Granger says national interest to guide cuts

- Singh promises full disclosure, appeals for good faith

APNU leader David Granger last evening gave notice of the main opposition’s intention to withhold support for proposed spending that is not in the nation’s interest, while  saying government’s estimates in its $220B national budget do not cater for the poor, the workers, the young, the aged and is driven by politics and not economics.

“The PPP/C’s Budget 2014 will be measured by its public impact. APNU reserves its right to disagree with provisions which are not in the national interest,” Granger, who is Leader of the Opposition, told the National Assembly last evening as he made the opposition’s final presentation in the budget debates.

However, Finance Minister Ashni Singh, who brought down the curtains on this year’s budget debates, expressed the hope that when the estimates are being considered “we could rise above the business of brandishing these scissors just for the purpose….”  He said the government would approach the estimates in good faith and has no problem answering questions as it can withstand scrutiny and has never shied away from a question asked in the National Assembly.

He said he was trusting that once all questions are answered, the opposition will see merit in the proposals contained in the estimates for 2014 and will vote resoundingly in the favour of the budget.

Both APNU and AFC speakers have signalled their intention to cut proposed allocations throughout the debates despite a ruling by acting Chief Justice Ian Chang that the National Assembly may approve or disapprove the Finance Minister’s estimates of expenditure, but has no power to change them by either reducing or increasing them. “The power to amend may involve the power to approve. But a power to approve does not imply a power to amend,” he wrote in his decision on a challenge to the cuts that was brought to the court by Attorney General Anil Nandlall over the 2012 cuts.

In the decision, which has since been appealed, Chang said it is the executive Minister’s estimates and it is he who must amend them to obtain the Assembly’s approval so that the Cabinet may recommend or consent to the presentation of an Appropriation Bill to the Assembly for passing for the purpose of charging those estimates to the Consolidated Fund.

Granger last evening was adamant that there is no way the country can move forward with such a budget that continues to disregard the needs of the most important factor in national development–the people. He also said that the National Assembly has an obligation to provide the leadership and a better budget.

“It has a duty to design plans and strategies to overcome the economic, political and social challenges. It most forestall any folly that might prolong the nightmare of poverty that can lead us down the path of deeper destitution,” he argued.

The opposition leader said that budget will be measured by its public impact and that it must be amended if the people are to enjoy a good life.

“A Partnership for National Unity signals that it disagrees with certain measures which have been proposed. When the questions are put, we shall exercise our constitutional right to express and agreement or disagreement,” Granger warned.

Granger and Singh were the last two speakers and they traded the terms “same old PPP/C” and “same old PNC” during their presentations, which saw the members from the two sides of the House joining in with chants of their own in support of their respective speaker.

Singh said the PPP/C is happy to be its “same old” self as it has been providing a good life for Guyanese, but Granger pointed out that although the country has the same old PPP/C government, it now has a new dispensation in which the APNU and AFC can combine to save the budget.

Granger highlighted the fact that the budget avoids mentioning the words poverty, unemployment of emigration, and he argued that it reemphasises the need to establish a parliamentary office of budget as early as possible so as to ensure that all sides in the House could comprehensively propose measures needed for national development. “No single person or party knows everything,” he said, before listing all that partnership members have seen wrong during their visits to various communities around the country.

 

Serious challenges

 

The budget, according to Granger, does not furnish the funds to confront the serious challenges facing families, such as the unavailability of jobs for young school-leavers; the quality of education at the primary and secondary levels along the coastland and in the hinterland and at the university of Guyana; and the daily threat to citizens from crimes and diseases.

He said the budget must be the means to stimulate, not frustrate growth and that in actual fact the budget before the National Assembly has evinced no inspiration, no imagination and no innovation. It does not, he argued, provide the resources to transform rhetoric into reality.

Among the things he listed as requirements under the budget was the provision of resources to stop the contraband trade which distorts the country’s economy. It was this same trade, he said, which obliterated Port Kaituma last week when an illegal fuel boat exploded. In this regard, Granger pointed out that the Cabinet commissioned an inquiry in 2003 to investigate fuel smuggling as the then president would have announced that the state was losing $6B a year in unpaid duties alone. However, 11 years later, he noted, the country still has an explosive fuel-smuggling situation.

On the issue of public security, Granger, a retired Brigadier and former national security adviser, said it would not correct itself. “Narco-trafficking is the engine of growth that is driving this country’s high rates of money-laundering, gun-running, execution-murders and armed robberies. Violent crime is scaring foreign investors, driving away the educated élite, undermining economic growth and impeding social development,” he argued.

He also said that the lucrative narco-trade has spawned armed gangs which use their wealth to purchase political influence and suborn the security forces in order to protect their interests. And money-launderers associated with narcotics-traffickers, Granger said, also distort the domestic economy by pricing their goods and services below the market rates which undermine legitimate businesses.

He further said that the hinterland could be a very lawless and dangerous place as banditry is rampant; contraband smuggling is commonplace; disease is prevalent; poverty is pervasive and education standards are lower than the rest of the country.

Granger noted that the budget does not mention Guyana’s Poverty Reduction Strategy Paper, which was meant to be a mechanism through which the country could have crafted its own plan for poverty reduction and he suggested that it was indicative of the lack of government commitment to the disadvantaged. “The budget seems to have abandoned the poor,” he commented.

The opposition leader said instead of fulfilling its theme—‘A better Guyana for all Guyanese’—the budget would disintegrate into “a bitter Guyana for most Guyanese.”

He further warned of dangerously dividing Guyana into two nations; creating an east-west divide that separates everything west of the Essequibo River from what is to the east. An example of this, he said, is that the estimates are providing funds to repair roads mainly in the east bank, west coast, east coast and not in the rich gold and diamond mining areas. “This budget perpetuates the divergences, disparities and divisions which have hindered development in our country,” Granger said, while questioning whether it was deliberate or rather an acute case of “Main Street myopia” (a reference to the Finance Ministry’s Main Street offices).

He added that the hinterland communities do not need “baubles, beads, toys and trinkets” since handouts smother human initiative and extinguish enterprise. It needs, like every other part of the country, reliable services such as community-based solar and wind water and electricity-generation, he said.

Granger also pointed out that the hinterland’s mining, logging and tourism resources have been exploited for over a century and continue to enrich the national treasury, but its physical infrastructure is inadequate for such vast territory.

“Its small, scattered population is vulnerable to criminal violence, human trafficking and environmental hazard,” Granger said.

He added that while the country arguably has never been wealthy, the appearance of hordes of extremely poor, destitute, homeless persons and street children over the PPP/C’s two decades in office is a “man-made catastrophe.”

 

‘Responsible policy’

 

Meanwhile, Minister Singh, in his presentation, said that the budget represents the latest installment of responsible policy by the PPP/C government.

“Whether it is the purchase of uniform for children of schools or the payment of a cash grant to parents; whether it is the construction of a new hospital; whether it is the construction of a fibre optic cable to attract investors to create new jobs…this government, sir, has demonstrated a track record of taking Guyana in the right direction,” Singh said.

He suggested that the proposed 2014 budget would continue to take the country in the right direction. Singh spent a significant portion of his presentation comparing the reality today with what came before the PPP/C assumed office in 1992. His focus on the past was so pronounced that it prompted the intervention of House Speaker Raphael Trotman at one point. “But Dr Singh you have been dwelling for some time on the past. I believe we are dealing with the 2014 budget. So, at some time, we would expect you to go into the budget of 2014,” Trotman was forced to remind the finance minister.

Responding to Granger’s statement that there are no jobs, Singh challenged that the Amaila Falls Hydropower Station should be built to provide jobs. “Give us Amaila,” he told the opposition leader, while noting that it would not only provide jobs but also make electricity cheaper.

“You cannot say you want to create jobs, sir, and you are deferring hydro power in this country for another fifteen years,” Singh charged.

He added that the opposition cannot say they want to create jobs and continue to frustrate the passing of the anti-money laundering legislation and try to use it as a political bargaining chip.

“No responsible political leader can claim to be serving the interest of its people if he would place his country at risk of being blacklisted by the international community,” Singh said.

He called on the opposition members to use the next few hours and look at their manifestos and what they would have promised to people and remind themselves that there is much in the 2014 budget that they would have promised to do.

Singh said that the government would not make grand promises to the people of Guyana and create in their minds that the state would solve all of their problems. He pointed out that citizens have an individual responsibility of their own future and prosperity.  He said the government would never bankrupt Guyana at the altar of political expediency.

“So… every indicator that we look at, whether it is life expectancy, whether it is expected years of schooling, whether it is mean year of schooling, whether it is our GDP…whether it is human development index, Mr Speaker, a whole digest of statistics could be produced… to demonstrate sir that we have made tremendous progress in improving the quality of life of all Guyanese people,” Singh said.

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