Ali, Gaskin trade corruption barbs as budget debate begins

Opposition front bencher Irfaan Ali told the National Assembly yesterday said that corruption is very much alive as government has been unable to properly account for its spending but was later told by Business Minister

that his former government had a “scant” regard for accountability and transparency.

“Our country is now riddled with overpayments, an accounting system that has missing vouchers, missing documents, breach of procurement laws and guidelines and massive contract splitting,” Ali said, while accusing the government of wasteful spending and pressing a budget filled with “sweet lies.”

The PPP/C MP was at the time making the opening presentation on the first day of the debate of the 2019 budget. The $300.7 billion budget was presented to the National Assembly last Monday by Finance Minister Winston Jordan.

In the middle of his 35-minute presentation, Ali raised the issue of corruption and he said that evidence of it is contained in the annual Auditor General’s reports, which have been submitted to the House since the current government took office.

Gaskin, who spoke after him, dismissed Ali’s assertions and noted that while he [Ali] was the Minister of Tourism, the audited final statements of the Guyana Tourism Authority were not submitted.

“When I inherited responsibility for the agency, it had never since its inception in 2002 presented to this National Assembly its audited financial statements. It did not even have audited financial statements for the years 2002 to 2014. We had to spend an inordinate amount of time and effort going back and putting this in order but we anticipate that sometime in 2019 we would finally be up to date with the annual reports for all of the agencies in the Ministry of Business,” he said.

The minister added that Ali, who currently heads the Public Accounts Committee and regularly interrogates senior public servants, is guilty of the very practices he was accusing the government of engaging in.

He said that Ali has to “talk about those missing financial statements” during his tenure and he assured that as more money will be spent on tourism next year, there would be accountability and transparency.

Lack of confidence

Ali told the House that the budget is sugarcoated “fluff and bluff” and that Guyanese are too intelligent to fall for it.

He said his party’s victory at the recent local government polls is a sign that the people “are not prepared to be fooled anymore” and that they “lacked confidence in this government’s ability to address their concerns and improve their well-being.”

According to Ali, government is fully aware that the budget is supposed to address the fiscal strategies it intends to implement to address existing economic and social problems, including economic decay, unemployment, and poverty.

“The budget failed badly to bring solutions and is riddled with unrealistic and questionable forecasts,” he said before adding that it also contains evidence of wasteful spending, poor fiscal measures and inadequate measures to rescue the economy. Stressing that there are “hard facts” to show that government has done very little to bail out the ailing sectors, he said that lots of money is being spent on housing rentals, meals, travel, personal security and telephone bills by government officials.

Ali pointed out that it was expected that the minister during his almost five-hour long presentation would have exercised care and brought realistic numbers and not a gloomy forecast.

He stressed that the minister has a proclivity for providing the House with inflated estimates to showcase the government’s imaginary “good life” and to shouts of “shame!” from his opposition colleagues, he noted that with the underperformance of key sectors, “Guyana stands to lose.”

Ali added that not only is Guyana slipping but so is the education system. While mentioning the high rate of unemployment and government’s failure to create jobs, he said that the country has slipped in its global ranking with respect to the quality of education.

He said that the corruption is occurring in all sectors, including education, in the areas of procurement of textbooks, feeding programmes for poor children and book distribution, as well as in health with regards to the procurement of drugs. “Where is the money going? Where is the 2019 money going?” he asked.

While Ali was questioning the state of the local commercial banks and the decline of commercial equity, an MP shouted “no wonder they selling out,” in reference to the announced exit by Scotiabank across the region.

Ali was forced to bring his presentation to an abrupt end as he had exhausted his allotted time.

Moments after Ali took his seat, Speaker Dr. Barton Scotland, in response to a protest from the opposition, pointed out that the times allotted to each speaker had been agreed to by the two Chief Whips.

He then proceeded to remind members of the House that the recording by MPs of statements being made in the Chamber is not permitted and that if a recording is needed, same could be provided by the Parliament Office.

The Speaker did not name the MP who violated this rule. However, Opposition Member Priya Manickchand rose and sought to explain to the House that she had livestreamed Ali’s presentation as the Department of Public Information (DPI) was not covering the views of the opposition. This was met with heckling from the government benches and Manickchand became inaudible.

After a claim that the session was not being livestreamed on the Parliament’s website, the Speaker made enquiries and found it to be inaccurate. He also indicated that if there is an issue it should be brought to his attention prior to the sitting.

Manickchand attempted to speak but was ordered to take her seat.

Successful 2018

Meanwhile, Gaskin, during his allotted 35 minutes, presented an overview of the ministry’s work in 2018, its plans for 2019 and how the proposed allocation of $2.65 billion for 2019 will be spent during the upcoming year.

He said that the work of his ministry and its agencies is geared towards the creation of jobs by private enterprises, whether through tourism, industrial estates, and the promotion of experts, investment facilitation or small business support.

The Minister stressed that work will continue on the development of two industrial estates in Lethem and Berbice.

With regard to the Lethem site, he said $213 million will be spent next year on works, including access roads, and he informed the House that an operations plan and a business plan are being developed. He said, too, that the final sum of $113 million will be spent in 2019 on the completion of an incubator, which has been under construction at the site since 2017.

Work at the second estate, located at Belvedere, East Berbice, was at a standstill when the coalition took office and according to Gaskin work then recommenced in 2016 to provide a concrete base for the electricity transformers, installation of fire hydrants and construction of a security fence. Monies for the outstanding works, which include the digging of internal drains and installation of infrastructure for the telephone service, are catered for in the 2019 budget and those works will commence early in the new year.

Gaskin assured that government is committed to business support and development as is evidence in the allocations made in the 2019 budget.

He mentioned that a consultant will also be procured to conduct a situational analysis and action plan for the construction sector.

Opportunities for small businesses will also be made available in 2019, Gaskin said, before adding that government is committed to continuing business facilitation as $18.5 million had been budgeted for the participation in trade shows and to facilitate the promotion of local export-ready products and investment opportunities to international buyers and investors at such events.

With regards to tourism, Gaskin said that government in showing its commitment to this industry has allocated over $300 million for 2019, an increase from a $123 million allocated in 2014 for the Guyana Tourism Authority. He said that visitor arrival figures up to September this year show a 17% increase over the same period last year and that an additional 30,000 visitors will bring in a least US$15 million in taxes alone. “So, what I am saying is that apart from gold and rice, tourism brings the highest amount of foreign earnings into Guyana’s economy and this amount is growing every year at a handsome rate,” he said to shouts of “what happen to sugar?” emanating from the opposition benches.

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