Budget Speech Mrs Hughes- 20122120 13 Apr, 2012
April 13, 2012
Mrs. Hughes: Mr. Speaker and Hon. Members of this noble House thank you for your warm welcome that you have extended to myself and the other new Members.
As I stand here today to make my presentation on the 2012 national budget, I reflect on the sitting of this National Assembly just a few weeks ago, when a number of women picketed just across from where we are and I am reminded that whatever we do in this Assembly must reflect the wishes and needs of those women, women in general and the masses of this country.
Our deliberations, therefore, and what we agree to in this Assembly, must not only be what we determine is best for the people of this country, but must consider what the people of this country are calling for.
We will not deny that there have not been some improvements in Guyana today. To do so would make us appear as extreme oppositionists. This is not what I or we in the AFC are about. Rather, we see ourselves as the conscience of this nation and the voice of reason in this Hon. House. Therefore, where there are good ideas and plans in the budget, the AFC will support those, because we do not believe that any one party has the monopoly on good ideas. And, where we feel this budget has failed, we will raise our concerns, expecting that as parties committed to Guyana and doing what is best for all her citizens, we will find the maturity to compromise.
It cannot be disputed that the challenges facing our communities and social services have reached alarming proportions. Domestic violence and child abuse are now daily occurrences and regrettably, many in our population are slowly becoming numb to it.
In the 2012 estimates, in the details of “Subsidies and Contributions to Local Organisations” we see a list of NGO’s set to receive allocations. Several of these organisations provide valued support to public service agencies and their positive contributions go undisputed. Take Help and Shelter, whose name is mentioned in every discussion on support services for victims of domestic violence, but who will receive only$10 million in this year’s budget. But, the Government’s propaganda machinery – the Guyana Information News Agency - receives $111 plus million dollars. The question this forces us to ask is, is the daily churning out of Government propaganda a better use of scarce financial resources than an agency dealing head on, every day, with an unacceptable epidemic that eliminates one of this nation’s most precious resources, our women?
Or for example, the meagre $200,000 also listed in the estimates for the David Rose School for the Handicapped, a school I am personally acquainted with as far back as the early 70’s, when one of my sisters who is deaf, attended that school. Little has improved over the years and originally a school for the deaf, today the David Rose School for the Handicapped it is a melting pot for children with various disabilities fighting for a chance to learn, but in an environment grossly inadequately staffed of resources, which, in fact, guarantees that they really will never receive their true potential. This an unacceptable allocation for one of few educational facilities dedicated to training and educating persons with disabilities within our communities.
In the estimates, we also observe an increase in travel for conferences and official visits, “The globetrotters” from over $263 million in 2010 to $270 million in 2011 and now we are being asked to approve $285 million in 2012. If that is not bad enough, the estimates highlights a category of “Other transport, travel and postage” which moved from $564 million to over $941 million in a twelve month period.
The winds of change blew over this Parliament a few short months ago and they must continue. I say again, this budget must reflect what the people of Guyana want and what they say they need. We represent them and I say $200,000 for the David Rose School for the Handicapped for children with disabilities and $285 million for overseas conferences and trips cannot be considered just. It must change. Behind every child with a disability is a mother fighting hard to understand and cope with the additional challenges. Is this the best we can do; is this the best support Guyana can offer these families?
Guyanese from all walks of life have said they need more financial support to grow their families. They have said in no uncertain terms, that the VAT must be reduced and pensions increased to levels that persons who served this country will have a little more than bread and water to live on. This is not a gift, but a right they have earned. For many of them we have chased their children away as they search for better opportunities and now these pensioners grow old and alone in Guyana. We must do better by them.
Examine this more carefully and we see that most of these NGOs will receive, in 2012, less than what one man will receive in one month of his pension. Where is the level of care in this? Let me give an example, so that there is no doubt as to the AFC’s thinking. Take two-thirds of the total allocations of the former President’s pension and give it to these NGOs, who are taking care of our pensioners, abused women and children. This will not affect macro-economic programmes.
I have heard that some in the Government do not believe that the Government has an obligation to give a pension. Let me make it clear, the AFC sees it not only as an obligation, but as a moral and religious duty to take care of our elderly, our widows, our orphans and all those less fortunate in our society.
As I said before, it is not for us to determine what is best for the people, but we must also listen to and fulfil the wishes of the people. We are in fact servants of the people.
Article 146 (1) of the Constitution of the Cooperative Republic of Guyana states:
“Except with his own consent, no person shall be hindered in the enjoyment of his freedom of expression, that is to say, freedom to hold opinions without interference, freedom to receive ideas and information without interference, freedom to communicate ideas and information without interference and freedom from interference with his correspondence”.
With this firmly in our minds, I want to examine the role of Public Service Broadcasting. Please note that as a recipient of state funds and funding from the national treasury, the National Communications Network (NCN) must be examined within the context of a Public Service Broadcaster. Given these considerations that I have very carefully outlined, it is clear that the National Communications Networks does not fulfil the mandate of a Public Service or National Broadcaster and therefore, should not be receiving, together with GINA, a total of more than $241 million as outlined in the estimates.
I mentioned before that the propaganda machinery, GINA, received $111,496 million last year and has been allocated an increase to $130,398 million in this year’s estimates. Surely this expensive propaganda cannot be considered as critical to the development of a better Guyana. In addition to GINA, NCN, in the estimates, who received $70 million last year, has now been allocated $81 million this year. This is a waste on partisan propaganda.
It is a well known fact that NCN has deliberately refused access to this nationally owned station to several large sections of the population in direct contravention to the provisions clearly outlined in our Constitution. Political parties such as the AFC, the PNC and most recently APNU, have been consistently excluded, not even allowed a right to reply, a foundation of any fledgling democracy.
The AFC is not prepared to go to another election where the NCN dictates that the opposition will only get five minutes of air time, but gives the PPP blanket coverage with equipment that is paid for by all Guyanese, including the taxes from the majority of Guyanese who voted for the political opposition in this House.
The monopoly that NCN exerts in Linden, across the television and radio airwaves, continues unabated and is a breach of the decision of Guyana’s courts, which instructed that the situation in Linden was a breach of the Constitutional rights of Lindeners. The failure to issue licenses in a fair and objective manner, the refusal to allow existing TV stations to expand their signal, the recent subjective allocation of a few radio licenses to members of the PPP’s family and friends’ network, is nothing short of a dictatorship, which the PPP is so prone to crying down. NCN fails to remember that the spectrum belongs to no one and as occurs in the smallest Caribbean island and the largest developed country, but not in Guyana. This spectrum must be managed in a non-partisan manner, educating, informing and entertaining and providing ideas and exchanges from all walks of life, in the public’s interest.
I am happy to share with this Hon. House that I have in my possession and I have it right here for any that may want to see it, a letter to the AFC dated March 19, 2012, in which NCN states that it is a registered, company incorporated under the Companies Act No.29 of 1991 and receives over 90% of its income from advertising. This is a wonderful feat for NCN and given this information, it is absolutely clear that NCN and the Guyana Information News Agency does not need over $240 million from the limited national coffers. It is after all clearly a very successful company that can compete effectively with the private sector, although this is not allowed in several countries. Surely this Hon. House cannot authorise the use of hard earned taxpayers’ money in such a manner. The fact that NCN has made no attempt to change its modus operandi over the years and the fact that the best of international election and media monitoring experts have noted this unacceptable situation, election after election and yet unfortunately nothing has change. It is clear that only this House can and must make that change. Let the agencies that NCN and GINA serve fund their activities, if they refuse to serve the interest of all in this nation.
The people are tired of the NCN diet and, more so my friends and the people of Linden. Now to add insult to injury, this Government is saying that it cannot subsidise electricity costs for Linden. I am suggesting that we take the $81 million dollars budgeted for NCN propaganda and put it towards subsidising electricity for Linden. I am showing the Government how taxpayers’ money can be better utilised in the interest of the people of Guyana. If the people cannot afford to pay for electricity they cannot watch NCN anyway. Again, we are not proposing any new funds, just better use of existing funds. Or use the money set aside for NCN and GINA to open a meat processing plant at Linden where young people can get jobs and farmers at Kwakwani can be encouraged to get back into cattle farming, knowing that there is a viable market available.
As an impatient and somewhat frustrated new comer to this noble House, I have grown up hearing about my dear country’s great potential and hope that it will be realised in my lifetime. But, what I find most offensive is the constant looking backwards to a time long gone, which has plagued much of the presentations on the opposite side of the House. No young Guyanese and I say that there are many of them here, wants to drown in stories of the past, they want to see a vision of the future, one that will serve them, excite them and provide them with an opportunity to prosper right here at home.
Every wasted moment looking back keeps us from moving forward. So with this in mind I would like to address a few inaccuracies from the Hon. Minister, Irfaan Ali, who fails to acknowledge that Stabroek News was born under the Hoyte’s administration and not under the PPP. And, that it was under the same Hoyte’s administration that the Mirror Newspaper and the Catholic Standard got approval to start importing newsprint to carry on their trade, much of which was to criticise the Government of the day, which was and is their democratic right. Interestingly, it was under the same Government that our most recent former President got a job at the State Planning Secretariat. Do you think anyone from the AFC or the APNU could get such a job today?
Unfortunately despite all the promises the most Hon. Former President, Dr. Jagan, made to his people in 1992, to end squander-mania, to bring back lean and clean Government and to end wastage and financial abuse in Government, this has not stopped.
In the 2008, 2009 and 2010 Budgets included $200 million in total in those three years to purchase and install a new transmitter and to purchase production equipment for various locations for NCN. Most importantly, a large percentage of those funds were used to move the NCN transmitters from Sparendaam to West Demerara to make way for “Pradoville 2” and this nation continues to tell its people that there is no money to pay the pensioners more and to ensure that they live, at least, above the poverty level.
The AFC promises to continue to work to make the Freedom of Information and Broadcast Legislation more effective, so that the people in Region 10 could have alternatives to NCN on their television spectrum. Existing television stations will be allowed to expand their reach and to ensure that Guyana will no longer be the only Caribbean country in which there is only one government-owned radio station, whereas in 2012, the average in other small islands is as much as 30. The AFC will continue to work during the life of this 10th Parliament to ensure that the Guyanese people have a wider choice; not next year, but now.
We agree with the Hon. Minister that tourism must become a significant contributor to national output and to the process of creating new jobs, new income and wealth for our people. As an investor in this sector, I believe in the potential tourism offers to turn our economy around and I take this opportunity to applaud all those who have invested everything of theirs and work hard to build a fine product with limited gains and slow financial returns. What is in the 2012 Budget for the tourism industry – a Marriott Hotel? In 2007, when Guyana played the proud host to a series of World Cup Cricket Matches, we added 22 small hotels to our inventory with an additional inventory of 771 rooms. It was a necessary investment and we have no regrets. What we find unacceptable is that it appears that the only way tourism can move forward is for the national taxpayer dollars to fund a foreign operated hotel.
Guyana, like Barbados, has built a tourism industry in which the smaller hotels are the backbone of the industry. Local entrepreneurs committed to keeping the money at home, work hard to expand and not companies that would pack up and go just to follow the almighty dollar, as several multinational corporations do. These locals are here for the long haul because this is home, yet the system denies hotels with less than 15 rooms the opportunity to qualify for several duty free concessions offered to larger establishments. How do we grow and expand? Several of these properties face low occupancy rates, averaging 30%, and a few have been closed and others sold. Private sector occupancy rates for hotels with more than 100 rooms show slightly higher levels of 74% occupancy in 2009 and reductions to 49% occupancy in 2010 and in 2011 there was an increase to 68%, but those were only for the few large hotels.
This budget must include allocations that will build the industry and that means international destination marketing that will bring more visitors to Guyana and improve occupancy levels. We do not need another hotel. If Marriott want to come to build a hotel here in Guyana we welcome them. Let them come and build it. We do not have a problem with that but let them use their own money. Marriott and Sandals have both, in the past, as have other large hotel chains which have done feasibility studies on Guyana, have said that the current level of tourists visiting Guyana does not make it financially feasible to fill all of these hotel rooms. Right now hotels are struggling to break even and, believe me, this is not about political posturing.
Taxpayers’ monies should not be used to build hotels. Let us use the money they want to put into the Marriott to improve our standards and to pay for an effective international marketing campaign, so when the world switches onto CNN they can glimpse the beauty of a paradise they have never heard of before, Guyana.
Let us build a juice or canning factory in New Amsterdam or somewhere in Canje, Berbice, which is something that would ensure that the farmers in Canje and on the Corentyne can have a market for their produce and Guyana can earn foreign currency by exporting the produce. This is not rocket science; it is just a genuine desire to improve the standard of living of all Guyanese and not seek to line personal pockets.
The acting Minister of Tourism mentioned, in his presentation, hosting another Visit Guyana Year. What he does not realise is that in 1996 Visit Guyana Year arrivals, as released by the Guyana Tourism Authority, stated that 91,972 visitors arrived and despite all of the talk and promotion it was one of the lowest rates over the last 12 years as arrivals declined the year after until there was a moderate increase in 2000, which was followed by another decline until 2004.
In reality visitor arrivals – the foundation of any strong tourism industry – must improve to create a viable industry. The AFC would like to propose the following policy measures in this budget to accelerate the process of making tourism into a significant contributor:
A programme to empower, build capacity and train the staff of the Guyana Tourism Authority and the requisite funds to fulfill its mandate
An international marketing plan and supporting budget to market Guyana internationally as a superior eco-tourism destination
A programme to develop further niche markets such as birding, yachting and adventure travel, which have all been fairly successful to date
A public relations programme to address the negative publicity, poor image and negative perceptions many persons hold of Guyana
There are just a few of the things which are very necessary.
This year should not close without an updated national tourism strategy, focused on creating jobs. We must market ourselves more and make it easier for more attractive overseas tourists to want to visit Guyana.
Before I go I would like to mention the all important electricity sector and I would like to raise my concerns that this Hon. House being asked to write a cheque to GPL for $6 billion although the company has failed to reduce line losses over the last 10 years, which currently stands at 33%. When I hear this I cannot help but think of the hard working citizens at No. 30 Village who, in 2012, still have never had electricity supplied to their homes and who are being asked to come up with $2 million to get electricity to their village.
This Government must be judged not only by the roads and fancy buildings they elect but by the way we look after the most vulnerable in our society, how many street children we take off the roads, the number of homeless we can put into more appropriate accommodations other than the cold pavement of La Penitence and the ever growing number of old men and women shriveled with age at a time gone by and they are now trying hard to catch a hand or are forced to beg.
I indicated before that we in the AFC did not come to this House to oppose the PPP Government for the sake of opposing. We all have better things to do. We want to accelerate growth and new wealth for more of our people. We are prepared to work with anyone if they are serious about an agenda to create a just and secure Guyana but that process must engage more people and the dividends of success must be shared by all, especially the women and youth of Guyana.
Right now, although I complement the Minister for the Budget, I do feel that there are several areas that we can improved on that I have mentioned and I do not think that the budget, in totality offers prosperity to the majority. I hope that the valid suggestions from this House that we have heard over the last three to four days will be considered with maturity and a spirit of compromise they all deserve. It is not too late.
I thank you. [Applause]
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