Opposition issues veiled threat to axe National Budget

Prime Minister Samuel Hinds and Clerk of the National Assembly, Sherlock Isaacs, in a brief exchange prior to yesterday’s start of the 2014 Budget Debates

–for third consecutive year
DAY One of the Budget debates kicked off yesterday in the National Assembly, and already there are hints at cuts to the 2014 Budget.

Mr Ronald Bulkan
Mr Ronald Bulkan

Shadow Finance Minister Carl Greenidge, the first speaker in the 2014 debates, noted that consultative process leading up to the presentation of the 2014 Estimates last Monday was lacking and the resulting consequences will be cuts, as seen in the last two years.

Greenidge stressed that the Opposition has the “right” to modify the 2014 Estimates.

Greenidge noted that the Government is in receipt of proposals that would ensure a budget that is favourable across the aisle; but the contention of the Government is contrary.
Finance Minister Dr. Ashni Singh, as recent as last Tuesday, said: “It is a matter of public record (that) we invited the opposition parties on several occasions, and they failed to turn up. So if there is a lack of consultation, it’s because they refused to make themselves available.

“There were repeated invitations made, and they refused to avail themselves.”

Shortly after presenting the Budget to the National Assembly, Minister Singh pointed out that it contains a number of policies, programmes, initiatives and interventions, all of which are in the interest of Guyana and its people. “That must be the ultimate consideration,” he said.

Quote: ‘That will be cut! Don’t worry with him (Minister Irfaan Ali)’
–AFC Leader Khemraj Ramjattan

The minister explained that his e-mail dated January 13, 2014 indicated Government’s invitation to meet on Budget 2014, and requested APNU Member Carl Greenidge to suggest a date. The e-mail was also copied to Granger, Lance Carberry, Khemraj Ramjattan, Dr. Roger Luncheon, and Gail Teixeira. The e-mail also contained copies of documents to be discussed.
The invitation was met with stony silence by Granger and Greenidge.
Further, in February 2014, there was still no response from the Parliamentary Opposition parties to Government’s invitation to participate in pre-budget consultations.

Reverend Kwame Gilbert
Reverend Kwame Gilbert

However, Greenidge yesterday maintained that the Opposition’s concerns have not been addressed.
He said, “We are aware that we had taken certain routes in the past and the efforts to avoid cul-de-sac (dead end) position…we have to establish modalities that (would) deal with the difficulties identified by the majority in the House….

“We are still of the view that the format of the estimates presented were not consistent with constitutional principles. The Government has (an) obligation to honour the constitution, and we have the obligation that they will be bound to these rules.”

“The 2014 Budget will not fly…the Minister will have to go and come again’–APNU MP, Ronald Bulkan

Greenidge levelled another major charge against the 2014 Estimates: that they have been “doctored” to facilitate balance. He based his
reasoning on his “analysis” of the revenue and expenditure numbers to extend his comment that the 2014 Budget was not indeed the largest budget ever, considering the share of income. The Shadow Finance Minister’s reasoning was widely heckled by Government MPs, who noted that his analysis was flawed.

Despite Greenidge’s acknowledging that the broad goals, as stated by Minister Singh at the beginning of his budget speech, are laudable ones that play up optimism of the future, he argued that the fact is that Guyanese youth want to leave, which is why constructive common ground on the way forward must be found.

Mr Carl Greenidge
Mr Carl Greenidge

The Shadow Finance Minister said, “The goals are desirable, but it worries me that we are unable to provide a background to say where we are on areas such as employment…it appears, though, that the priorities that should inform budget preparations are not shared.”

Greenidge argued that if Government programmes are to be implemented, consensus must be reached. He warned again that this ought to be considered when “modifications” to the 2014 Estimates are made.

A Partnership for National Unity (APNU) MP Ronald Bulkan echoed similar sentiments, and noted that the 2014 Budget “will not fly” in the National Assembly.

“The Minister will have to go and come again,” he said as he noted that Budget 2014 does not put forward a vision to correct the “structural imbalance” in the economy to ensure a good life for the people.

The MP said the budget is an Executive function, not a bookkeeping exercise – a point of which much of the ensuing heckling was supportive. “The Budget is about money,” Bulkan said, taking flack for the point from Government MPs who made it clear that the Budget is about the Guyanese people.

Minister of Housing and Water, the Acting Tourism Minister Mr Irfaan Ali, stood on this point to stress that the Budget is based on a number of national policies and countrywide consultations with stakeholders. He said, “This is a people-focused budget, and it caters for Guyanese from every strata of society, especially vulnerable groups… All of us have a responsibility in this House….

“Today he (Carl Greenidge) made broad statements but did not point to a single measure, policy, input that the APNU would like to see in the 2014 budget… When you are a lead speaker, you have the responsibility to present the alternative you wish to see’ -Housing and Water Minister, Irfaan Ali.

“We have to act responsibly in the interest of the people. Who wants to create a better Guyana? The PPP! Who wants to destroy that? The combined opposition!!”

Minister Irfaan Ali in full flow
Minister Irfaan Ali in full flow

Ali stressed that budget cuts deny the Guyanese people the development they can benefit from significantly. “Why are the opposition denying the people of Guyana?” the minister questioned, as he pointed to projects like the Amaila Falls Hydropower project and the Cheddi Jagan International Airport Expansion, as well as deterring investors, among incidents.

“The opposition has no moral authority… Fundamental investments are being made by this Government, and are being denied because of the power of one,” he said.

Leader of the Alliance For Change (AFC), Mr Khemraj Ramjattan, followed Ali’s comment with a heckle that attracted much attention. He said, “That will be cut, don’t worry with him.”

Minister Ali returned that the disposition of the combined Opposition is clear: the debates and the facts presented do not matter.

Ali, however, pressed on with his presentation, stressing that the transformational impacts of the many Government projects are clear, and are seen in the country’s development, economic expansion, and improved quality of life for the Guyanese people.

He pointed to Guyana’s success with the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs). “These are the impacts,” the minister said. He pointed also to the kudos from different international agencies regarding Guyana’s eight consecutive years of economic growth at a time when other countries in the Caribbean region have performed poorly.

“In 1989, we couldn’t even find the statistics,” Ali said, referring to the stewardship of the economy under former Finance Minister Carl Greenidge.

He added that the Opposition’s contentions are unsubstantiated statements riddled by inaccuracies. On that note, the minister decried the Shadow Finance Minister’s controversial comments that the 2014 debates will be “bloody war” in the House.

He said, “Today he made broad statement, but did not point to a single measure, policy, input that the APNU would like to see in the 2014 budget… When you are a lead speaker, you have the responsibility to present the alternative you wish to see!”

Government MP, Reverend Kwame Gilbert, in his contribution to the debates, hailed the 2014 Estimates as visionary. He said the Estimates recognise the inadequacies of the present, and present a bold and ambitious roadmap to where Guyana should be, and as such, is continuing the efforts to move the country forward economically, socially and otherwise.

He said, “Anyone who dares to diminish or cut the budget is saying to the Guyanese people that you do not deserve more, you deserve less… The question then is ‘are these measures to make the lives of the people worse or better?’

“…there has not been one single area of reduction…in every sector we have seen incremental increase, consistent with previous budgets, to address immediate and future need. Why? Because our people deserve more…. The investments in people are the most prudent investments we can make.”

Gilbert pointed out that, pre-1992, Greenidge, as minister of finance, allocated the Ministry of Foreign Affairs sums that were greater than the combined allocation to the social sectors and the agriculture sector. He stated that, currently, the current allocations are pregnant with boundless opportunities and potential for the future.

The record-breaking 2014 Budget of $220B was presented to the National Assembly last Monday under the theme ‘A better Guyana for all Guyanese’. It includes a menu of measures to benefit the average Guyanese man and woman.

The Budget debates continue today.
By Vanessa Narine