I sat in the National Cultural Centre (NCC) a few Fridays ago and heard the Prime Minister, the Honourable Mr. Moses Nagamootoo, say that the government will not review the VAT on private tuition for 2017 but they will consider reviewing it for 2018. I also saw that as soon as he said that, the audience, almost in unison, got up and began walking out. I had never before seen anything like that. Normally, protocol dictates that the audience remains seated until the Prime Minister leaves. However, the ire of the attending audience members was so invoked, that they defied any established protocol and began walking out as the Prime Minister was still speaking.
I was not there at the NCC for the Prime Minister’s address. I was at the Centre to attend the health symposium that was a simultaneous event at the same venue. So when I entered the hall and saw Mr. Nagamootoo (who used to be my favourite politician) speaking, I quietly sat and listened. I heard the PM say that the government had reduced the VAT from 16% to14% and that single act cost the treasury billions of dollars.
I heard him say that the Cabinet agreed to again bail out GuySuCo to the tune of 1 billion dollars. I heard the PM say that the government has increased the education budget substantially. He made some other points to establish his case that having done all this spending, the government had to find ways to make up for the budgetary and operational shortfalls. He went on to justify his argument that the VAT on tuition was justifiable, given this now overwhelming financial need of the government.
As I sat there listening to him, I kept wondering if the Prime Minister was listening to himself. Here he was telling a hall scattered with some of Guyana’s finest minds, that his government has given the Guyanese people a lot of financial incentives and therefore his government must find a way to take it back from them. He looked as though he was reading from a script and I wondered who wrote that script, or who assisted in advising him on the content and construct of that script. How could the Prime Minister justify telling a gathering of protesters that his government is simply taking back what they had given to the people? It was a Public Relations nightmare!
I remained seated and did not agree with the students, parents and teachers walking out in defiance of the PM but I understood their frustration.
Then two days ago I opened the daily papers and read that the AFC (the Prime Minister is the highest ranking AFC member in the Government and Cabinet), will be reviewing the VAT on education. Editor, I did not know if to laugh or cry. Only a couple of weeks ago, the PM got up in front of a protesting crowd and articulated his Government’s position: he being the 1st Vice President and 2nd in command. Now a few days later the AFC comes out and says – contrary to the Government – that they want the VAT on private education reviewed.
It is as clear as day that this Government has a very dysfunctional PR department. And come 2020 they will be penalized for it.
The VAT on education was a non-starter from the beginning. I have said before that while I am no supporter of Mr. Burnham, he put Guyana’s education in its right perspective. His notion of free education from nursery to university was visionary. And that his party – the PNC – would lead the charge of making it more difficult to achieve this basic and worthwhile necessity, is a slap in his face.
Let me end by saying that while the current administration seems confused and incoherent on this matter of tax on education, it is heartening to know that within the halls of administrative power, there is some degree of commonsense. There needs to be an immediate cessation of this nonsensical additional cost to Guyanese education.
If the government wants to replace the money they will lose from taxing education, let them tax cigarettes and alcohol. As far as I am concerned, there can never be too many taxes on those.
Pastor Wendell Jeffrey