Dr. Singh (replying): Mr. Speaker, permit me first of all to thank my colleagues on both sides of the House who over the course of the past six days or so have devoted their every energy and almost their every hour to the task of debating Budget 2012. My colleagues in the House would recall of course that I had the privilege of presenting, on the 30th March 2012, the National Budget for this year under the theme, “Remaining on Course, United in Purpose, Prosperity for All”.
That theme was not chosen or formulated casually but instead, was the result of considerable reflection on the part of Government, and represented the outcome of an effort that was intended to capture the essence of where we are and what we needed to do to take us to the destination to which we all aspire. That aspiration, I would like to believe, we all share and embrace. The theme was built on a premise that our country has been proceeding and advancing along a path of progress - to this matter I will return shortly – a path towards a modern and prosperous Guyana. Most elements of the Budget, I daresay, few would disagree with. And, indeed, I was happy to hear in the presentation made by the speaker who immediately preceded me, the distinguished Leader of the Opposition, a number of pillars or principles which are reflected in the Budget and very consistent with those adumbrated in the budget as was presented. One could scarcely argue with these objectives that were captured. Equally, I would have thought that one could scarcely argue with the admonition that we remain on course, on this path; that we work more closely together; that we redouble our resolve to work more closely together as we pursue the objective of generating prosperity for our country, and the distribution of that prosperity which will see each and every Guyanese man, woman, and child benefitting from it.
Only in the Budget speech did I make the observation that the uniqueness relative to our own domestic history, the uniqueness of our current parliamentary configuration, brought with it both opportunities and challenges. I reaffirmed and emphasised that Budget 2012 presented us with an important opportunity to demonstrate this configuration at work, and at its potential best. Over the past six days an extended opportunity was allowed/provided, to Members of this Hon. House to demonstrate their willingness individually, and our collective willingness, to rise to the occasion. We must not be shy of embracing objectives when we agree with them. We must not believe that we must oppose simply for the cause or purpose of opposing because we are in the opposition, or we sit on opposite sides. In fact, I believe, one of our newest Member of Parliament captured it best, I refer to the Hon. Member Cornel Damon; and perhaps it is significant that one of our newest Members of Parliament could capture it so appropriately when he said in his maiden address to this National Assembly that perhaps the time has come for us to stop speaking about sitting on opposite sides, speaking of the opposition, a word derived from the entomological root to oppose. I congratulate the Hon. Member Cornel Damon for that observation.
The Budget debate was never intended to be an exercise in intellectual exhibitionism; it was never intended to be a contest of linguistic or poetic ability; it was never intended to be an exhibition of oratorical versatility. Indeed, there are some who would argue that while those things – intellectual exhibitionism, linguistic ability, oratorical versatility or whatever you want to call it – might be helpful in persuading others, they need not necessarily be the best ideas available. Some might argue that the simplest ideas, which require the least sophistication in articulating them, are perhaps the best and most compelling. The Budget debate was equally not an occasion, if I might be permitted to venture somewhat close to the boundaries of parliamentary convention, intended to be a contest in hooliganism – who could shout most loudly, or who could argue most vociferously, or who could thump most enthusiastically. Even if those elements and aspects are much a part of our parliamentary tradition, Budget 2012, particularly and especially given this much vaunted parliamentary configuration, presented and opportunity for a competition of ideas, at the very least for an articulation of ideas, whether they be alternative policies, whether they be an identification of what we agreed with or disagreed with in a particular policy, whether they be the proffering of a suggestion with respect to another programme or project, or the embracing of a project or programme identified in the Budget. Tragically, with one or two notable exceptions, in my own estimation, my colleagues on that side of the House missed this opportunity completely. As I listened to the contributions made, speaker after speaker, instead of hearing a dispassionate examination of the policies adumbrated in the Government’s 2012 Budget, instead of hearing an identification of what was agreed with or what was felt could be done differently, instead of hearing concrete and specific suggestions, of what could be done additionally - and I hasten to emphasise with a few isolated exceptions; I will say those exceptions included refreshingly the Leader of the Opposition’s contribution today – we were treated instead to a rehash of overworked rhetorical arguments, innuendos we have heard before, designed solely for the purposes of scoring political mileage, crafted clearly on the basis of wanting to offer sound bites for newspaper headlines, and built largely on misrepresentation and in some cases blatant misrepresentation of the facts, the circumstances and the particular issue at hand. Nowhere was this better illustrated than in the presentation by the Hon. Member Mr. Khemraj Ramjattan this afternoon when we were treated , in the words of the Leader of the Opposition - if I were to borrow those words even if in a different context - to ‘continuity at its worst’; a repetition of the same arguments. He did not use the phrase “control freakism”, unless I missed it. That must have been the only element that was not replayed from years before. We were treated to a repetition of the same menu of arguments that we have heard over and over again. These were not grounded in any fact but designed solely for the purpose of political titillation. I made note of several of them and I must respond to some of the observations I made.
First of all aspersions were cast on the economic statistics produced by hard working professionals in this country. I heard Mr. Ramjattan speak of the rebased economy, resulting in him having what he describes as a qualified opinion. I do not know where he may have picked up that terminology, and thought them fashionable and nice to repeat, but the need to rebase Guyana’s gross domestic product is one that has been long recognised. The fact that our Gross Domestic Product (GDP) was last rebased in 1988, when the economy had such a fundamentally different structure from the structure it has today, is not a matter of dispute. So this rebasing was not an exercise concocted by the Government whimsically or fancifully. Countries all over the world rebase, periodically. We recognised the need to rebase our GDP and we did so with the benefit of extensive assistance from reputable international organisations which scrutinized our economic statistics. In fact, we received technical assistance from the International Monetary Fund’s (IMF’s) technical assistance centre in the Caribbean, the Caribbean Regional Technical Assistance Centre (CARTCA) which provided resident experts. We also received assistance in the process of rebasing our GDP and our Consumer Price Index (CPI) Basket, not only from the IMF’s regional technical centre in the Caribbean but also from the US Census Bureau. These are credible international agencies that worked in collaboration with the very hardworking professional staff. I must associate myself with Minister Manickchand’s comments yesterday in expressing her objection at the besmirching of the professionalism of the hardworking people in the agencies of the Government of Guyana. These people are not politicians. And notwithstanding your very kind consideration of the option of a right to respond by members of the public, professional civil servants are not people who like to enter the political fray. I hear my colleague say they cannot. I do not blame them at all. It is downright irresponsible for Members of this Hon. House to stand up and besmirch their professionalism.
The Statistics Bureau is headed by a very capable, longstanding, professional of nearly 40 years of experience in official statistics, who started his career when Mr. frank Hope, one of my distinguished predecessors, was himself the Head of the Statistics Bureau. I think it is an affront to the hardworking people of the Statistics Bureau. I do not single out the Statistics Bureau for any particular reason except that their work was highlighted by Mr. Ramjattan’s attempt to cast aspersions on our GDP numbers. We moved from the skepticism expressed about the GDP numbers to, perhaps one of the overworked references in Guyana, reference to a ‘donkey cart’ economy. We might not be where we would like to be but, in fact, I doubt that we will ever be where we would like to be. I do not believe if you ask policy makers in the United States of America or the wealthy countries of Scandinavia whether they are where they would like to be, they would say, “Yes”. The task of national uplifting, just like the task of personal betterment, is never complete; that journey is never complete. When a person acquires a home he does not stop and say he has arrived, he wants nothing else and stops working. He starts to furnish that home, and when the home is furnished he does not say he has everything he wants and stops working; he says he wants a motor vehicle to have his own independent transportation; and he does not stop there, he wants his own children to have their transportation; he wants his children to complete university education.
The reference to “donkey cart economy”, a phrase that is well known to be associated with the dismal state in which our country found itself towards the end of the 1980s, is not only a passing reference. I will tell you why I highlight it. I highlight this reference by Hon. Member Mr. Ramjattan because if we wish to have a sincere and frank discussion about where we are and where we need to go we must at first, at the very least, be willing to be honest and frank about the journey we have taken on. So to pretend that nothing is happening in Guyana, to pretend we are not moving in the right direction, that there have been no obvious improvements, is an exercise in dishonesty; it is an exercise in self delusion; it is an exercise in misleading the people of Guyana. I do not believe that there is any citizen in Guyana who would objectively say we do not believe that good things are happening in Guyana. They may say they want more to happen, or they want some things to happen better, or they want some things to happen more quickly. Frankly speaking, I suspect that most of us on Government benches would agree with them. Frankly speaking, I feel that way myself. There are things that I would like to happen more quickly. There are things that sometimes do not work as well as I would like them to work. There are times when I feel that more needs to be done in a particular area, and if we had more resources we would happily plow those resources into those areas. But I do not believe there is a single citizen in Guyana who would honestly and frankly say that nothing has happened positively in Guyana over the last 20 years. [Interruption] Well I said honestly and frankly. I doubt that Mr. Ramjattan himself even believes it.
So I make the point not only to draw reference to a phrase that Mr. Ramjattan used – his reference to “donkey cart” economy – but to make the point that a frank, open and honest discussion is not and will not be possible if there continues to be a stubborn refusal on the part of some of the Members on the other side, to recognise the reality of where our country came from and where we are today. As long as Members on that side wish to live in denial about the fact there has been progress under successive People’s Progressive Party/Civic Governments since 1992, they are impeding frank and open and honest discussion.
Mr. Speaker, like I said we were treated to several overworked innuendos, and it is said sometimes if a particular thing is repeated often enough there are some who might believe it to be true. Some who work in propaganda I suspect would believe this. And, of course, Mr. Nagamootoo is himself a… [Government Member: A propagandist] …I would not necessarily have used that word. I believe he has described himself in the past as a journalist. When I listened to Mr. Ramjattan’s presentation I heard reference to Budget 2012, and I heard Mr. Ramjattan say we are not getting the complete picture. Budget 2012, like all national budgets which come before this National Assembly, is the budget of the Central Government. The Central Government is defined and understood in statute to have boundaries - Central Government, ministries, departments, and the regional administrations comprising ten Regional Democratic Councils (RDCs). This is not an innovation. This is, first of all, a statutorily defined entity whose boundaries comprise what are called budget agencies, are defined in law and indeed embraced by convention, custom and practice. The Central Government’s budget is not a budget which includes entities set up by separate statutory instruments, enacted by this Parliament, or entities established under a statute enacted by this Parliament. For example, there was reference to the Guyana Geologies and Mines Commission (GGMC) and the Guyana Forestry Commission. These entities were established by laws enacted in this very House, perhaps not in the Ninth Parliament, and not in the tenth parliament. Indeed these are laws that predate the ascension to office by the People’s Progressive Party/Civic in 1992 - all of those laws. And those laws include statutory provisions that define the basis on which these entities may raise revenue, the basis on which they may incur expenditure, the governance arrangement which applies to their operations, the circumstances under which they may retain their revenue and utilise their revenue to fund their own operations, and their reporting and accountability obligations, which incidentally includes the preparation of an annual report that comes to this National Assembly; and which incidentally includes the tabling in this National Assembly of an annual report. So the reference to the GGMC is but another example of an effort at political titillation, grandstanding; plucking these things out of thin air for the sole purpose of creating excitement but not grounded in any basis whatsoever.
The reference to National Industrial and Commercial Investments Incorporated (NICIL) is identical because NICIL is a company registered under the Company’s Act. It operates within the framework of the Company’s Act, it generates its revenue; it meets expenditure; it has subsidiaries; it prepares consolidated accounts, and those accounts are audited; it is a company operating within the framework of the Company’s Act. So to argue that you do not see NICIL’s operation is akin to saying you do not see the operations of any other company in the national estimates. GuySuCo is going to spend $3 billion dollars of its own resources buying equipment, but those resources are coming from GuySuCo’s revenue funded by GuySuCo operations. GuySuCo is a company so those resources are not included in the national budget because the company is not funded by the national budget; it is not being appropriated under the national budget. The Guyana National Shipping Corporation Inc., Guyana Power and Light (GPL), and GuySuCo are all companies incorporated under the Company’s Act. To say one cannot find NICIL’s operations in the Budget is akin to saying one cannot see GuySuCo’s sugar sales brought into the national budget, or one cannot see GuySuCo’s equipment being brought into the national budget. It is misleading for Mr. Ramjattan to pick up this matter knowing fully, as he must, that these entities have their own laws applying to them; that these entities are governed by their applicable statute; and that the national budget is the budget of the Central Government. Mr. Ramjattan must be aware of this. There is a distinction between public money in the sense of moneys managed within the framework of the national budget and moneys managed by a company that is a public sector company. There are many other examples; GuySuCo is a perfect case in point; GPL is a perfect case in point. It is convenient for Mr. Ramjattan to be politically opportunistic and bandy this information around as if something is amiss. NICIL, like GGMC and the Guyana Forestry Commission, are all audited. Those audits are up to date or are being brought up to date; those annual reports are coming to this National Assembly. In fact, vast volumes of information have been tabled in this National Assembly by many of these entities – I am going to come back to that matter. Throughout the course of this debate I did not hear any reference to those documents. I heard instead a glib reference to a project, a passing reference to a project, then a political sound bite, and then the debate move on.
Let us take the Marriot project. We were asked certain questions about the Marriot; we tabled vast volumes of documentation in this National Assembly in response to a question posed by Mr. Ramjattan. Instead of reflecting on those documents, making a substantial point or comment, expressing concern of any consequence or of any material in it all we were treated to is, “We do not need another Marriot Hotel”. That is all we were treated to. There was no reference to the vast reams of paper that were shared. In fact, the reference is always, “it is the other document you did not give me I am really concerned about”, and not the hundreds of documents that we did give you which you never read and have not a single comment on. This is not unique to the Marriott project.
We tabled mountains of documentation on the Amaila Falls Project. All we heard about the Amaila Falls Project was some little sound bytes. No reference to the vast volumes of documents that was sought and tabled more than a month ago. [Mr. Ramjattan: So you want us to praise it all the time.] But Mr. Ramjattan, what is wrong about praising what is good? If you are interested in a sincere engagement you must be prepared to say, I agree with that project.
In fact, His Excellency the President, within the framework of the Inter-Parliamentary Party Dialogue Forum, convened a special engagement on the Amaila Falls Project. We were treated, the Government, APNU and AFC representatives, to an excellent presentation by the Executive Director of NICIL (National Industrial and Commercial Investments Inc.) on the Amaila Falls Project. A presentation, in fact, which was complimented and led to the project being complimented in the media by non-Governmental attendees at that meeting, yet, no where throughout the course of this debate... I have listened to hear whether my friends from the APNU or the AFC, would in fact demonstrate that they are sincere about an honest engagement with us and stood up and acknowledge that the Inter-Parliamentary Party Dialogue Forum had yielded an excellent opportunity to interrogate the Amaila Falls Project, that they avail themselves of that opportunity and having availed themselves of that opportunity, they think the project is a good thing or indeed they thought the project was a good thing except for the following specific observations. We did not hear any of that instead we heard glib references to the Amaila Falls Project and the Marriot Hotel Project as thought these are things to be dismissed.
It is alarming that people who would be willing to say in private, I believe that is a good thing, who within the confines of the room where the presentation was taking place, would say, I think this project is a fantastic project and I have the following comments. It is a tragedy for this country that when they come to the theatre of the National Assembly, they are not prepared to come out and say that. It is a tragedy and it calls into question the sincerity of my friends on that side of the House about having a meaningful engagement on development of this country.
It causes me to wonder whether the Hon. Mr. Damon was right when he said that the Opposition believes their role is to oppose, because that is their name. I did not hear anyone say the Government did a lot of analytical work on the Amalia Falls Project. I listened to the spokespersons on infrastructure and energy. I did not hear that, in fact, except for this analytical work, I disagree or I agree with the analytical work done, but I would do the project a bit differently in this manner. I never heard any references like that. All you had, was political sound bites and rhetoric designed to capture the headlines and to cast the Government in a bad light. How can that be the basis for a genuine meaningful engagement?
I do not expect you to say, I agree with everything in the budget, but I expect at the very least that there would be some objectivity and the things that I know many Members on that side of House will say privately they agree with, I expect at the very least that, particularly because of this new and much vaunted configuration, some honesty and objectivity in the comments and the Amaila Falls Project is a good example. It is a national project. It was put up for enth degree of scrutiny. We invited any number of questions, we presented all, including confidential information. We said, this is the project ask any question. Things we cannot do in the public domain, because of confidentiality agreements, we said we would do an in-camera presentation to you.
Chaired by no less a person than His Excellency, the President who sat through the entire presentation, such is the importance we place on the engagement with our friends on that side of the House, but no reference to that information. It is easy to say, table these things or I want all of these hundreds of pieces of information, when you table them all you hear is, but it is not that hundred I wanted, it was number 101that you did not table. That does not all go well for the participation of my friends on that side of the House in this new this “new dispensation”; this new and much vaunted dispensation, configuration of which so much is spoken; so more, more of the same.
The majority, as they like to describe themselves; the one seat majority; the slender one seat majority, I suspect with the empty chairs it is somewhat withered down today. But the slender one seat majority, as they like to describe themselves, must be prepared to make bold. You cannot want to be the majority and provide no leadership and you cannot lead if you are shrouded in negativity and you see yourself as having the sole purpose to criticise; and you see yourself somehow prevented or handcuff from agreeing. Is that how we demonstrate the power of the one seat majority? By using it only to disagree; by using it only to object; by using it only to oppose; and by using it only to wield the threat of the scissors being brought, as the Hon. Member Mr. Nagamootoo did?
If fact, I am reminded now of the phrase that was used. The Amaila Falls Project which was presented in details to my colleagues on that side of the House. Do you know the phrase that Mr. Ramjattan comes to this House today and calls them, “Fanciful Projects”? A project that will convert this country from almost 100% dependence on fossil fuel to 100% renewable clean energy; a project that will dramatically reduce our fuel import bill; a project that will reduce the cost of energy to the final consumer; and a project that will double our generating capacity for the next five years or so and eliminate any shortage in our generating capacity, solving the issue of reliable power at least for the next four or five years. It is not a fanciful project... Is this a project to be dismissed as fanciful? This is not a project that Mr. Ramjattan can complain that we have not given him scrutiny of. This is a man who went to the electorate last November as an aspiring President and comes today in this National Assembly and dismisses a project of such national importance that was opened with such completeness and fairness to the Members of this National House, as fanciful. I cannot in stronger terms register my disappointment. This does not sound like the tone of a new engagement.
In fact, the Alliance for Change likes to advocate themselves and I say this of course with due difference to you Sir. The Alliance for Change likes to market itself as an agent of change, but I do not see the change in this. I see the same negativity that I have always heard from Mr. Ramjattan and I see the same obsession with objecting and opposing. More of the same, in the words of the distinguish Leader of the Opposition, “Continuity at its very worst”. Is this the new dispensation at work?
I will say this, the projects which Mr. Ramjattan has elected to describe as fanciful, we on this side of the House have no difficulty presenting any level of detail to our friends on that side of the House and as we did with the Amaila Falls Project. We will continue to present and to answer any question they have, because we know that this project is a good project for Guyana. We know that this project will transform Guyana and we will spare no effort in ensuring that that transformation is achieved. If the Opposition wants to join us in this regard and remain engaged, we are available to do so.
There is no question that we are afraid to answer; there is no document we cannot show, except where there are explicit confidentiality requirements. We have said that where those documents have confidentiality provisions, we are prepared to have in-camera engagements. We have said that to our colleagues and I am sure they will acknowledge this publicly. We are prepared to have in-camera engagements with them to show them the details of these documents, even if we cannot put them in the public domain.
I wish to say, as I listened to the Hon. Member, Mr. Ramjattan this morning, I became somewhat croissant, because I was hoping that the last day would have provided an opportunity for us to rise above the fray of the last five days and to demonstrate the maturity of which we like to speak about so much and to demonstrate that there is a genuine and sincere willingness to work together.
I came today full of hope that even if there were isolated instances or even if there were frequent instances, as in some cases there were, of what I would describe as criticism for criticism’s sake, refusal to embrace, refusal to agree, I was hopeful, given the lineup of speakers today that we would have seen a change in tone. Regrettably the Hon. Member, Mr. Ramjattan disappointed me in this regard.
If I may briefly respond to the presentation made by the Leader of the Opposition; as I have already said, many of the objectives identified by the Leader of the Opposition are in fact, objectives I could scarcely disagree with. Who could disagree with educating and empowering our young people? Who could disagree with that, certainly not this Government? Who could disagree with ensuring that our institutions functions better and more effectively, who could disagree with ensuring that our justice and security system protects our people, certainly not this Government? I was happy to hear those objectives identified and embraced by the Leader of the Opposition and I would like my colleagues to applaud this. [Mr. Ramjattan: That is it, beg for it.] I heard Mr. Ramjattan said, “Beg for it”. That is his attitude that if you agree with someone you are begging for it. Shame on you Mr. Ramjattan; we have no problem agreeing when something is good, unlike you Mr. Ramjattan. Shame on you! If the Leader of the Opposition outlines some objectives with which we agree, I will say so and I have no apology for saying so. In fact, I will go further and say that if I were, with the greatest of respect to the Leader of the Opposition, to offer one observation, it would be to say that I would have liked that Statesmanship and the embracing of those principles to be disseminated and distributed among his membership over the last five or six days. I believe that it was good and commendable that it came at the end of the debate, but it would have been better if it was distributed and emanated from the rest of his members. I did not see it for much of the last five days.
So if I were, with the greatest of respect to the Opposition Leader, to offer one observation, it would be to say that the Statesmanship at the end by the Leader, good though it might be and commendable it might be, it is not good enough. I would have liked to have seen the same coming from all of your members.
That is not to say... [Interruption] that I agree with everything I heard the Leader of the Opposition say. I heard for example his emphasis on the diversification of the economy, an objective that we agree with. I think he spoke of six traditional sectors, all the sectors which we are happy to promote and which we are promoting, but, I then heard the question of what is being done for manufacturing? Well we have exited State’s involvement in the productive sector for some time and the State will not put money directly into manufacturing, nevertheless we will put money into things which affect manufacturing. So, I will say in this National Assembly that the one impediment to more rapid growth in the manufacturing sector is affordable and reliable power. When we say we will invest in the Amaila Falls Project, which will bring down the cost of power and remove from our investors the need for redundant power that is money that is going to our manufacturing sector. Every manufacturer coming into Guyana will no longer have to invest in redundant power. Right now anyone who wants to manufacture anything has to invest in redundant power because a manufacturing line cannot go down for one minute or else you will lose the whole line. Anyone who wants to manufacture anything has to confront the cost of power today and the cost of electric energy today.
The Amaila Falls Project, through you Sir to the Leader of the Opposition, is an example of a project that will affect and influence the environment within which the manufacturing sector operates and in which the manufacturing sector address. I maintain that there is no investment that is better for this country than an investment in hydro-power.
I heard the Leader of the Opposition called for more emphasis on investing in the potentials of persons. Again an objective, investing in our people, is a theme that is recurring in our budget and a theme with which this Government could scarcely disagree on. In fact, for a moment I thought the Leader of the Opposition was reading from one of my previous budget speeches when he referred to the importance of investing in the potential of our people. [Member: ...inaudible] No because it is a self evident objective, no right thinking Guyanese person, I do not claim any special talent in identifying that as an objective, any right thinking Guyanese person would identify this as an important objective and the Leader of the Opposition happily did so.
I was happy to hear the embrace of this theme of human development, a theme that we ourselves have long embraced. I would have been considerably happier if I had heard some explicit recognition of some of the programmes we have in the budget that solves those objectives.
Our investment in technical and vocational training, brought TVET and technical and vocation educational training to young people throughout the lengths and breathe of this country. A new technical institute was just completed in Lenora and one in Mahaicony, we are upgrading the ones in Georgetown, Linden, New Amsterdam, Corriverton and the Essequibo; that is investing in our people.
Our investment in Information and Communications Technology (ICT), ensuring that our young people are not denied the opportunities allowed and afforded them by the vast potential of Information and Communications Technology. In fact, if I were to disagree with one thing said by the Leader of the Opposition it would be when he identified correctly the issues of sanitary facilities at a particular school. I think it was a school on the West Demerara and he spoke of a lavatory I think that had a problem which needed to be fixed. Of course, all of our schools should have proper facilities. I agree with that, if there is a particular school that has a facility that is not working or is broken, it needs to be fixed. I was worried when I heard and I trust that I am not misquoting the Leader of the Opposition here, the reference to a statement that we are not yet at the level of IT Laboratories in schools, we are at the level of fixing lavatories. That may not be a verbatim quote, but I made a note when I heard something that sounded like “We are not at the level of IT Laboratories”. Because I will say that often times and experiences from other countries which have travelled this path before us, those who have invented the wheel that we are now seeking to make that experience have thought us that things do not need to happen sequentially. In fact, often the countries that progress rapidly are the countries that leap frog many of the intermediate stages of development. If Information and Communications Technology is available in the world and it is affordable and we are able to harness it for our young people, we will bring it to our young people; in every village and we will do so now. We will not wait until we fix the toilet. Of course, the toilet needs to be fixed and of course the steps, windows, roofs and all of those things needs to fixed, but you do not necessarily always have to follow the regimentation of a sequence, things can happen in parallel.
If we can leap frog the lessons learnt and the hurdles crossed by other countries, bring and information technology to our most remote villages so that our children in the most remote villages can go to a central point and access the internet and do research and learn about the computer so that they too can embrace the wide world of the internet. They too can benefit from the vastness that information and technology has to offer.
That is our commitment, to continue to seek out opportunities and ways in which we can accelerate the process of development in our country, ways in which we can bring to our people the best of what is available in the world out there and ensure that our young people receive the benefit of every opportunity that lies before them, so that they can compete in the world of tomorrow. This is our promise to the people of Guyana.
The observation made by the Opposition Leader on investment in infrastructure, again I thought was perhaps a restraint compliment being paid to the budget, because this budget recognises the catalysing role which physical infrastructure can play, it allocates significant amount of resources to putting in place the physical infrastructure that is required for accelerated growth to be realised in our country. I heard the Leader of the Opposition identified some particular roads, I think, the Linden to Lethem, I heard a reference I think to Bartica, Mahdia, Linden to Kwakwani and others. No doubt, depending on the traffic on these roadways and the traffic projection, these are projects that we would love to do. In a world of infinite resources, we would love to have a network of roads running through every nook and cranny of our country, allowing access to every corner, without, of course, compromising our forest resources. The reality is of course, that the finite resources we have to manage needs to be prioritised. We have to look at those roads, those projects that will generate the greatest return, particularly bearing in mind the time horizon, those that will generate the greatest return in the shortest possible time and we will invest in those roads. I will say that there are many roads that I believe needs to be done; that we believe as a Government believe needs to be done, but we need to bear the cost in mind. Minister Benn and I had a conversation during the break about the phenomenal cost of building, particularly, the Hinterland roads.
I will say that by and large, the observations made today by those who spoke before me, I respond to, with mixed emotions. On the one hand I am disappointment that Mr. Ramjattan did not see it fit to rise to the occasion. On the other hand I must register my agreement with many of the principles outlined by the Leader of the Opposition, even if in some of the details my views were diverged from his and I have only given a few examples of areas in which such divergence might exist.
Against this background, I would say that the debate on the budget, barring the odd isolation, I mean not odd in the sense of peculiar, but odd, barring the unusual and isolated positive contribution that was characterised by factual inaccuracies in some cases and I have to address some of those. They are characterised by factual inaccuracies, grandstanding in an attempt to mislead.
In no place during the course of the budget debate was this resort to dubious facts more evident than in the presentation made by the Hon. Member, Mr. Moses Nagamootoo. I do not know what it is about that corner Sir, since you have ascended to your high chair... [Interruption] …May I proceed Sir?
Were I to dissect Mr. Nagamootoo’s presentation point by point, I would incur the wrath of my colleagues on every side of this House. There is neither an intention on my part, to do so, nor is there a need to debunked, discarded and consigned to the dustbins because so many of my colleagues who spoke before me, put many of the arguments he made where they belong. There was one in particular that merits special attention and I will only address that one, not only because it is a subject that is particularly dear to my heart, but because it is such a blatant illustration of what was wrong about his contribution and the negative elements during the course of this budget debate.
I heard Mr. Nagamootoo, the Hon. Member, profess his remarks by saying he was not a brilliant economist, so he did qualify with the cavalier that he was not a brilliant economist. He went on in fact to say that he was not an economist by any standards. He is a journalist, a lawyer and has distinguished himself in many other fields as we all know; and a politician, but Mr. Nagamootoo ventured to address the matter of Guyana’s external debt and I thought he said the following, that in essence Guyana’s external debt is more today than it was in 1992. I whipped out my pen immediately and I started to take notes and thought I heard him say that in 1992, when there was a change in Government, again there are certain clichés he likes, he is very good at that kind of thing, the dawn of a new era, he said with great flamboyant bun ash as if to emphasise his point and to make it more credible. The dawn of a new era, he said it in a manner only Moses could. He said in 1992 when there was a change in Government, the dawn of a new era, in the typical Nagamootoo dramatic style.
He said that debt stood at $2.1 billion. He said to forget this Minister’s reference to percentage of Gross Domestic Product (GDP) and so on; he is trying to fool you. He said to forget this reference to percentage of GDP, “let us just look at the numbers”. He said “US$2.1 billion”, again, without looking at the percentage of GDP – insinuating that the computation of that ratio is irrelevant – “at the prevailing exchange rate of 125:1, the 1992 debt was $252.5 billion”. He said that today, 20 years later, “in spite…” – and again all of the Mr. Moses Nagamootoo drama was invoked –
“…of right offs, cancellations and rescheduling our national debt stands at $1.2 billion dollars which, at the current rate of GD$207 to US$1 amounts to $253.4 billion nearly $1 billion more than what it was in 1992”. So he takes the 1992 debt and converts it by an exchange rate. He takes the 2011 debt and he converts it by a Guyana Dollar to United States of America exchange rate. He compares those numbers and he then says that the debt is more in 1992.
We could argue many things. We could argue, first of all that one cannot compute two nominal numbers at two disparate points in time. We could argue that, over a long window time series, one cannot compare two numbers at two points without adjusting for the time value of money, so we could argue that point. We could argue that because our debt was denominated in US Dollars one has to compare US Dollars. We could argue that the standard metric used in the industry is debt per GDP for the simple reason that if I am a wealthy man and I owe $1 million I am not particularly indebted, but Mr. Robert Persaud is not such a wealthy man and he owes $1 million he is a lot more indebted than I am. So if your economy has two different sizes at two particular points in time, the analysis of how indebted you are has to be done with reference to how wealthy you are. We could argue that too. Instead, we could argue arithmetic. I want Mr. Nagamootoo to be a brilliant economist or even… [Mr. Nagamootoo: You are.] No. I am not brilliant in anything. I do not claim any degree of brilliance, Mr. Nagamootoo. We could argue on the basis of simple arithmetic. Put aside the fact that Mr. Nagamootoo chose to use an exchange rate of 207:1 – we could argue if it is 206 or 207 and so on. Let us use his exchange rates: US$2.1 million x 125 – Mr. Nagamootoo’s numbers – will give you $262.5, not $252.5 as Mr. Nagamootoo said, so he understated by $10 billion the 1992 external debt in Guyana Dollars. What is worst is, fast forwarding to 2011, $1.2 billion – Mr. Nagamootoo’s number – x 207 – Mr. Nagamootoo’s exchange rate – gives $248.4 billion; not $253.4 billion, as Mr. Nagamootoo claimed. So, using Mr. Nagamootoo’s external debt numbers, using Mr. Nagamootoo’s exchange rate, the nominal debt in 2011 is in fact $14.4 billion less than it was in 1992; using his method, using his numbers but using the mathematical aptitude of a primary school child who knows how to do multiplication.
So one cannot help asking oneself whether such a fundamental a mistake was made by accident or whether there was a deliberate attempt to mislead the people of this country on the basis of what was claimed…
Mr. Speaker: I do not think that we could impute that any Hon. Member of this House has a deliberate intention to misrepresent… It was a mistake perhaps but not a deliberate attempt to misrepresent.
Dr. Singh: I will say, Mr. Speaker, I withdraw any interpretation of imputation…
Mr. Speaker: I do not think that you made the imputation. I was cautioning you not to.
Dr. Singh: I thank you very much, Mr. Speaker for stopping me in good time. A mistake, nonetheless, with its consequence presented with such aplomb and pomposity that one can only imagine whether it was done for dramatic effect or some other effect. I will go further to say that I actually checked… I could not believe my eyes so I requested a verbatim transcript of what transpired just to check the numbers. I requested a newspaper report. I went to the Kaieteur Newspaper and I checked the Kaieteur news report and the same numbers were quoted by Mr. Nagamootoo. I will say this: It is most regrettable when one will venture into an area where one feels constrained to express a caveat about one’s own competence up fort, still venture into that area, present what one is purporting to represent facts on without even the most minimum of an effort to confirm accuracy and then seek to castigate and criticise and lambaste the Government for no purpose other than political mileage. If that is not political grandstanding at its worst I do not know what is. As I said there are many other grounds on which…
The same can be said about the issue of the Value Added Tax (VAT). Throughout the course of this debate and, indeed, in public commentary much has been said about the Value Added Tax and I wish to tarry a while on this subject because I believe that it merits some examination. It is easy when one is on the election campaign trail to identify hot button subjects, politically contentious subject and to trumpet them on the political platform; even if it is not excusable, it is understandable. I believe that we all do that on the hustings. It came as no surprise to me that during the course of the 2011 Elections political parties, particularly those now sitting on that side of the House, identified the issue of the Value Added Tax, made it a campaign issue, spoke of it repeatedly, characterised the VAT as a millstone around people’s necks, as a burden on the people of Guyana and, in particular, somehow, as causing unfair disadvantage on the poor people of our country. This is a very emotive argument. Who does not want to pay fewer taxes? Frankly speaking I wish, as a tax payer, if my tax obligations over the course of time, could become less burdensome. Who would not? Which rational human being would say I am happy paying taxes or I do not want to pay fewer taxes. It was an issue that caught on very quickly. It was an issue which was embraced and the parties really hammered it during the course of the elections. I recall, for example, a billboard… Forgive me again, Mr. Speaker, I do not have any special fixation with the Alliance For Change – your billboards were in eye catching colours.
Mr. Speaker: It is understandable.
Dr. Singh: I recall a green and yellow billboard – I believe that it was at the top of Sherriff Street and what I would call the “Seawall Road”…
Mr. Speaker: Did you see it before it was taken down or after?
Dr. Singh: I am not aware, Sir, that it was taken down. I thought that the hot air took it away. I remember that billboard on the top of Sherriff Street and it said “Cut the VAT”. This was one of the big promises made by the Alliance for Change to the people of Guyana. I know the number fluctuated a little bit. I know at one time people were saying cut it to 8%, cut it to 10%, cut it to 12%, cut it to 14%. At several points in time, much like the lotto ball that is generated by random machine, different numbers were plucked out of thin air: “VAT should be 8%, it should be 10%, it should be 12%”. I have the chronology of those numbers. Sometimes it moved up and then it moved back down depending, I suppose, on how vociferous was the crowd’s response. I wish to say this: The issue, having reared its head and having become a subject for debate during election hustings, now that we are in this new dispensation that merits closer collaboration and closer cooperation needs an objective and, as I said earlier, dispassionate look. I will say this: anybody who departs or abandons or casts aside the temptation of popular political appeal and objectively and seriously examines the Value Added Tax will soon discover that a reduction in the Value Added Tax will bring little or no benefit to the poor people of this country. In fact, for reasons I will outline shortly, the most vulnerable will benefit least from a cut in VAT and it is in fact the well heeled that will benefit most from a cut in VAT. I would have thought that that would have been a self evident fact. In fact, if one wishes to assist the most vulnerable in our society a cut in VAT is the least efficient way to do it.
Take, for example, a hypothetical man with modest income. Let us say that this hypothetical person A with modest income takes home $49,500 per month. He buys basic food items and spends $25,000 on these. He pays an electricity bill because his house got connected under the Utility Assistance Programme (UAP). He has a telephone and pays a telephone bill. He buys clothing, pays for public transportation and sets aside in a box, under his bed or in a savings account at his bank $5,000. So he buys food, pays for electricity, telephone, clothing and public transportation. The only “VATable” items in that list are his telephone bill and clothing and he pays, at 16% a total of GD$1,280 per month out of his $49,500 per month “take-home” pay.
A cut in the VAT from 16% to 12% - to take one of the several numbers bandied around in the weeks that led up to the 28th November – will result in him paying not $1,280 worth or VAT on his consumption basket but $960 on the identical consumption basket, resulting in the saving of the grand some of $320 per month. A man with disposable income of $49,500 per month will save the grand sum, and have additional disposable income of GD$320 per month as a result of a 4% cut in VAT from 16% to 14%. I believe that this should be reasonably obvious, based on the hypothetical basket that I described but one can do this for any basket.
Take hypothetical person B a wealthier person, whose “take-home” pay – perhaps a prominent lawyer who was a Vice Presidential Candidate in a small political party – is $1,000,000 per month. He buys food but he buys a more complex basket of food, so he buys basic food items which are not “VATable” and he buys food items which are “VATable” – some of the imported things and some of the canned and packaged things and processed things. He pays for electricity. He pays for the telephone bill. He probably pays for the internet in his home and cable or some other electronic service. He incurs entertainment expenditure, goes to restaurants or other entertainment places. He purchases some luxury items, whether they are electronic items for his children or flat screen televisions for his home or iPods or iPads, whatever they are called these days. He saves, let us say, $300,000 per month out of his earnings. This hypothetical person ‘B’, on the basis of his consumption basket with VAT at 16% will incur a total of $98,400 of VAT in one month, on that consumption basket.
Consider a cut in VAT to 12%. That 4% point cut will bring down person B’s VAT bill to $73,800 and generate for him a monthly saving of $24,600. In other words, you poor person who is going to benefit by the princely sum of $320 per month from a 4% cut in VAT is contrasted with your hypothetical wealthy person who will benefit from the grand sum of $24,600 of additional income based on this consumption basket. Put simply, this 4% cut in VAT will give the poor man $300 in his pocket and will give the wealthy man half of the poor man’s disposable income. He will save on his entertainment, alone, $10,000 as a result of the cut in VAT, compared with the poor man whose entire disposable income is $49,500.
This is not rocket science. VAT is a tax on consumption. Those who consume a small basket of modest items incur a modest VAT bill. Those who consume a lavish and large basket of goods incur a large VAT bill and they will benefit most from the cut in VAT. Let us be clear; this argument that the poor man will benefit from VAT is a misrepresentation to the people of this country. It is a misrepresentation to this country and I will say this, as I said, is not rock science. Pick any basket of goods, pick up the list of zero-rated items, go through the list of zero-rated items and apply zero to the items that are zero-rated and apply 16% to the items that are “VATable” and compute what the savings will be. Take any basket of goods. One can do it for oneself or one’s own household and one will see. It is indisputable that a cut in VAT will benefit wealthy people more than it would benefit poor people. That is indisputable. In fact, the VAT that a wealthy person will save on one flat screen television bought will be more than the VAT saved by a poor person for the entire year on everything that they will buy. Were we to be able to afford any revenue measure, I would submit to you that a cut in VAT would be the most inefficient way of assisting the poor people of this country.
It is precisely because of that we have progressively raised the income tax threshold. If one looks at the income tax threshold, the increase that we made to the income tax threshold from $40,000 to $50,000 places in the pockets of any tax payer who is above $50,000 an additional $3,333 of disposable income. For a person on the lower end of the scale – a person at $50,000 per month – that represents a 6.7% of their income. For a person at the upper end of the scale – the person receiving $1,000,000 per month – that represents a 0.3% increase. By design adjustments, such as the adjustment to the income tax threshold, do help the most vulnerable and that is the reason we implemented it. That is the reason we increased the income tax threshold from $40,000 to $50,000 per month. That is the reason over the course of the last five to six years we doubled, from $25,000 to $50,000, the income tax threshold. That is the reason this year we removed from the income tax net 21,000 persons that will no longer pay income tax precisely because of the benefits it will bring to persons on the margin.
Issue after issue, we heard the resort to these old and overworked subjects. It is time we lift the debate of this National Assembly out of the morass of these overworked themes.
Take, for example, the matter of accountability. We, as a Government, are committed to the strictest of standards of accountability. I will repeat that for emphasis. We are committed to the strictest of standards of accountability. We have worked diligently to put in place mechanisms to ensure that our legislative framework, as it applies to accountability, is stronger. We have ensured that we have, indeed with the support of our colleagues on that side of the House, a revamped constitution that provides very important constitutional mechanisms for accountability. These include, for example: the Public Accounts Committee with an enhanced mandate, including supervision of the Auditor General’s Office; the establishment of special Sectoral Committees, the revision of the Standing Orders that provide for more timely responses to questions asked by Members of the Opposition. We have seen these mechanisms living, working and growing. We have seen, for example, in the area of accountability and transparency, how the Auditor General’s Report has come to this National Assembly in a timelier manner. Gone are the days when the Auditor General’s Report – I am sorry, Hon. Member Mr. Greenidge, I know this is a pet subject of his – will take 10 years to come to this National Assembly by which time it would become completely irrelevant. I have a timeline that shows that in the early 1950s and in the early 1960s our Auditor General’s Reports used to come to this National Assembly within a year. From 1954 to 1961 on no occasion did the Auditor General’s Report come to this Parliament with a delay of more than two years. It is a striking coincidence that from 1954 to 1961, on no occasion did it exceed this time frame, and from 1954 to 1965 only one occasion – that occasion being 1962 – did the Auditor General’s Report come with a delay to this Parliament of more than two years. We witnessed an immediate decline from 1965/1966. By the time we got to 1970 the Auditor General Report was coming to this Parliament with a nine-year delay. The 1970 Annual Report – often our colleagues on that side of the House do not like to go back in history and they argue that we should not go back in history... [Mr. Neendkumar: But they brought back history with Mr. Greenidge.] I would not necessarily repeat the heckle that I heard behind me but it think it was sufficiently audible for my colleagues on that side of the House. When one is treated or subjected to grandstanding on that side of the House as if this history did not exist, it is from this history we have had to rebuild this country. That is what has preoccupied us for many of the early years of our tenure in office. To pretend that that history did not exist or, worse yet, to stand in this House and seek to rewrite that history is, to put it mildly, most reprehensible.
By 1970 the Auditor General’s Report was arriving with a nine-year delay – in bundles, in batches of years – although the law says that one must table accounts annually… Mr. Greenidge spoke of bringing them in batches. The 1971 Auditor General’s Report came in 1981; a ten-year delay. Of what relevance, would those accounts be that were ten years old be? All of the accounting officers would be gone or moved on or retired or passed on to some higher and more supreme service, records would not be readily available and memories would be faded. For the period of 1972 to 1981 this pattern continued; a nine-year delay. The 1981 Audited Accounts came in 1987…
Mr. Speaker: Hon. Minister, you have been speaking for 90 minutes. Can you give some indication… There was an open-ended arrangement today for the Leader of the Opposition and yourself, in rebuttal, but can you give us some indication… I am sensing some anxiety as some documents started to be circulated around the House.
Dr. Singh: I must confess, Mr. Speaker, that I was so engaged in my presentation that I did not notice.
Mr. Speaker: You would not be aware.
Dr. Singh: I would be happy, Mr. Speaker, to go on for as long as you permit me.
Mr. Speaker: I think, reasonably, you should give some idea of how long more you will take.
Dr. Singh: Mr. Speaker, will you permit me, Sir, another thirty minutes?
Mr. Speaker: Could we agree on fifteen minutes?
Dr. Singh: I would happily defer to your superior judgement in these matters.
Mr. Speaker: It is a suggestion. Go ahead.
Dr. Singh: Lo and behold! During the period 1982 to 1991, no audited accounts ever made their way to this National Assembly. No amount… [Ms. Ally: Every year you come in this National Assembly and it is the same thing.] Our friends on that side of the House do not like to hear it, but I will say this: If we are speaking of a new beginning, if we are speaking of this dispensation, working in a functional manner, there must be openness and honesty about the journey our country has travelled. We cannot continue to pretend that this history did not exist. [Ms. Wade: You have said it already.] I will say it again. As long as my colleagues on that side of the House would want to pretend that it did not happen, I will be constrained to continue to repeat it.
Much is made on the matter of accountability and Mr. Greenidge, in fact, made bold to lead the Opposition’s charge on this matter. I have before me a copy of the 11th November edition of the Guyana Chronicle. [Ms. Ally: What is the year?] It is the 11th November, 1992. It is an article that captures an exchange between the then Auditor General Mr. Anand Goolsarran and the then Minister of Finance Mr. Carl Greenidge. The headline states, “Goolsarran claims Greenidge tried to muzzle him.” I have the article here. I would be happy to share it. The article reads:
“Auditor General Mr. Anand Goolsarran is claiming that former Finance Minister Mr. Carl Greenidge tried to stop him from speaking to the press about the previous Government’s divestment moves.”
He went on to say that he had received a letter several months ago from Mr. Greenidge, “…in which he attempted to instruct me not to speak to the press and not to seek out information on divestment.” It is the same Mr. Greenidge who appears to have reinvented himself, who appears to have suffered some amnesia and wants to present himself, now, as a reborn champion of accountability. I would suggest that a good start would be an explanation of the dismal period, from 1983 to 1992, over which Mr. Greenidge presided, including his attempt to muzzle Mr. Goolsarran, as is quoted in this article. That would be a good start.
If we are to have a frank and honest discussion, we cannot pretend to be saints and that the pre-1992 period did not happen, and all of this is the figment of somebody’s imagination, and that these things are some concoction by the People’s Progressive Party/Civic (PPP/C) to paint the PNC badly. That could scarcely be the beginning of this new dispensation at work. So I suggest that on the matter of accountability, that before my friends, on that side of the House, want to seek to denigrate the very tangible progress that has been made by this Government in strengthening accountability and transparency, they start being honest about the dismal state of affairs and their dismal legacy as it relates to accountability, and, indeed, their role in creating this state of affairs.
We have actively utilised the mechanisms available to us to ensure that documents are placed in the public domain. In fact, I have a summary of the documents tabled in the Ninth Parliament, and no less than one hundred and thirty-two Annual Reports of various entities and no less than seventy-one sets of audited financial statements were tabled for various entities - dozens of entities. I have a long list of them here, from public sector companies - Bauxite Industry Development Company (BIDCO), Berbice Mining Enterprise (BERMINE), Central Housing and Planning Authority (CH&PA), Guyana Power and Light (GPL), Guyana Revenue Authority (GRA), Lethem Power Company Inc, and it goes on. There are more than two hundred documents placed in the public domain in order to ensure that there is good accountability for public resources. That is a principle that we, as a Government, will always embrace.
The fact of the matter is that if one were to ask oneself about the key issues captured in the theme of this budget…The theme speaks of remaining on course. So the questions are asked: In which direction are we travelling? Have we been moving in the right direction? As I said earlier, the resounding answer to those questions is that our country is moving in the right direction - whether it is the fact that our macroeconomic fundamentals are stronger than ever before; whether it be the fact that we have grown uninterruptedly for the last six years when our sister CARICOM Member States are floundering in the challenges of the global economic crisis; whether it be the fact that our rice production is now at its highest level ever, four hundred and two thousand tons as compared to one hundred and fifty-one thousand tons in 1991; whether it be that our gold declarations, setting aside Omai Gold Mines Limited, are the highest level, three hundred and sixty-three thousand tons as compare