$2.23B cut from budget

...as opposition close ranks in historic session

-GINA, NCN, Gecom among affected

In a ground-breaking move yesterday, the combined opposition voted against expenditures in the 2012 budget to the tune of $2.233 billion, including $1 billion from an allocation of $6 billion for the Guyana Power and Light and sums allocated to GINA and NCN in what was a boisterous session which is set to continue today when the budget comes up for a final vote.

It was the first occasion in the history of independent Guyana that the opposition benches have been able to overturn proposed government expenditure and it reflects the results of the November 28 general elections which gave the APNU and the AFC a one-seat majority. Consideration of the budget estimates was to conclude yesterday but an extra day was set aside.

Moses Nagamootoo

Rising to address the Committee of Supply amid much anticipation of what the opposition would do, APNU MP Carl Greenidge directed the Speaker’s attention to the motion in his name. He asked whether he would put his motion and the Speaker asked for a seconder. “Mr. Speaker I second the motion,” said APNU’s Deborah Backer, also Deputy Speaker of the House.

“Honourable members there is a motion that is on the floor which is that the estimates be amended and that is, to read that the sum of $918,719,000 be reduced by $707,149,000 to $211,500,000. That is my understanding,” said Speaker of the National Assembly Raphael Trotman. Both the AFC and APNU proposed cuts to NCN and GINA. Under Office of the President, NCN and GINA had their allocations reduced from $65 million and $15 million to $1 each. In another amendment carried, NCN had its allocation of $81.2M reduced to zero.

Greenidge stood again to speak, saying that the original motion sought to reduce the amount to be allocated to the agencies under this head in 2012 to $244,175,000. “The amendment to the motion seeks to maintain the allocations as requested except for the GINA and NCN and the total for the two would be $211,570,000 and the amounts in question will be as shown here,” he said. “The National Communications Network would be reduced to $1 and the Government Information Agency would also be reduced to $1,” he said.

Juan Edghill

“The purpose behind it…as you would have gauged from the exchanges Mr. Speaker, we are unhappy first of all with the reporting arrangement but more importantly it seeks to deny these agencies funds because they have a national responsibility to serve the country as a whole, all the communities, all the members of this House, all the parties of this House, and as you would have seen even from the [GECOM Media Monitoring Report], these two agencies have from time immemorial since they have been established refuse to deliver professional services, balanced news reporting. So the lack of professionalism and failure to adhere to internationally accepted standards of reporting do not merit taxpayers’ money being used to subsidise them,” he said. He encouraged the two entities to use the resources that they garner from other sources.

Speaker Trotman asked Greenidge to say what were his expectations for GINA and NCN as conditions for them receiving the subvention. “We in discussions spoke extensively about the appropriate behaviour of these two entities. We arrived at no conclusion satisfactory to us,” he said.

As soon as Greenidge took his seat, Prime Minister Sam Hinds stood up and expressed his regret at the steps taken by the members of the Opposition. “We do not hold the same view as he does. I have seen over the last week cricket matches on NCN and various other things that the public in Guyana enjoy. So I hope Mr. Speaker, if it is that the public in Guyana could no longer enjoy cricket on the radio station then I hope they would know who had ended the provision of these services to them,” said Hinds.

Rising to speak, Catherine Hughes of the Alliance For Change said as far back as 1996, VCT owned by Anthony Vieira and WRHM owned by Rex McKay provided international cricket through CMC out of Barbados to Guyanese. “That continued for many years up to about seven or eight years ago when NCN deliberately went to CMC and bid higher. So Guyana ended up paying more for the cricket signal,” Hughes said. She said that prior to that cricket was a joint venture by a group of television stations who got together to provide the service to Guyanese at a cheaper cost. “I am sure that the private sector of Guyana will facilitate cricket on the TV stations in a matter of days if necessary,” Hughes said.

Sam Hinds

Speaking on behalf of the Government, Minister within the Ministry of Finance, Juan Edghill said that while he would agree that the issue is a very sensitive one, “I would like to bring to the notice of this Honourable House that citizens have a right to have access to information not only in a 50 mile radius but throughout the length and breadth of Guyana.” It was reported that NCN garnered $508.8 million in 2011 as income.

He said that NCN is a national asset and is a service that is provided to the people of Guyana. “The subsidy only provides for 30 percent employment cost. NCN provides services to the following organisations at reduced rates – Guysuco Round Up, Feel the Beat, GRA in Focus, Law Enforcement and You, Excellence Dazzell show, Pulse Beat, GWI Water Customer Alert, Your Health and Nation’s Wealth, Oral Tradition, the Sports Magazine, NIS and You, Miners’ World, Between the Lines and more. Now it means that if NCN doesn’t get the subsidy as is hoped, it means that some of these entities which are Government entities including the Police and NIS, they will have to start paying more,” Edghill said.

He said that an average of about five percent of broadcast time on radio and TV is provided to the Government through GINA and other Government related agencies to highlight Government’s issues for the broadcast of development free of cost.

“It means that we will be robbing the people of Guyana of a right which is access to information,” he said.

“While I may agree that members of the other side may have problems with some of the political content, that might be a discussion that we should engage in. Mr. Chairman, NCN has demonstrated significant and sustained commitment in support of local talent in many areas,” he said.

“We should rise above partisan political interest to advance the recommendations for the development and bringing NCN in line with what will probably be the expectations of the majority of the people if there are dissatisfactions. But I believe punishing NCN by not giving them the subsidy is not a nationalistic approach and it is something that should be avoided by the Honourable members of this House,” said Edghill.

Ashni Singh

Speaking to the need for a 24 hour broadcast as NCN provided, the Minister said that this would be the channel that would be the only choice should there be a national disaster and messages had to be disseminated to the public.

APNU’s Keith Scott said that NCN must ensure that in the new democracy, other enterprising persons must be able to compete with the services that NCN is offering.

AFC’s Moses Nagamootoo said that the intention of the AFC and the APNU is to save money that would have otherwise been spent. Mr. Chairman, whenever I get up here to speak the wolf pack is on me,” he said in response to heckling.

“The eloquent reason why there should be no taxpayers’ money financing the Government’s propaganda unit NCN and GINA has been made by the Government’s side when they came to this House and could not give a reasonable answers as to how taxpayers’ money is being spent,” he said.

Upon each of the cuts executed by the Opposition, the Prime Minister rose to register his disappointment and regret in the actions of the combined majority in the House put forward counter arguments.

Callous and insensitive

Finance Minister Ashni Singh yesterday immediately after the first set of cuts to NCN and GINA said that the banding together of the two opposition parties to cut the proposed budgetary allocations to state TV, NCN and GINA by more than $211 million was “a callous and insensitive act” that should be condemned by all as it could leave many on the breadline.

“[And] here again we have a move by the opposition to take away the subvention from NCN and this impairs the operation of this very public interest entity and I wish to condemn in the strongest terms possible the irresponsible action taken by the opposition, acting in concert in a manner which I would say is completely inconsistent with …any shred of commitment to public access to information”, Singh told reporters moments after the historic parliamentary move.

It was pointed out that the two opposition parties moved ahead with their plan even though the government was open to dialogue.

It was a full house again in Parliament yesterday (Anjuli Persaud photo)
It was a full house again in Parliament yesterday (Anjuli Persaud photo)

“We spent up to almost 1am this morning (yesterday) at the Office of the President where the President (Donald Ramotar), Dr. (Roger) Luncheon, myself, advisor Gail Teixeira sat down in an earnest attempt to work with the Opposition to overcome these issues and regrettably there was absolutely no movement”, the minister said adding that while this move came as no surprise, government was hoping that good sense would have prevailed.

He repeatedly stressed that at no point did the opposition attempt to dialogue on the improvement of the functioning of NCN but rather were adamant that the subvention should not be granted.

According to the minister the government has demonstrated a commitment to reach out and to compromise and had already engaged the opposition on a range of issues including old age pension.

“This was not a government that said we can’t speak to you…The government listened and we were responsive”, he said.

Singh stressed that in an era that speaks about access to information especially citizen empowerment by ensuring that there is an informed citizenry particularly on the works of government, “the existence and adequate resourcing of an entity such as GINA is absolutely critical”.  He said that on one hand there cannot be talks about the access to government information and then on the other have attempts to seek to essentially demobilize and to bring into non existence a government information agency.

“I will insist and maintain that a well informed citizen particularly in an era where we speak about open and free access to information, a well informed citizenry will depend on an agency such as GINA to ensure that there is dissemination of information on government policies”, he stressed.

According to Singh the move by the opposition, “to vote effectively [to] a zero subvention for GINA is inconsistent with the actions of any party interested in citizen access to information as it relates to government activities”.

He later expressed belief that there was not a single citizen who does not watch an NCN programme including presidential activities adding that NCN is the only media entity that produces high quality documentaries which Singh said has left him extremely impressed.

Asked what will happen to the two entities in light of this new development, Singh said that “We would now have to contemplate the next steps.

The task of compiling and dissemination of government information must continue, [and] we need to reflect how best we can do this and the very important work that NCN does must continue. The tragedy is that they (the employees) are real people who work at these entities…colleagues of yours. The journalism fraternity does not distinguish between one media house and another media house…”

He stated that his position is that you can’t just turn off the tap tomorrow, people gotta go to work”. He noted that dialogue will continue.

Cuts

Among yesterday’s cuts was $150M from the Office of the President’s proposed budgetary allocations for contracted employees.

The motion which was in the name of AFC’s Khemraj Ramjattan was supported by APNU after MP Greenidge withdrew a motion on the same line items.

Ramjattan, who said the salaries of the top 121 contract workers at OP were extraordinarily high, was shouted down by members of the government side as he attempted to give the reason behind the motion.
In answer to questions Edghill had disclosed that the consultant on climate change receives around 3,250 pounds sterling per month (around $1M), the advisor on Information Technology receives about US$15,000 per month ($3M) and the advisor on sports $721,000 a month. The advisor on education receives $421,000 per month, the advisor on governance $907,000 per month and the Head of the Presidential Secretariat receives $891,000 per month. A policy advisor on land and development receives just over a $1M a month. The lowest salary paid to a contract worker is just over $40,000 and is for a boat captain.

Greenidge said that APNU would support the AFC motion because there has been a lack of transparency and it is difficult to understand the logics behind the employment.

Another cut under Office of the President saw the allocation for the Information and Communications Technology sector dropping from $6.75B to $6.58B.

Edghill said that the cut to the information technology sector will affect the one laptop per family project and hurt Amerindian communities.

Finance Minister Singh said that the one laptop project and the laying of the fibre optic cable by the government are generously supported from a important bilateral partner – China. He said it would send a dreadful message that China is willing to give $6B for the project and the House cannot approve $170M to be spent on it. He urged that the opposition abandon its “theatrical scissors” in order to see the completion of the project.

In response Greenidge posited that Singh spoke about the time the government spent in bilateral talks with China but found little time to talk with the opposition and only in the last week wanted discussions. He said the cut to the IT sector is not going to destroy the fibre optic cable project.

The opposition also voted against two allocations totalling $527 million for the Guyana Elections Commission saying that the necessary reforms must be made and if they are, APNU and the AFC would support a supplementary appropriation to get the money back.

An allocation of $902.8 million under ‘other’ was reduced by $500 million while an allocation of $53.7 million for refreshments and meals was cut by $27 million.

In proposing the cuts, Ramjattan asked Prime Minister Hinds whether the remaining pieces of electoral reform legislation will be brought to National Assembly to make the holding of Local Government Elections possible.

Hinds said he “would certainly hope so.” Hinds said the Chief Election Officer said to him that he would be happy if Parliament does what is required to ensure that those elections are held in October this year.

Hinds expressed disappointment in the Opposition for voting against the allocations and called it an unusual step. He said, “It raises in my mind how earnest the AFC and APNU are about wanting to go to Local Government Elections.” He called the proposal by the Opposition to possibly support a supplementary appropriation for the balance of the funds should the necessary reforms be completed, “a recipe for not holding Local Government Elections this year.”

Speaking on the amendments, APNU’s Basil Williams said that his party’s position has always been consistent. “We cannot put new wine into old wine skins. We have not heard a word from the Government on those reforms. If the Prime Minister or anyone else from the Government commits to having the reforms, we would support supplementary provisions,” Williams said.

Observers say today’s cuts may also have some bearing on Gecom’s ability to run off snap elections were one to be called by the government. The opposition appears to want to ensure that a snap poll just can’t be called like that.

(Additional reporting by Zoisa Fraser and Oluatoyin Alleyne)

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