The debate that follows the presentation of the annual Appropriation Bill and the reading of the Budget Speech by the Minister of Finance on behalf of the Government of Guyana is intended to explain the policies of the Government and the rationale behind the main financial and sectoral policies for the year. There is always scope in those debates for the Government to showcase its successes, for the Opposition to outline its criticisms of Government policies and for both sides to say what has not been done on this occasion and will or should be done in future.
This year’s debate closed on a controversial note surrounding the arrangements for the consideration of the Estimates of Revenue and Expenditure. Those were eventually resolved by the restoration of the Opposition Majority when APNU eventually swore in a new Member of Parliament. That episode served to show just how much of a challenge a single seat majority poses for the Opposition and the management of its business. The end of the debate was also marked by some rather sharp exchanges involving the Minister of Finance and the Leaders of the Opposition Parties.
It needs to be said that the overall tone of the debates in the recent past has been set by the strong personal attacks by Government Spokesmen on the main Opposition Spokesman, Mr. Carl B. Greenidge, MP, and the tenure of the PNC up to 1992. The PPP did not disappoint on this occasion and Ministers Manzoor Nadir and Irfaan Ali along with Ms. Vidya Persaud were the most extreme on this occasion. The exchanges with the Opposition leaders mark an escalation of this feature. It reflects Government frustration with the fact that the attacks on Mr. Greenidge have not had any effect on his willingness to carry out his work.
As a rule, the Budgets of the PPP never offer any analysis or their own serious assessment of what has gone wrong with policies or with implementation of the previous Budget over the last year. Perhaps, because they have used the comments in historical PNC Budgets to attack previous PNC performance; perhaps, in order to mask their failures since they came to power in 1992.
It does, however, leave observers with the impression that everything under the PPP is perfect. Maybe the PPP Ministers believe this because when Opposition spokespersons highlight gaps or failures in the policies, as was done so extensively by Ms. Jennifer Wade and Mr. Sidney Allicock, on behalf of Regions 5 and 9, respectively. The PPP spokesmen seemed likely to get heart failure.
The problems faced by pensioners and with public infrastructure elicited similar reactions when mentioned.
Government spokesmen attacked the Opposition bitterly. The Minister of Health seemed concerned to show just how every single health facility was working perfectly, just how many indigenous people had been trained in medicine and how unreasonable it was to criticise weaknesses he could not acknowledge. In the process, it seemed that we were being subjected to a listing of monies spent by the Government. Of course, spending money is not the same as delivering quality service. Quality service and benefits to improve the quality of life is what most members of the public are most concerned with.
In what is emerging as an ominous trend, Ministers, even including the Minister of Sport and Culture, Dr. Frank Anthony, accused the Opposition of being unpatriotic and anti-nationalist! This reaction usually heralds the start of very draconian, if not fascist, policies. Elsewhere it has been said that patriotism is the refuge of scoundrels.
All the Government spokesmen found themselves claiming that this Budget was the greatest ever and that it marked the longest period of unbroken growth in our history. Dr. Singh, therefore, had to be thanked for this blessing since all of this began in 2006. It was a surreal experience listening to this eulogizing of a current Minister.
As regards substance, the debate had many themes. First, the APNU argued that the Budget was not being presented in accordance with the requirements of the constitution. In addition, Government had failed to deal, in a meaningful way, with the question of poverty and the other burning issues of the day such as unemployment among Guyana’s youths and widespread and unfurnished corruption. Such apparent concern as the Government expressed with poverty ended in 2006 as was required by the donors under HIPC. These have since been abandoned in favour of other policies which give the Government scope to use taxpayers’ money to reward their cronies and friends.
The measures claimed to be addressing the needs of the poor were, for the most part, window dressing and, those announced for the pensioners, for example, would not be available to most pensioners. Problems of the cost of living and rising prices for food and medicine were highlighted. Similarly, those benefits announced for wage earners will be eaten up by increased NIS contributions.
The arbitrary selection of projects, on the basis of criteria other than economic and national considerations, and the special privileges granted to special groups, especially non-Guyanese, was lamented. In an interesting attempt to rebut these criticisms Prime Minister, Mr. Samuel Hinds, in closing the debate, said that he agreed with the statement of the Chinese contractor, awarded the contract to build the Marriot Hotel, namely, that Guyanese did not have the necessary skills to be employed on this project. The very PM, before he ended his statement, spoke proudly of his days at Guymine when they were able to achieve tasks and a quality of work many thought to be impossible for locals to achieve. The irony of this contradiction seems to have been lost on the PM.
Other Opposition concerns were that the measures in the Budget left the country with a demoralized Public Service; dissatisfied sugar workers; and politicized and inefficient public sector managers; and inefficient and unsatisfactory performance.
The private sector, which it had been claimed, was investing in such unprecedented volumes in Guyana, was dominated by drug money and money laundering operations and the matter of diversification of the economy was still to be realized.
The debate has set the scene for a lively and difficult session, in the Committee of Supply which will begin to work on Monday 15th April 2013, and will look critically at the expenditures which the Government is requesting the National Assembly to fund. The pending constitutional issues, including the preliminary decision of the Chief Justice, regarding the powers of the National Assembly to amend the National Budget, are sure to add new heat to what is already a difficult background for the work of the Committee of Supply.