Recently, the issue of VAT being charged on education services became a hot button topic concerning which the parents of school age children made a public outcry. It also saw the advent of an online petition against the government’s imposition of VAT on education services that garnered over 3,200 signatures as at January 15, 2017. The petition ‘Education is a necessity, let it be VAT free’ has the goal of 20,000 signatures and seems set to achieve this goal based on its steady growth since its inception.
Responding to the concerns raised publicly by the parents, Minister of Finance Winston Jordan expressed no real empathy as articulated by the writer of the petition, Dr Brian O’Toole of the School of Nations. Flatly describing VAT as a “fiscal tool” which is “not a cure for social ills” Minister Jordan went on to say that “There is no VAT on public education, it remains a choice of the parent. Government is not making that choice for them.”
But during the term in office of the PPP/C administration, the then opposition APNU and AFC parties strongly criticised the “burdensome” 16% VAT imposed under previous PPP/C regimes and vowed to reduce same if given the opportunity to replace the then administration. Indeed, even the Donald Ramotar administration had made an election promise to look at reducing VAT from 16% once elected, by setting up a Tax Reform Commission. However, during Ramotar’s truncated reign in government nothing ever eventuated from this.
The APNU+AFC administration, however, has indeed reduced the level of the VAT rate from 16% to 14%, but by widening the reach of VAT to goods and services hitherto not taxed under this form of impost, the government stands to potentially collect more taxes. This move, therefore, can hardly be considered beneficial to individuals who will now be taxed on items previously exempt from VAT.
Against this backdrop, Jordan’s comments do seem rather brusque, unfeeling and possibly disingenuous, given what his own government promised when in election mode. There was no mention then about the need to widen the base so that more goods and services are captured under the VAT taxation net. While people all over the world may have grown accustomed to politicians not always keeping electoral promises, in Guyana this is exacerbated by the unfeeling stance of its politicians. We are currently seeing no reduction in the hauteur and hubris of our politicians and other top officials, something which is no more apparent than in the debacle surrounding the Georgetown parking meter project.
In governing a home, city or country, there are always hard decisions to be made and implemented, decisions that are unpopular with the people affected – mostly with good reason on the part of the individual sufferers. Nevertheless, the concept of ‘the greater good’ is usually regarded by governments as sufficient reason to stand firm with the implementation since, with time, the benefits will be seen.
But in a democratic society, where every five years the people are polled to choose a new political leadership, it behoves the incumbent administration to implement its hard decisions with a soft touch, using the art and skill of public relations expertise to grab the hearts and minds of the populace and to try to reduce the level of distrust and opposition to the new move.
However, in Guyana, after more than two decades of rule by the PPP/C, the APNU+AFC administration which represented a political change that many younger Guyanese witnessed for the first time in their lives, has seemingly upped the ante on hauteur and hubris, with only the President appearing every so often to show penitence on behalf of his ministers.
Maybe we can blame Minister of State Joseph Harmon for setting the tone for the current administration with his “no apology” statement relating to the salary increase that government gifted itself, an increase extended to all parliamentarians. Harmon subsequently found that he indeed had to make an apology, such as it was, and this was offered to the general public, apart from the PPP/C, now the ever critical opposition.
Minister Jordan does owe the public a more structured and properly articulated response to the questions surrounding the imposition of VAT on private education services. Is the rationale no more than if you’re rich you go to a private school, and the remedy no more than, pay it or go to a public school? Surely the Guyanese public, including the students seeking an education, deserve a more educated response than that.
Recently, President Granger himself admitted to the government’s inability to garner foreign investment capital and perhaps this explains the government’s heavy dependence on increasing taxation to finance its spending. As much as this may be a necessity, given the economic realities that we are faced with as a country, the government’s information dissemination and public relations effort is shoddy to say the least. As indicated above, this is compounded by the posture of many of its ministers that borders on arrogance in many instances, and on occasions crosses this border by its seeming lack of concern for the public outcry that follows their monarchical-style behaviour.
With the increasing use of social media, persons from a wide cross section of educational backgrounds, incomes, cultures, geographical locations, and political allegiances are able to immediately interact with each other shortly after an incident unfolds ‒ and even while an incident is still unfolding – as with Facebook Live and other live streaming applications. This means that the public response is generally more informed and cohesive, and this is a reality that does not seem to have grabbed the Guyanese politician by the intellect, possibly since most politicians in Guyana owe their elected official status more to their political party that to any constituency that they need to woo to gain political office.
Nevertheless, the political parties themselves will do well to reconsider the posture of their representatives on hot button topics which have deeply negative implications for the general public or even for segments of the general public, however classified. No less a personage than former president Bharrat Jagdeo, himself a polarizing force in politics has in recent times softened his approach and has talked about reaching across the divide to embrace persons of differing political alliances.
There is a saying ‘who feels it knows it,’ and maybe 20,000 signatories on a petition may trigger a more considered and cerebral response by Minister Jordan to the legitimate concerns of parents and students in a country where much is said about youth being the future, but where investment in this future outside of the government’s public school system is now subject to VAT of 14%.