Saying that the proposed $220 billion budget seeks to bring balance in income distribution and the national “pie of wealth,” Minister of Housing and Water Irfaan Ali pilloried APNU’s Shadow Finance Minister Carl Greenidge for criticising the estimates for spending this year but not offering any concrete alternatives to improve the lives of citizens.
In a fiery presentation that saw government and opposition members going head to head and the intervention of Speaker Raphael Trotman at times, Ali said the proposed budget has widespread support while he boasted of the country’s positive economic growth of 5.2%.
He said that Finance Minister Ashni Singh has overseen Guyana’s positive economic growth for eight consecutive years and he quoted from an international report that listed Guyana as having the highest positive economic growth among Caribbean countries for last year.
Ali, who was the first speaker from the government side in this year’s budget debate, was critical of Greenidge’s presentation, while observing that he had a responsibility to present an alternative to what was presented. He further noted that the budgeted spending is informed by a number of strategies that the entire population was consulted on.
“Where is your alternative analysis? Where are your numbers?…Where are your reports? What are you referring to honourable member?” Ali fired off at Greenidge, while pointing out that the government refers to international and national reports generated by competent professional staff that work in the public service.
Ali even listed a number of headlines in regional newspapers that spoke to the economic crises in the Caribbean and he also quoted Prime Minister of Trinidad and Tobago Kamla Persad-Bissessar extensively where she spoke about what needs to be done to improve her country’s economy and the lives of its citizens. He observed that what was outlined mirrors what is already being done in Guyana.
At one point, Trotman observed that incidentally the Prime Minister also dismissed another of her ministers for infractions. Persad-Bissessar last week dismissed one of her ministers for assaulting an airline hostess while yesterday she accepted the resignation of another over allegations of domestic violence.
“Mr Speaker, as you are aware, the ministers in this PPP/C government are of high conduct…,” Ali, however, said in response to Trotman’s observation before the rest of his comment was drowned out by the uproar it caused among opposition members. He later said they would never be reckless.
“We need sober conduct,” was the response of AFC MP Moses Nagamootoo in what was in apparent reference to a recent vehicular accident involving Singh, who was alleged to have been driving under the influence.
This comment appeared to anger the usually quiet Singh, who became very animated as he pointed in the direction of Nagamootoo and gesticulated, while making comments that were not audible.
Ali, on the local front, also listed headlines that claimed that the opposition, among other things, was stymieing progress.
As he spoke about the negative headlines generated by the opposition and which he said are being read by the rest of the Caribbean, Nagamootoo noted that reports of former President Bharrat Jagdeo vying for a third term were also being read. “You have no confidence in your own president,” Nagamootoo said, referring to President Donald Ramotar, who is not yet mid-way through his five-year term.
Ali paid him no heed and marched forward in his presentation. Surprisingly, no one on the government side responded to Nagamootoo, a former PPP/C member, who persisted along this line and even started a little chant of “Bring back Jagdeo” while other opposition members chimed in with comments of their own.
The minister said the government would build homes, schools, hospitals and even hydro power stations because it understands their importance to the economy. He added that the government will sustain jobs while creating new ones, while noting that under the PPP/C there has been no significant job loss as is seen in many neighbouring countries, which indicates that it “ran a tight ship.”
To this, some of the opposition members questioned why so many persons are leaving the country. While Ali said boldly that he would have answered “every single question,” he ignored this one, which was asked in various forms. Instead, he chose to state that when it comes to the management of the country’s economy, Singh was standing on “solid rock” as opposed to Greenidge standing on “sinking sand” when it comes to his own legacy.
Speaking about the stalled proposed Amaila Falls hydropower project, Ali said even with all the benefits set to be gained the opposition blocked the project. He said the opposition also blocked the Cheddi Jagan International Airport, Timehri expansion project and questioned how the opposition can have the moral authority to speak on job creation when the fundamental investments that are being made by the government to create such opportunities are being denied.
Ali noted that an investment of $200M is earmarked for the Belvedere industrial site in Region Six and the Lethem industrial site, in Region Nine.
Answering Greenidge’s question about the impact of projects, Ali said that extreme poverty has been eradicated, and the country has achieved the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) related to nutrition, child health and universal primary education. He also said the country is now categorised as a medium development country and that there has also been an increase in the number of health care workers.
Rural development fund
Talking about the proposed $1B rural development fund, Ali said that Nagamootoo has referred to it as a “slush fund,” which he found insulting
“You cannot refer to funds set aside for single parents, vulnerable groups and people who need these funds as a slush fund. That is insensitive,” a now hoarse Ali said.
According to Ali, the $1 billion would create 3,500 jobs and he added that if a $100M is spent in Leguan, it meant that $125,000 would be invested per household.
As he was about to calculate how many jobs this sum of money would create in Leguan, Nagamootoo made a comment to the extent that the people in the community are cutting grass and he questioned where the jobs were.
This comment made Ali and his colleague member Bibi Shadick irate. Ali stated that the people in Leguan must not be reduced to cutting grass since they are hardworking people. Many on the government side got involved and a small ruckus erupted as Ali called on Nagamootoo to apologise to the people of Leguan for his comment.
However, Trotman, in response, said that all such demands would be taken outside of the Chambers and that it would be dealt with on the campaign trail.
However, a dissatisfied Shadick stood and stated that she was a native of Leguan and that she took offence to the comment made by Nagamootoo, whom she accused of making fun of the people of Leguan. As a result, she said that he needed to apologise.
But Trotman said members have to have “thick skins” and advised Shadick that if she was offended she should take it up with Nagamootoo outside of the House. He also said that he would intervene where comments of a personal nature pertaining to a member’s family are made.
Shadick was not appeased.
Ali said the investment would create 325 new jobs in Leguan. He said this will be the situation in many other communities under the fund.
He also said $2.5 billion is proposed for the water sector out of which $1.35B is allocated to coastal programmes, which means the government would be investing $9,000 on behalf of every citizen on the coast to improve water supply. In Linden, he said, they will spend $627 million, which represents a $30,000 investment per capita. In the hinterland, $190 million will be spent, representing a $31,000 per capita investment, while in Georgetown $600 million will be spent, representing an $11,000 per capita investment.
The minister also stated that 5,900 house lots are expected to be distributed while there will be the upgrade of 45 kilometers of existing roads in 36 villages, including Sophia and Barnwell.
“These are the kinds of investments that would ensure a better quality of life for our Guyanese brothers and sisters all across Guyana,” Ali said.
Responding directly to Greenidge’s point about the opposition commanding the majority in the House, Ali noted that the PPP/C has the largest number of seats in the National Assembly, making it the majority party. He said although it is the majority party, it does not even hold the position of the Deputy Speaker even though when it had the overall majority it allowed the opposition to hold that position, which he said was the responsible thing to do. “You all couldn’t find a nominee. Not even you, you party didn’t nominate,” APNU’s Chief Whip Amna Ally, however, retorted.