April 16, 2012
Minister of Public Works [Mr. Benn]: Thank you Mr. Speaker. Mr. Speaker, first off, I would like to commend, in his absence, the Hon. Member Dr. Ashni Singh and his staff for the preparation of this budget. I would also like to welcome, particularly, the new Members to the House. I think their presence, in itself, should allow for better forms of debate, a more engaged form of debate, given the new configuration of the House. I would like to apologise, too, to you, Mr. Speaker, perhaps, for losing my temper at the presentation of the Hon. Member Mr. Harmon. But I need to start.
Mr. Speaker: I must say, on that, Hon. Member, again, as I said for Mr. Moses Nagamooto, you will remain honourable in my eyes. I did not notice any breach of the Standing Orders or I did not notice that you were at all angry, or that you lost your temper. Proceed.
Mr. Benn: I think that a quotation to start my discourse this afternoon on the budget from Charles Dicken, from his book American Notes…Particularly, I had to find it and haul it out because I am worried about the nature that the debate has been proceeding, the atmosphere engendered outside in the streets in relation to our engagement here in the House and the overall question of how we move forward. I know that the Hon. Member Dr. Roopnarine had made a few encouraging statements with respect to the engagement going forward, but for now I would like to quote Dicken, American Notes. He said that America was noted then for:
“Despicable trickery at elections; under-handed tamperings with public officers; and cowardly attacks upon opponents, with scurrilous newspapers for shields, and hired pens for daggers.”
I think a number of newspapers have been quoted in the House with respect to particular issues. I know that the budget debate, and the new exuberance, with respect to the configuration of the House, as I said, maybe, is going to some people’s heads, but I think that at the end of the day, as I said in my presentation on President Donald Ramotar’s speech to the Parliament, now is the time that the Guyanese patriots and nationalists - the true Guyanese nationalists and patriots - must stand up, to read and to look into this current situation and to win from it the best for the Guyanese people.
I do not believe that, from the presentations made in this honourable House, thus far from the other side, the situation has been very encouraging. It has been said and it is noted…The Hon. Member Dr. Ashni Singh is not here today. [Mrs. Backer: He was here. He has gone because you are speaking.] He is not here at the moment, but a colleague of the Hon. Member Dr. Ashni Singh, Ms. Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, is being considered now, perhaps the dye has already been cast, as a Nigerian economist to be President of the World Bank. This colleague of Minister Dr. Singh does not have the luxury at this time…Of course, we will be happy if she could become President of the World Bank because then it would be in the hands of those who would serve it. This Minister, who is currently the Minister of Finance for Nigeria, does not have the luxury as Hon. Member Dr. Ashni Singh has, to speak of six years, year on year, of five and six per cent growth. This Minister does not have the luxury of being able to stand up and say that within the twenty years of an administration, in this country, of the People’s Progressive Party/ Civic (PPP/C), in similar situations, that her country has been able to move the life expectancy of its people by ten full years – one decade – as it has done in this country. In Nigeria, I believe it is forty-nine years - the life expectancy.
When we speak in this House on the budget we need to contexualise the situation in which we present our budget. We need to understand where we came from. People always talk about the fact, they say, that the budget is doing nothing for the poor; they say that the budget is doing nothing for the old people. People have stood up in this honourable House and said that increases, to the older people, on pension cannot even buy a loaf of bread and a quarter pound of cheese. In their day, from the other side of the House, there was no bread and no cheese. The older people, of course, were not a significant part of the population in their time. They would have died out before. There were all discussions and talks about people lying about in the street, and going into the garbage bins. [Mrs. Backer: Is it not true?] It is unfortunate. It is true that there are people lying on the streets. We have seen them on the pavement in front of the Public Buildings. In their day those people would have already been dead. Soon the new centre at Onverwagt will be finished, which will take care of the needs and the issues relating to, I believe, six hundred elderly and needy persons in this country. There will be a new centre to take care of our old people. We must remember under whose watch The Palms fell down.
Mr. Speaker, the unfortunate discussion and misunderstanding you have seen today, again, in the newspapers with respect to the question of Value Added Tax (VAT), to the question of increases in the cost of living, and all of those issues that we have seen being discussed, of course, we have to take note of them.
The Hon. Member Dr. Ashni Singh is not here, but I would have had a couple of questions for him. A couple of these questions relate to the issue…if persons have not noticed, we have kept our exchange rate in Guyana stable. Where the landscape in the Caribbean and southern Europe is littered with economies which are in deficit and are requiring injections and emergency surgeries to keep afloat and alive, we have been able to keep our economy going.
The other question I would have asked him is related to whether he has increased the money supply; whether he has printed money; whether he has done any Quantitative Easing (QE), and I know that the answers are no. A stable economy, the prudent management that the country has had under the PPP/C is something those in the Opposition can wish away and ignore and have people on the streets not think that the streets they walk on, the improvements that they see, the improvements that they live in their lives do not exist. The fact of the matter is that a lot of the problems that we had related to the issues of confusion being sown and confusion continues to be sown, in spite of the numbers, and in spite of living the life, in the minds of the public with respect to our economic development or undeniable progress.
Persons have stood in this House and laughed at the four-lane extensions; they have laughed at the work being done as a waste of time. Some people have said that the… The Hon. Member Mr. Harmon did ask, I think, why do a little piece and not go the whole hog. I wonder where the money will come from to do all of these things that they want to be done all of the time. The Prime Minister of India, Dr. Manmohan Singh, last week received Mr. Yadav, the Chief Minister for Uttar Pradesh. Mr. Yadav went with a long list of requests, demands, requirements and expenditures needed. The Prime Minister of India did say to Mr. Yadav, in concluding, that he will provide every help possible. On our side, we take the same approach – every help possible – because the interventions we can make can only come from the work and production of our people. We will not create a Pied Piper scenario. We will not build castle in the sky in relation to the development of our country.
I must admit that I was disappointed by the presentation from the Opposition benches on this budget, particularly the presentation of the Hon. Member, the former Minister of Finance, Mr. Greenidge. [Mr. Greenidge: Who cares?] Of course, Mr. Greenidge does not care. The Hon. Member Mr. Greenidge, last year when the budget was being presented in this House, came into this honourable House in dark shades. The vision was too bright for him. Hon. Member Mr. Greenidge came into this honourable House to speak on the budget…and this is why we miss the late Mr. Winston Murray. I would say that the presentation by the Hon. Member Mrs. Volda Lawrence was superior to the presentation made by Mr. Greenidge. Mr. Greenidge came into the honourable House without any pockets. He did not have anything then to offer to the people of this country and, again, now, he comes with nothing to offer but platitudes and harum-scarum ideas with respect to this budget.
On the question of the increases in prices of goods and the cost of living in this country, where it is not managed, would create a terrible problem. There have been suggestions that the reasons we are having increases in prices are related to VAT. I want to submit, and I want to provide to the Hon. Member Mr. Greenidge and his cohorts on that side, that zero-rated items under VAT…
Hon. Members (Opposition): Cohorts?
Mr. Speaker: Hon. Member, I did say to an Hon. Member earlier that the words “cohorts” and “cronies” have a negative connotation, especially when referring to one’s parliamentary colleagues.
Mr. Benn: I am sorry Mr. Speaker. My interpretation of the word is that it is meant to be a group - a group of persons who come together at a certain place at a certain time.
There have been statements made that the VAT must be reduced to ten per cent. There have been statements made…and I have here a list of items which are zero-rated under the VAT. I want to remind Hon. Members that the issues relating to VAT meant that it was put in place of consumption and other tax items which were higher than it, in itself. With the intention of protecting the poor and the needy and reducing their expenses or any interference with respect to VAT, there were essential food items, seventeen items, essential consumable items, essential domestic services, and a host of other interventions, which were zero-rated for it. But now we have had another renewed assault upon VAT. Persons have said in this House that wages and salaries must be increased by twenty per cent. Persons have said that VAT must be reduced to ten per cent. In the street they say… [Mrs. Backer and Ms. Selman: What is wrong with that?] I will tell you what is wrong with it just now. Persons have said that the threshold must be increased even further. Persons have made representation with respect to the corporation tax. There has been no analysis of what the impact of these measures would have on the revenue and the well-being…, and how the infrastructural and other development, the social services of this country, will be maintained for the benefit of the poor and the needy. There has been no analysis. I have a list of the items which are zero-rated under VAT, and I would like to point out that in the Caribbean region where VAT is, countries are moving to increase it. In the United Kingdom, it is trying to move VAT, I think, from twenty to twenty-two per cent. In other jurisdictions, there is not only VAT; there are sales tax and state tax. This issue of VAT I will leave to the Hon. Member Dr. Ashni Singh to deal with condignly in his wrap up because I am one of those who know that this harum-scarum approach to the budget and economics is one which will bring us to disaster.
That reminds me of another budget. There was another budget in 1962, I believe, a Kaldor Budget. It was said that the Kaldor Budget would have killed poor people; it would have destroyed everything. We all know very well that at the end of the day, when the smoke had cleared, everyone acknowledged that the Kaldor Budget was the best thing for Guyana at that time, and that the measures adopted later by the People’s National Congress - United Force (PNC- UF) coalition Government were measures which were mentioned in the Kaldor Budget. It can be checked in the record. Mr. Greenidge could sit here and speak nonsense. I am sorry to see that a man of his stature and merit from a time gone by has been reduced to a mere heckle in this House.
Issues related to the increases in goods and services are imported into the country. There is something called a Index Mundi on the internet and it displays a five-year moving average, month to month, of international prices for commodities. It shows that for oil, for West Texas Crude, there has been a seventy-five per cent over five years. That is something we cannot do anything about. It shows that, for the index of food prices, all foods traded on the international market have increased by 46.51 per cent over five years. It shows that for fuel, the price has increased by 63.42 per cent over five years. We cannot do anything about that. Therein lies the increases in prices that we see at the shops. When we go into the shops to buy, it is a choice we make and at the last minute we can withdraw if we do not want to pay VAT. This increase in fuel prices is that which stimulated and created the push for changes in the Arab world. The Jasmine Revolution started when a man called Mohamed Bouazizi lit himself afire because he had some problems in relation to doing his work and that led to massive changes in the situation. The problem started in relation to the increase in food prices which were also related to the issues of global warming, where countries were being faced with reducing crop outputs, lack of water and all the problems down the line related to that issue.
Nineteen billion dollars has been a proportion to my Ministry this year from the budget. I want to thank the Hon. Member Dr. Ashni Singh, again, for his considerations in relation to recognising how important infrastructural development is for the development of our country, and where it is noted that investment in infrastructure can increase the livelihood, the efficiency and the economy of poor families, by as much as thirty per cent, is being put in place. I am aware that there are designs in the budget that the Hon. Member Mr. Moses “scissors hands” Nagamootoo…
Mr. Speaker: With respect, Mr. Minister, I do not think that… That is a highly inappropriate comment from a Minister to a Member of the House.
Mr. Benn: I am sorry, Mr. Speaker. The Hon. Mr. Member Moses Nagamootoo said, in this House, that he will take out the scissors, and take it to the budget, and cut up it. Others on that side said that they will bash the budget. I want to say, in this House, that we are at an important threshold in relation to these matters, because they can cut all they want; they can bash all they want. At the end of the day the people will see and note the interventions we would have made, how they would have affected their livelihood, going forward, and who made the cuts and who made the bash.
I want to deal with an issue that the Hon. Member Mr. Harmon related to this House. He was quoting from the Auditor General’s Report, and the Hon. Member suggested that $136 million disappeared and, imputed, I believe, that the Ministry and, therefore, the Minister, too, had a hand in the disappearance of the $136 million of Governments funds. I would like to report that there is a project at Abary/ Profit which has a contract sum of $267 million, of which an advance of forty per cent was paid, and then an advance of $100 million was paid for the purchase of materials, accounting for $156 million, total. At this time the project is now sixty-five per cent completed. The contractors are working to complete this project. This contract has a liquidated damages clause and the clause has been applied. The liquidated damages clause has being applied and worked now relates to $27 million in relation to the project. I would also say that this is a bonding project – that bonds are in place to secure the money with respect to this project. I am surprised… In the first place we were surprised that the Ministry was never given the Auditor General’s Report to respond to, as it had to be done with respect to this project. We were never been provided with the report, so we never had the opportunity to respond, and it appeared… There was every clarification possible, and information available, with respect to the project. So when transparency, accountability and due process are spoken of, all those things, we have them here. I say, again, I am prepared to go to jail today if the other Members can prove me wrong - if they can prove me, my Permanent Secretary and my engineers wrong on this matter. The Hon. Member, in presenting his assertions on this report, was deliberate in misinforming, in misadvising and trying to sow confusing with respect to this project.
I want to deal with another matter and it relates to the power supply in Linden. Enough, perhaps, has not been said, but I remember working in Linden, which today has the most reliable supply of power in all of Guyana, and we had to work hard to rescue the bauxite operations, both at Linden, Kwakwani and Aoraima. The Hon. Member stood up in this House … In fact, the Hon. Member Ms. Vanessa Kissoon was screaming, from the other side, “We ain’t paying nothing.” [Ms. Kissoon: Ah seh we ain’t paying it.] Yes. “She ain’t paying nothing.” But if the Hon. Linden Forbes Sampson Burnham, who said that he was not running a Republic of Linden but a whole country, could not get it done then… We have to work at this problem to make sure that the subsidies which are being given to Linden, which are supported by the Linden Economic Advancement Programme (LEAP), Linden Economic Advancement Fund (LEAF) and Linden Enterprise Network (LEN), and all those moneys provided by the Government of Guyana through those services, to provide opportunities for the communities to move on…We believe that the community has moved on. The Hon. Member spoke, on the other side, that there was full employment then, but we know that in 1983 when the aluminium plant closed two thousand men went home without a job – in one day.
Now they scoff at the work we do on roads and they are wondering who is doing these roads and whether they are properly done. They are not happy to see men working in this country. They are against, perhaps, the site of men working. I am encouraged to see men in this country working on the roads, bridges and all infrastructural projects in the communities, throughout the length and breadth of Guyana. [Mrs. Backer: They are selling sweets and cigarettes.] Some may be selling sweets and cigarettes, but they are employed; they are gainfully occupied and they are not creating problems due to crime. I want to say to the Hon. Members that they should not be creating situations where they appear to be - let me be careful how I pronounce it - against men - anti-men. Let me be careful, because then I will have to sit again. I am happy to see men and women working, it encourages all of us. We are happy to see that and we hope that the Hon. Members, when they are talking about some of the issues they are raising, will pay attention to this problem and give some encouragement to those working men and women in respect to the things that they do - humble as they may be.
I would like to speak quickly on some of the activities we have done in some areas, in relation to the works in the various departments, If I start, perhaps, about the… The Civil Aviation Department has been moving from strength to strength. The Guyana Civil Aviation Authority has been working hard to facilitate and manage air transport and air traffic in Guyana’s sovereign airspace and landing sites in the country. We would like to note particularly that the number of passengers, who have been carried by our domestic carriers, has shown a significant increase from nine thousand one hundred and thirty-nine passengers in 2010 to twelve seven hundred and twenty-three in December. For the comparative years in 2010, ninety-six thousand nine hundred and eleven persons were carried by our domestic carriers and in the year 2011 there has been an increase of one hundred and forty-five thousand persons, an increase of about forty-six per cent.
In relation to cargo carried, there has been, in the year 2010, thirteen million pounds of cargo carried and in 2011 there has been an increase to twenty million pounds, a significant increase which points to the dramatic improvement in the domestic cargo being moved in our country. This is significant because, as you know, Mr. Speaker, we have invested in a public-private partnership with the Ogle Aircraft Inc. and we are working, this year, to complete the making of Ogle Airport into a regional airport. The Guyana Civil Aviation Authority has almost finalised investments and installations related to improvement of the air navigation services and we have spent close to $1 billion in improving the radios, the infrastructure on the ground, the Very High Frequency Omni-Range (VOR), the systems relating to improving landings and take-offs at the Ogle and Cheddi Jagan International Airports to improve the efficiency and flight safety at the location.
I move on to the Cheddi Jagan international Airport (CJIA), total passenger movement has increased by six per cent, year on year, 2010 to 2011. There is now a total passenger movement of four hundred and seventy-three thousand one hundred and twenty persons. I would say that year to date, even while there are difficulties with REDjet, and even now that an arrangement has just been done to have Suriname Airways to begin its flights, there is an increase of twenty-three per cent in terms of persons using the airport - gross numbers, in terms of total passengers movement.
In terms of total flights landing, incoming and outgoing, there have been significant increases by all the operators - Caribbean Airlines by sixty-three per cent, Leeward Islands Air Transport (LIAT) by sixty-two per cent, Miata by thirty-one per cent, Delta by eighty-four per cent, REDjet by fifty per cent and other itinerant flights by thirty-six per cent.
We continue to make investments in the interior landing strips. The Guyana Civil Aviation Authority is expected to allow for the installation of tracking devices in all aircrafts flying in the sovereign airspace so that any plane flying in our international airspace could be tracked and identified.
An arrangement has been entered in with a company, China Harbors Inc, in relation to dealing with the current facilities, challenges and constraints at the CJIA. Persons who use the facility - I have a picture here, taken at 3 a.m. - would be aware that the current airport is very small. It is not an internationally rated or standard facility. It does not have air bridges; it does not have the equipment and other arrangement which will handle passenger growth going in to the next fifty years. So an arrangement has been entered where an amount of $150 million will be spending with the company, China Harbor Inc, to improve the facility at the airport. In the first instance, the runway will be extended by one thousand and thirty-three metres and a new airport terminal building will be constructed. This is a dire necessity if we are to take advantage of the development of the flights coming south to north and South America and if we are to take the opportunities of having flights landing from South and western Africa, and also Indonesia and Singapore. There is a great opportunity there that still lies a begging for us to take advantage of those marketplaces so that all types of large and white bodied aircrafts can land at the airport.
The loan is being concluded with the China Export Import (EXIM) Bank for US$130 billion. The Government of Guyana is expected to contribute a difference of US$20 million. We hope that this approach will resolve a lot of the issues, not only the physical and infrastructural issues, but also the human and social issues which currently surround the airport, particularly the persons who are living on the airport land and the issues, which we hear of from time to time, with cocaine being thrown over the fence or holes dug on the runway with cocaine in them, all of those problems. We hope to resolve those issues.
The Demerara Harbour Bridge Corporation has done exemplary work in relation to maintaining its facility. It will be able to extend the life of the structure, which we believe, when it would have completed the repairs to the hydraulic ramp, over a two-week period, by the middle of next week, of seven to ten years so that we can rely on safe and proper travel over the Demerara Harbour Bridge. If I compare the daily total of travelling over the bridge, it is in the amount of eight thousand one hundred and forty-five vehicles. For the issues relating to the Demerara Harbour Bridge, and to the East Bank highway, we have been considering the issues of congestion crisis over the bridge, issues relating to working with the Guyana Police Force to resolve some of those and the growth of vehicular traffic in our country. I want to note that our vehicle stock is said to be some seventy thousand vehicles of all types. We are aware, for the last three years, that the increases in vehicles every year have been the amount of ten thousand new vehicles. In the old days – I would not say which days - the new stock of vehicles would have increased in amount of two thousand three hundred vehicles.
The stock of vehicles has been increases by five-fold and this is why we are putting money into the investments, into the four-lanes on the East Bank, on the East Coast, going first to Buxton and then to Golden Grove, to reduce the congestion and to reduce the delays and to make life easier for people, and also to accommodate the growth. If the cars alone tell us that it is increasing by five-fold, to accommodate the growth which some people, on one side of the House, do not see, and do not want to see, but the people who drive the cars… The people who expect that the four-lane will be completed…
Hon. Member Mr. Harmon stood up in this House and was quoting from an engineer who said that the sides of the canal are being dug out and filled with sand. Well, I do not know of another way to deal with slop because it is a canal which is being dug and sand is being put, which is a material that can be drained to build up and make stable embankment. I say here, again, today that we are going to, soon, have our engineering conference and I am inviting all Members of this House to come and to partake, and to critique and to criticise, and engage in pre-review so that true facts can be known. Persons have said that the revetment at New Hope, that there is writing in the newspapers by this surveyor… [Mrs. Backer: He is not a surveyor.] He is a Geo-Technical Engineer… that geo-technical studies were not done and that the anchor piles are within the area of the slip circle of the revetment. [Mrs. Backer: That is true.] That is not true. [Mrs. Backer: So the boy is a liar.] He can decide for himself, when he comes and sees the information, whether he thinks you are a liar or who the liar is, but I am saying that that is not true. Drill holes were drilled; geo-technical analyses were done; embankment on soil stability analyses was done and calculations were also done by hand. The information is there for evaluation and for all to see. We are now completing an arrangement which will last for the next twenty years. People can scoff at our efforts but maybe there was not anything to scoff at in the other time because there was nothing built. There was nothing to be built after a certain period of time.
I would like to turn to the Maritime Administration Department (MARAD). It is true that we have run up a deficit with respect to dredging.
We have indeed run up a deficit with respect to dredging. This deficit has been occasioned by, as was said, the deprecate state of the steeve end. The steeve end has just been repaired. We expect it to go into service soon, but we anticipate that we will have to replace the equipment and that is what we are working towards. We have also talked… and we are working on the issues. We even made visits to the Republic of Trinidad and Tobago, to its maritime officials, to examine the pilot vessels it has because we, too, have recognised, and we have said, that we want faster boats which will not simply go eight nautical miles but twenty or twenty-four nautical miles, optimal arrangement.
Any death on the high seas in legitimate circumstances is regrettable. Our work, with respect to search and rescue, and all those issues, is well known. We made tremendous efforts on the recent incidents to bring succour and help to those persons who were in distress on the high seas. I believe, given the time of notification which we had… Let me say that there was never a search and rescue centre in the Maritime Department of Guyana - never in the history. There is a search and rescue centre which is mobilised every time an incident occurs and we have said that and it is there. The Hon. Members are welcome to visit.
MARAD has shown tremendous strides to being able to develop the maritime issues in relation to Guyana. Persons on the other side have difficulty in saying Kanawan and Sabanto, but, yes, we hope that shortly those vessels will come into operation. The Parika facility is completed; the Supenaam facility is soon to be completed, and we welcome them to join us on those boats from the People’s Republic of China. I do not want the Hon. Members to be coming out there and attempt to look at a gift horse in the mouth. The vessels have already been cleaned; they have already been in dry dock for the little changes which had to be made and are waiting, on the water, to go over to Parika and Supenaam within a week’s time. Honourable ladies and gentlemen, you can scoff all you want.
I have a long list of roads which we have completed and accomplished, all over Guyana, in every nook and cranny. Maybe I should start by calling out the ones in Linden - Damon Avenue, Regma, Fraser Street, Moraballi… [Laughter (Opposition)] You can laugh at it but when the scissors is brought out I want you to be able to advise those persons for whom you are going to apply the scissor, to their interest, what you cut out and why you would have cut it out.
Let me say too, there are miscellaneous road programmes; there are Hinterland road programmes. Maybe the Hon. Members did not hear the Hon. Member Pauline Sukhai, Minister of Amerindian Affairs. For the first time minibuses are going to Karasabai. She spoke about the reduction in the cost of moving from Karasabai to Lethem, from $60,000 to $6,000. Mr. Speaker, I am telling you, before the end of this year, we shall be at Monkey Mountain. Our Hinterland roads will be at Monkey Mountain. If there was a dream that had to be retrieved for Monkey Mountain we will retrieve it and bring it. We will realise the dream on Monkey Mountain, and beyond that, I am going forward, we shall go further and build and bring for our people. I know the Hon. Member still does not believe that a minibus can go to Karasabai. I will get the man who will take that Member there.
In closing, I want to thank, on my own behalf, and on the behalf of the Government, the efforts that our engineers and administrators have made under difficult circumstances to continue building in our country. I guess they would have a taste of the critiques and criticisms, not bad perhaps, which comes out of this honourable House. I am sure that most people here would agree that they are not warranted. We can refute all of them. If we build there are times when there will be failures and disappointments, but we have to keep building. Any person, any dispassionate observer, any place on this planet, would have to admit - dispassionate, unemotive observer - that the greatest periods of growth, the time for the springing off for Guyana’s development,…The opportunity has never been greater. We can talk about the developments - the expectations we have for petroleum; the expectation we have for developments in the mining, otherwise, and the expectations for an improve life for all of our people. I thank you. [Applause]