancement Programme (LEAP) and Linden Economic Network (LEN) and all those initiatives. We want Linden to succeed; I want Linden to succeed. I have 10 years of my professional life sunk in Linden; Linden succeeding will validate my experience of working in Linden. It will validate the experiences of all the workers I have worked with in the mines over all those years; hard work so we can continue to have an industry. I say again we want this activity to resume; we want it to resume quickly. We want to have the discussions in earnest, but we do not want to continue to engage in exercises never ending. The Prime Minister had the first time something called ‘wither bauxite’. The Prime Minister took a sever licking over two or three days with respect to the issue of bauxite. The same issues were there. I want to say that it is not in our interest to sabotage this matter. We have not been vacillating; we have always been ready and willing to have this activity continued. We want the Opposition and their representatives to engage with us in an earnest endeavour to get this done. We do not want to continue to engage exercises which continue to mislead the people of Linden, to let them sink down in a culture, in a sense, in a despondency of victimhood.
I thank you Mr. Speaker. [Applause]