President David Granger yesterday reported on his administration’s stewardship of the country in the nearly two and a half years since it assumed office, but his state of the nation address to the National Assembly was mostly drowned out by heckling members of the opposition, who staged a protest in the parliamentary chambers.
It was public knowledge that Granger was going to address the National Assembly after the almost-three-month-long recess and it was expected that the PPP/C’s members of Parliament would walk out following Opposition Leader Bharrat Jagdeo’s declaration of non-cooperation over the president’s unilateral appointment of retired judge James Patterson as Chairman of the Guyana Elections Commission (Gecom).
Instead, after the president began his speech, in full view of the heads of the foreign missions in Guyana, the judiciary and the armed forces, the PPP/C members pulled out placards and silently held them up.
‘Jobs for youths,’ ‘Billions squandered,’ No Aspirins available,’ ‘Unilateral GECOM appointment’ and ‘Boom out Granger #untrustworthy’ were some of the messages written in red, black and green on the white cards.
“Get out de place!” Junior Natural Resources Minister Simona Broomes shouted in response but almost simultaneously the PPP/C members started to heckle while the president spoke.
“A multi-party coalition assumed office and ushered in an opportunity for consensus-based politics. This form of government wrested the nation from the vice of divisive and destructive winner-takes-all politics and laid the basis for a system of inclusionary democracy – the form of governance prescribed by the Constitution, at Article 13. That is the form that seeks cooperation for the ‘common good’ rather than one that fosters confrontation and chaos,” Granger said.
However, the heckling soon turned into chanting, which was led by Jagdeo. Amidst the chants and the government members’ intermittent thumping of their desks and shouts of support at some points, the president could not be heard. On a few occasions, he could be seen looking at Speaker Dr. Barton Scotland, who hit his gavel on a number of occasions to no effect. Apart from the hitting of the gavel, Scotland made no attempt to curtail the sometimes raucous behaviour of the opposition members. At times, the president paused and at other times he took a sip of water and he was even heard saying during one of the pauses, “I am tired,” but nonetheless he marched on with his speech.
“Storytelling time,” “Same speech” and “What about respect for the constitution?” were some of the jeers from the PPP/C members during Granger’s address. Jagdeo could be heard over his fellow members, asking “What about Gecom?” “Untrustworthy,” he loudly proclaimed, and “What about respect for the constitution?”
The opposition members later started chanting “No rigging!” It was in reference to the appointment of Justice Patterson, who was also seated in the Parliamentary Chambers.
In a later statement, the PPP/C labeled Granger’s speech as being “riddled with rhetoric, propaganda and which was devoid of substance.”
Jagdeo, in his own statement, said that the president had not dealt with “any of the major issues affecting Guyanese –the crime and how he will tackle the increase in crime; how he will tackle the increased loss of jobs in our economy; how he would tackle investments.”
“Then we got a lecture about the rule of law and good governance, when, effectively, what he has been doing is undermining the rule of law by acting unconstitutionally. So we expected this (Granger’s speech) and we had to show our dissatisfaction,” he said of the protest action.
Early in his 14-page speech, the president announced that the government was seeking the best advice and laying optional plans for the development of the petroleum industry, including the establishment of a Sovereign Wealth Fund.
He said the oil and gas sector is going to provide resources to transform the country’s development as his government intends to “align that transformation with the objectives of Guyana’s ‘green’ development agenda.”
He also sought to assuage fears over the future of the Guyana Sugar Corporation (GuySuCo), saying that the government will explore all options next year to ensure a viable industry, mindful of its impact on the nation’s rural economy and its residents.
“The sugar industry is being consolidated; it is not being closed,” he said, in obvious recognition of fears in light of some factories being closed and the setting up of a special purpose unit to spearhead the divestment and privatisation of certain GuySuCo assets as part of a planned downsizing.
On the security front, the president said that the security forces “are gradually recovering from the damage and demoralisation caused during the ‘Troubles’ of the early years of this century.” The government, he said, has embarked on a process of reform and is revamping the national security architecture and with the assistance of the Government of the United Kingdom, will establish a Department of Security Sector Reform, in the new financial year.
The Ministry of Public Security is also retooling the police force in order to improve human safety and public security and the force’s manpower needs are expected to be addressed.
Declaring that the country’s economy has been “prudently managed” over the last 30 months, the president said his government has adopted measures to improve the living standards.
This statement was greeted with loud shouts of “pay the teachers” from members of the opposition in reference to the recent standoff between the Guyana Teachers’ Union (GTU) and the Ministry of Education, which saw the intervention by the president as the teachers to prevent a strike.
Later in his speech, the president did mention the impasse with the GTU and this again was greeted with the opposition members’ exhortation that government “Pay the teachers!”
“Your government is committed to working with the Guyana Teachers’ Union to solve problems and to improve the conditions in the public education system under which students have to attend school and teachers study, work and live,” the president stated.
He alluded to teachers being the foundation of any educational system and that improvements in educational attainment require investments in teachers’ training.
He also spoke of what he described as measures taken by his administration to improve the business environment and these include reducing the processing time for investments; implementing a trusted-trader programme; establishing business registration hubs in the Potaro-Siparuni and the Rupununi regions. “We also are rebalancing the economy, horizontally, through our support of the micro-, small- and medium-scale enterprise sector, mindful of its tremendous potential to generate local employment,” the Head of State said.
He listed the improvement of the country’s transportation network of aerodromes, bridges, roads, stellings and wharves as well as the reduction of flooding in Georgetown due to the dredging of major drainage canals and repairs to sluices and pumps. And while the Guyana Power & Light Inc’s performance continues to draw criticism over daily power outages, the president stated that the government has addressed the nation’s power-generation needs with new generation sets being procured for the towns of Anna Regina and Bartica and for Canefield.
He said too that the past 30 months have witnessed the upgrading of the physical infrastructure of hospitals and health clinics, the provision of medical equipment and the deployment of medical personnel across the regions.
Granger told the House that his government has been diligent in fortifying the rule of law as the Ministry of Legal Affairs has strengthened the financial regulatory framework in order to insulate the economy from the proceeds of illicit activities.
“Your government has strengthened the country’s legal administrative system,” he said, before being greeted with loud heckles from the opposition members.
It appears as if they knew that it was at this juncture that the president would have mentioned the controversial appointment of the Gecom Chairman, but he only did so fleetingly.
“Your government has re-established and made appointments to institutions decreed by our Constitution. A Chairman of the Guyana Elections Commission and an Ombudsman were appointed. Acting appointments were made to the highest judicial posts,” he said to shouts of “No rigging!”
The president also mentioned the holding of long-awaited local government elections but no mention of the fact that his administration took over a year to set up the Local Government Commission, paving the way for the local government bodies to have autonomy in how their affairs are handled without government interference. He did, however, mention the Ministry of Communities’ establishment of a National Regional Development Consultative Committee (NRDCC), which he said is to promote collaboration and consultation within and between regions.
On the foreign affairs front, the president said that the government has been engaged in various “vigorous diplomatic initiatives” and with the support of the opposition the Ministry of Foreign Affairs has aimed efforts at reaching a peaceful resolution to the territorial controversy with Venezuela.
Meanwhile, the president said that the Ministry of Citizenship has improved the reach, quality and administration of passport, immigration, birth, marriage and death certificate registration services.
“We have reduced the processing times for the issuance of passports; the long lines outside our passport offices have disappeared and the service is being systematically decentralised to Linden, New Amsterdam and other capital towns,” he noted.