Shadow Finance Minister Carl Greenidge yesterday took the government to task for failing to hold consultations with the opposition on the budget for a third consecutive year and he issued the first warning that the huge subvention for the sugar industry had to be adequately justified.
Leading off the parliamentary debate on the $220 billion proposed budget, Greenidge spent a significant portion of his speech detailing the government’s refusal to meaningfully consult with the opposition, which has the majority in the National Assembly. He also said the drafters of the budget had once again deliberately ignored the legal and constitutional issues raised in the previous exchanges over the budget by the opposition parties, APNU and the AFC. And while the proposed budget has been touted as the largest ever in the country’s history, Greenidge noted that the significance of a larger budget has to be seen in the context of the share of citizens’ income that it takes and not in terms of the absolute sum of money spent in any particular year.
In a somewhat lukewarm beginning to the debate, Greenidge, whose presentation drew little reaction from his colleagues on either side of the House, noted that mechanisms to cut waste and corruption were absent. These, he said, include addressing the question of quality of government’s services; the problem of emoluments and conditions of service; the regulatory regimes, especially as regards to financial and other sectors; the maintenance of mechanisms to protect the poor and the vulnerable; and putting in place adequate analytical frameworks and benchmarks to enable the target setting and monitoring of some of the goals mentioned in the budget. He noted that when one looks at some of the broad proposals, it is unlikely that a status report could be had on some of the areas mentioned. “These issues are especially urgent, given growing evidence of income inequality in our society to an extent [that] is largely unprecedented in most of our lifetime,” the APNU frontbencher said.
Greenidge pointed out that while Finance Minister Dr Ashni Singh would have spoken about how much was spent in a range of areas since 2002, the question was whether the expenditures, large though they may have been, had the impact that was intended.
The answer to this question, he noted, was missing in the analysis of the budget speech.
Speaking about the amount requested for the Guyana Sugar Corporation (GuySuCo)—
the only time his speech elicited any real reaction from the government side—Greenidge noted that Singh, in passing, made reference to a soon-to-be appointed board of directors for the corporation and senior management. He said not a word was mentioned about the demands for ensuring enhanced competence and less politicisation of the board and the management, which has been raised not only the opposition but by the Guyana Agricultural and General Workers Union (GAWU).
Members of the government laughed loudly when Greenidge mentioned that because sugar is very important to the economy and the lives of citizens, administrations that he was part of paid it special attention and provided considerable support to it in the past.
But while the industry deserves support, Greenidge argued, arrangements and plans should be in place to ensure that injections actually go towards fixing the problems that give rise to the difficulties when monies are requested. He added that the same principle also stands for the Guyana Power & Light Company and the bauxite industry.
“There is no point shouting sugar workers, because the problem is not the sugar workers. The problem is the government. The problem arises because of government policy; a policy which seeks to fill the board with a whole set of political appointees; a policy which seeks to appoint managers who are afraid of their own shadow…,” Greenidge said to loud desk thumping from his colleagues.
He noted that President of GAWU Komal Chand, who is a government parliamentarian, has also pointed out the weaknesses of the industry and argued that the government should fix the weaknesses before requesting more monies.
Singh, in his budget speech last week, had listed the single highest injection of $6 billion for the beleaguered corporation—an amount significantly more than the $1 billion allocated in last year’s budget and on top of the $4 billion in 2012. Singh told the National Assembly that the investment demonstrates the level to which the government is committed to sugar.
This sizable investment, according to Singh, is expected to “achieve the reversal of fortunes that it so badly needs.” The minister added that the “very tangible” investment will benefit GuySuCo’s 18,000 employees directly through the preservation of their jobs “and a total of 120,000 persons directly and indirectly.”
According to Greenidge, since the opposition has the majority in the National Assembly, for the government’s programmes to be implemented it needs alliances or at least compromises. However, he observed that instead the government feels because it has the largest number of seats, it deserves to pass whatever legislation it wishes and act as if it is in control of the assembly. This, he said, is the source of what Singh referred to as “graphic parliamentary impasse.”
He reminded that in a democracy, the expressed views of the electorate cannot be wished away as though they were an error in arithmetic.
The constitution, he added, does not qualify or circumscribe the term majority and whether it is a majority of one, the House exercises the same rule as to whether it is a majority of forty. He said it is most unfortunate that members of the governing side frequently refer to the opposition’s majority of a mere single seat. Instead, he said, the government should realise that there is the need to have some consensus among the parties and he recalled that initially there were some efforts at tripartite discussions but they yielded zero. During the discussions, the parties considered many issues, all of which, he said, were recognised as important and around which a core of policies could have been crafted.
“The governing side didn’t agree and in the end the issues were examined in a preliminary manner and there seemed to be some understanding that we would take them up in the distant future to try to resolve them,” Greenidge said, before adding that he was mentioning these details to remind that while there have been many important issues among the parties, they died after the discussions.
Some of those issues that were included in the 2012 talks, he said, included VAT and the Berbice bridge toll, old age pension and public assistance, subsidies to Linden, Kwakwani, GPL and GuySuCo, public service salaries, the question of a transparent mechanism as it relates to the appointments of regional executive officers and other offices and the burning question of the National Insurance Scheme (NIS).
Some broad agreements were made on some of the issues, Greenidge said, while noting that the response of the government to the NIS actuarial recommendations was to have been submitted to the National Assembly by November 2012. However, that has never been done. And while on the VAT issue the government undertook to set up a tax reform committee to examine, among other things, whether there was a possibility to reduce the 16% tax, this has not happened.
Last year, Greenidge added, the parties went through similar discussions in a bid to find common ground and tried to avoid impasses and depression that sometimes capture the populace when budget time is approaching. The leaders of the opposition parties wrote to President Donald Ramotar raising a number of issues—some included from the previous year—but he said like the previous year none of the matters were addressed or much less reflected in the budgetary allocations.
While there were supposed to be exchanges of letters between himself and Singh following an April meeting last year between the President and Opposition Leader David Granger on the issue of the budget, Greenidge said that process also failed.
He said the government is in receipt of proposals for a budget that could capture concerns across the aisle as well as a process that could serve as a blueprint when dealing with budget discussions but in spite of those budget 2014 does not include any of the concerns.
The former finance minister said that there is need to seriously pay attention to establishing modalities for dealing with difficulties that the majority identifies in relation to the government programmes. “At the moment it is the case that no mechanism exist for that,” he noted.
He revealed that a recent survey he looked at of young people between the ages of primary school and 25 revealed that many would want to leave the country immediately or five to ten years ahead. “It is a serious matter and this is one of the reasons why we should try to ensure that we can find common ground and move forward in a manner that is constructive,” Greenidge said.