Beware of the triskaidekaphobiacs (fear of the number 13)

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Introduction

It is that dreaded time of the year when columnists are expected to look into and engage in attempts to predict the future. You would think that in Guyana that would not be too hard – every pessimistic prediction since 1961 about our political parties failing to act in the national interest having been proved right. But you do not understand how accountants operate.

Their eyes are at the back of their heads so they can look back with no discomfort, and organise and manipulate historical accounting data to show that two and two can be whatever the CEO wants the result to be.

The feature of such year-end pieces has been a combination of levity, hopes for the new year and some not-too-serious predictions which in my case are invariably wrong. In fact so wrong that it will take up much less time and space to highlight the few obvious correct forecasts than the litany of failures. Here are two I did get right: I can claim some credit for predicting in the January 1 2012 column that the world would not end on December 21, 2012, a claim attributed to the Mayans but based on no written or scientific evidence. In fact, December 21, 2012 marked the end of one of the cycles in the ancient Mayan calendar at the winter solstice, not the end of the world.

Despite the successive failure of Armageddon to materialise (remember the year of the Rapture), this will not deter other nuts from predicting the end of the world, though ironically not in 2013 which otherwise arouses triskaidekaphobia (fear of the number 13).

The second success was that Barack Obama would be re-elected President of the United States of America with the help of his wife Michelle. In fact it was with the help of both his wife and Bill Clinton, an omission that can be explained as one of detail rather than substance.

Apologies to Usain Bolt for saying he could not repeat his Beijing triumph in London. I forgot we were dealing with a superman and a legend of Greek proportions. And yes, I note that the United Nations has responded to my plea on behalf of vegetarians by naming 2013 as the Year of Water Co-operation and also the International Year of the Quinoa, a vegetable. Thank you Mr Ban!

No place for levity

For me Guyana is a place from which levity has taken flight. Look at our cartoons and all we see is a decadent form of political atrophy that even allows APNU to claim credit for making the government more accountable, itself nothing short of a joke.

Perhaps their spokespersons forgot that Article 216 of the Constitution of Guyana is violated on a daily basis; that the Minister of Finance sticks his thumb at them over NICIL, the Marriot and the Contingencies Fund; that every initiative is upended by misguided resort to the courts; that an agreement between the Government, APNU’s leaders and those of Region 10 over a month-long protest in which three lives were lost are still not effectuated; that they have allowed several parliamentary sessions to be dedicated to a single Minister not for what he has or has not done, but according to a PNCR Central Committee member, for being “a symbol of what the PPP/C government represents”; that slush funds multiply in number and value to finance secret spy operations, discontinued offices and the employment of special advisors to do party political work. And that the PPP/C and the APNU are collectively responsible for the failure to hold local government elections guaranteed by the constitution and postponed each of the past sixteen years.

2012 as the
year of the Ds

For me the year 2012 will go down as the year of the Ds – Donald, David and Disappointment, all with capital letters. Maybe I was being overly optimistic when I wished that in 2012:
“President Ramotar will reverse his prior commitment to more of the same and will:

“Demand that the Public Accounts Committee perform its parliamentary duties with greater competence.

“Push legislation to improve transparency by appointing a new Ombudsman, establish the Public Procurement Commission, revise the Access to Information Act and introduce anti-corruption legislation.

“Revisit Jagdeo’s pet projects like the Kingston Marriott, the fibre-optic cable, Amaila and the specialty hospital.

“Order the Cabinet-infested NICIL Board to bring its accounts up to date for independent audit. “Declare the implementation of VAT was a rip-off but have a change of heart and compromise on a reduction in the rate to 10%.

“Instruct the Guyana Revenue Authority to increase the volume of lifestyle audits of workers to try to understand why, like Leona Helmsley said, only the poor pay taxes.

“Get rid of the deadwood in the Office of the President, otherwise known as presidential advisors, by the application of an integrity detector test and the ability to stay awake during meetings.”

Do-Nothing Parliament

Optimism at the beginning of 2012 was I believe rational and justified. The combined opposition controlled the National Assembly for the first time in the country’s history; they took both the offices of the Speaker and Deputy Speaker; they directly or indirectly controlled the committees of the National Assembly.

Then they proceeded to become one of the most do-nothing parliaments in Guyana’s history. The Tenth Parliament has embarrassingly exposed the weakness in the country’s list system where loyalty to the party leader has proved to be far more important than competence.

With just one exception no member of the National Assembly stood out favourably; no piece of legislation could be considered truly path-breaking and substantive; no new prospect identified; no campaign promise made to the electorate only months before kept; no attempt to change the constitution; the poor getting poorer and the rich and the powerful smug, satisfied and inert. While more than two dozen MPs from the opposition made no contribution to the Assembly or the people of Guyana, the failure of Mr Trevor Williams, AFC MP, to attend a meeting of the PAC which confirmed the appointment of several unqualified persons in the Audit Office who did not merit confirmation for years must surely earn him the wooden spoon as the MP for the year.

The positives

On a positive note the domestic economy continued to do well, led by gold, massive government expenditure financed by taxation and transfers, the agenda of the Chinese and tax evasion.

Companies in all sectors continue to report record-breaking profits, while paying out huge dividends to shareholders. No wonder then that the private sector hardly bothers to remind President Ramotar that his first action as President in announcing the establishment of a Tax Review Committee has not moved a single step.

Standing out too was the series of cuts to the 2012 National Budget initiated by the Alliance For Change and supported belatedly by the APNU which saw attempts to rein in government excesses in both policies and spending.

With Government controlling the purse strings of state instrumentalities like the Gold Board and government companies like NICIL, many of the cuts were undermined by the Minister of Finance, restored by the National Assembly, or confused by a ruling of the court at the preliminary stage of an action brought by the Attorney General.

Indeed that ruling is not only hard to fathom but does great harm to the concept of governance by asserting that if the National Assembly finds a project or programme – for whatever sum – unacceptable, it has to reject the entire budget. That is surely beyond logic, common sense, or even good law.

It is bad for the country’s jurisprudence that this case was not taken to finality and the absurdity of the all-or-nothing premise resolved. Watch for a reprise with the 2013 Budget.

Civil society

But the performance of civil society was equally poor. A new entity successively named Occupy GT and the Peoples’ Parliament flattered then fluttered, and at the end of the year finds itself trying to find its feet, let alone its wings.

The best that can be said of the trade union movement is that remnants of it still exist but with decreasing relevance to all that is taking place around its various elements. Both the TUC and FITUG must accept part of the blame for the state of the National Insurance Scheme, plagued by poor governance, weak management and enforcement and catastrophic indecision.

The consumer movement is all but dead with nothing to take its place, at a time when it is most needed. The Private Sector Commission seems satisfied with the status quo raising its head only when it thinks that its members’ profit-earning machinery is under threat. Meanwhile the country’s accounting regulator, the Institute of Chartered Accountants of Guyana, after several months, is still to pronounce on a number of complaints involving high-ranking members of the profession.

With all of these it should not be too difficult to appreciate why there is so much disappointment and loss of confidence in the institutions in Guyana.

Transparency Institute of Guyana Inc – of which I am not the driving force – seems to have established itself as a credible and potent force in the struggle fight against the quagmire of corruption.
Help and Shelter must wonder what else it can do to reduce domestic violence, a mission shared with Red Thread which, with little support from other key segments of the society, has so far made little progress in its efforts to reduce cost of living and improve earnings. The Catholic Church which for a number of decades had led the democratic charge with liberation theology established the Justice and Peace Commission aimed at enhancing the society. There has been no reaction from the rest of the religious community.

On crime, Commissioner of Police Henry Green died in office after his statutory retirement age was extended, leaving a society in which the Customs Anti-Narcotics Unit seems to be far more successful than the Police Force in tracking drugs.

With the substantial resources at its disposal, one might expect the Police Force and the Director of Public Prosecutions to ‘engage’ the persons arrested rather than have them passed through the Magistrate‘s courts where they hurriedly plead guilty to protect their bosses.

The world

Like the December 21 non-event, the global economy did not experience any apocalyptic turbulence and in fact performed almost as well as had been expected with the IMF forecasting that global output in 2012 would grow just 3.3 per cent, down from a July estimate of 3.5 per cent.

That would make 2012 the slowest year of growth since 2009 when the world was struggling to pull out of the global financial crisis. According to the IMF, “familiar” forces were dragging down advanced economy growth: fiscal consolidation and a still-weak financial system, the same problems that have plagued the world since the global financial crisis exploded in 2008.

Part of the problem is that as family sizes decrease and life expectancy increases, the number of workers to those too old to work is decreasing putting a strain on the economies as health care and retirement costs rise in proportion to taxes and available pension schemes.

Less than seventy-two hours before the end of 2012, the US cannot decide whether to allow reason to trump insanity or economics to triumph over politics and stave off what is perhaps with exaggerated drama, referred to as the fiscal cliff.

If no agreement can be reached between the House of Representatives, the Senate and the White House, taxes will increase and automatic cuts will be applied to spending. Not surprisingly, economists disagree on the precise impact these will have on the US economy but the stock market has already taken a big hit as a result of the loss of confidence in Washington to manage the affairs of the country. This will hit the rest of the world for which the US is still the largest domestic market measured by spending power.

2013

In terms of predictions it is safe to say that we will not have campaign financing legislation or legislation regulating political parties. The Public Procurement Commission will not be set up while the Integrity Commission and the Ethnic Relations Commission will remain dormant.

There will be no constitutional reform or amendments while the parliamentary agenda of the AFC and the APNU will remain closely guarded secrets. The Government will push back any efforts at tax reform and there will be further delays in holding local government elections. Georgetown will qualify for the prize as the worst city in the Caribbean while car sales will spike as MPs cash in on their duty-free entitlements.

The odds are less than even that there will be local government elections, the bringing into law of the Judicial Review Act or the discovery of oil.

But they are marginally slightly better for the naming of an Ombudsman. And finally let us not rule out the possibility of fresh elections, either forced by the rejection of the 2013 Budget or called by President Ramotar unwilling to tolerate and adjust to a National Assembly he does not control.

Still, or because of these, best wishes to all.



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