Budget Debate 20133933 05 Apr, 2013
Lt. Col (Ret’d) Harmon: Thank you very much Mdm. Deputy Speaker. Mdm. Deputy Speaker, your accession to office as Speaker this afternoon would have caused some significant changes in my presentation, since I was prepared to address Mr. Speaker. Be that as it may, I rise to make my contribution to this 2013 Budget Debate. A budget presented by Dr. Ashni Singh on behalf of the PPP/C Administration.
I have heard a Hon. Member on the other side of the aisle state that the Opposition has failed to pinpoint weaknesses in the budget and that no strong criticisms of any of the measures have been made. This has been the fundamental problem of the PPP/C over the last two decades, they have not been listening. The people spoke in 2011 and they are still not listening.
This budget enjoins us to overcome challenges together while accelerating gains for Guyana. In terms of a theme, in my respectful view, it represents a departure from the previous themes of Remaining on Course, Staying steadfastly on course and so on, which course, of course, went off the way a long time ago.
This year we are told by the Dream Weaver to share the dream of the PPP/C for another five years. This dream is 21 years too late and the Guyanese people will not wait another day beyond the next election to say to the PPP/C Government that they have to deal with reality. The reality is that unemployment in Guyana is 12% or more. Among young people it is at least 25% and among young women it is even higher. [Mr. G. Persaud: Source.] You will get all of that. The reality is that violent crime and corruption, drugs and gun-violence are now part and parcel of life in Guyana. The reality is that our young people cannot get employment while the Government signs off on contracts which allow for foreign companies to operate in Guyana and not hire Guyanese labour. It is a reality that the army of the poor is being swelled by unwilling volunteers, while the small group of friends and relatives of the Regime becomes super wealthy. We cannot afford another dream; the PPP/C’s dream has become a nightmare.
We noted a curious development in the speeches of my Friends on the other side, specifically the Hon. Member Mr. Irfaan Ali. We are now hearing of continued improvement and growth for the last seven years. I am really sorry that the two gentlemen are not here because it seems as if this continued growth started immediately after the Hon. Minister became a Minister. He became a Minister in September of 2006 and all the growth started after that. Is this not an admission that all of those figures about growth and the rosy picture painted by previous Finance Ministers were all but fluff? Fourteen years before that we had Finance Ministers such as Bharat Jagdeo, Asgar Ally and Sasenarine Kowlessar. What were all of these people doing, giving us fluff? Now we hear that everything started seven years ago and everything is about seven years. [Mr. Greenidge: Because that is when they started cooking the figures.] Yes, figures started cooking then.
The exhortations by the Government to overcome challenges together appears to us to be no more than a slogan, as overcoming challenges together pre-suppose the need for partnership in overcoming challenges. On this side of the House we believe in partnership. The name APNU is A Partnership for National Unity; the Alliance for Change is an Alliance. Both of these political organisations have embedded in the names they have chosen, a recognition that partnerships are essential to the growth and development of Guyana. But the record of our Colleagues on the eastern side of the aisle, over the last year, clearly demonstrates that working together means doing things their way or no way. It is either their way or the highway.
So what did the Nation hear coming from that side of the House? That we are a one seat dictator; that the Government will make our one seat majority meaningless; that the President will not assent to any Bills, unless the Government side of the House agrees with it. This aggressive non conciliatory tone has been exemplified especially by the Budget Speech of the Hon. Minister of Finance and more recently by his erstwhile junior Minister, the Hon. Member Bishop Edghill, who, in my humble opinion, has done the greatest harm so far in this debate to any notion of working together by his bombastic presentation in this House last night. Happily we detect from the presentations of many others on this side of the House a desire to work together; we determined that. However, our desire must not be to just work together just to get the budget passed in this House. The desire must be to work together for the good of Guyana, to give a good life to all Guyanese. So this kind of rhetoric coming from the Government has in large measure informed their action when dealing with the Opposition.
Hence, the Government that now seeks the Opposition’s support in overcoming challenges together is doing the following; some of these things. Even while the debates are going on and even before we have had a consideration of the Estimates, they have gone to meet stakeholders and all sorts of people that were spoken about by the Hon. Member Bishop Juan Edghill last night. Again, stealing a march or attempting to steal a march, but as my friends say, “that is fluff”. It is a Public Relations (PR) exercise designed to create a favourable atmosphere for the reception of the budget.
If the Government is so concerned about the involvement of the citizens in this process let them agree to put the big screens outside of this National Assembly, so that the real stakeholders can see live the proceedings of this House. [Interruption] [Mr. G. Persaud: We have it in the homes of the people; it is in the homes of the people.] That is the National Communication Network (NCN) that is not the people’s home.
This Government that now asks that we work together has for the last year ignored the legitimate request of the Leader of the Opposition to pay the rent for the building in which his office presides and to furnish it with items that were previously purchased and disposed of by this Government in November 2011 only days before the Elections. These are legitimate concerns. This is a right which is enshrined in the law, yet, after one year, we cannot get a decision made to take those things into consideration. You cannot ask a partner in development to work together and you do not give him the resources with which he has to work and with which he is legally entitled. [Hon. Member: It is called abused.] It is abused. Thank you.
In spite of this display of minority power our Members of Parliament have sought and in some cases have been able to work with Ministers of Government on issues that affect the People of this great country. I am happy to see my friend, the Hon. Minister of Housing here because I have had the opportunity of working with Minister Ifraan Ali on several projects and I must say that some of these project have been successful. I want to acknowledge that. In fact, on the 21st February, 2012, Minister Ali and I issued a joint statement itemising some of the matters which we discussed and what we needed to have done for the benefit of the Guyanese people. These discussions were not about the Budget 2013. These discussions centred around the priority areas such as, taking actions on the Squatters’ Regularisation and Relocation Plan. We discussed and agreed on developmental information as it relates to new housing developments and expansion of housing developments. We discussed and agreed on a mechanism that will ensure that all the impediments that act as a barrier to regularisation of the Angoy’s Avenue area, were removed. The issue of materials shortage also we discussed. The fact that some of the contractors who had actually complained to the Leader of the Opposition that they were being starved of resources, we discussed that and we agreed to make a public statement about the use of stone and cement. We endorsed a statement made by the Hon. Minister of Natural Resources that these quarries had to extend their working hours to allow for stone to be given to all of the contractors. So we have had some amount of cooperation and we believe that partnership is important.
In my contribution to the debate in 2012, I said this:
“Mr. Speaker, like the Hon. Minister, we also believe that physical infrastructure plays an extremely pivotal role in transforming a country. However, where we parted company is in the methodology.
We in the APNU believe and we still do believe that this pattern of development which sees large sums of the money spent on projects which have the appearance of providing jobs for the selected group of persons.
We believe that this sector is critical enough to demand a national conversation on the network of roads and bridges necessary to develop our hinterland. We believe that the talent for doing so resides right here in this country and we should develop such a plan.”
That was last year and now I repeat and rely on those sentiments which were expressed, but I am not alone in this demand on the Government. Only last week Mr. Michael Correia, the Chairman of the Ogle Airport Inc., had a very beautiful ceremony held at Ogle to mark the Ogle Airport’s certification as an international airport said this to President Ramotar who, along with the Hon. Minister of Public Works, was present at the head table. He said that we must put in place a comprehensive long-term infrastructural development plan to support growth in Guyana and in this economy. He said that national development and expansion inevitably will create its own chaos for traffic jams which get worse, particularly on the East Bank Road and in our city.
We in the APNU believe that, as a nation, we need to confront the serious challenges together; we agree with that, but in identifying those challenges the choices which we make in allocating resources must be sensible and practical.
Let us, therefore, now look at the budget and the provisions that have been made for issues in the area of infrastructure. I call this the “infrastructure challenge”.
On the area of see and river defence at page 28, paragraph 450 of his Budget Presentation, the Hon. Minister identified the challenge as follows, he said this:
“Mr. Speaker, we are in a constant battle to protect and maintain the structural integrity of our sea and river defence structures and to develop sustainable shore zone management systems to contain the ravages of the ever encroaching Atlantic Ocean.”
“We have a porous or weak sea defence structure…”
We agree with the Minister and we are only too concerned with the damage done to the livelihood of our citizens along the coastland of this country. Only recently, in Georgetown, we were reminded of the fragile state of our sea defenses when all of Kingston and part of Main Street, including the residences of the President and Prime Minister, were flooded. This is not just about the malfunctioning of one koker. It is about a pattern of neglect in this vital sector. That is what it is.
In this Budget the Minister allocates $1.9 billion for sea and river defence; $143,392,000 to deal with critical works, while a heavy reliance is placed on a mangrove restoration programme. This five-year mangrove management action plan is not enough to satisfy the majority of Guyanese who live along the coast who are affected by this plan if it is in place. The Hon. Minister should have to say to us how effective this mangrove development plan has been and whether the black and/or the red mangrove seedlings that have been planted so far are effective.
What are we doing? We are predicating our sea defenses and the safety of our homesteads on a mangrove development plan. This is what we are doing. This, in addition… [Interruption] Just wait. You are so anxious. Citizens can take very little comfort in the quality of what is known as critical works being done to sure up our defenses and this is where the money has been allocated – $143 million for critical works.
The quality of these works, outside of the works supervised by the international lending agencies, is generally of a very poor nature. I have some photographs here taken by a gentleman by the name of Mr. Stanley Ming a few months ago that show the quality of work which is done on our sea defense on what they call critical work. These are parts of our sea defenses that have been damaged by overtopping of the Atlantic or in some cases the sea defense, itself, had been washed away. Do you know what they are patching it with here? Mud. This is in the area of Buxton. These are photographs taken in the area of Zeelugt on the West Coast of Demerara. It is the same thing. They are patching it with mud.
We have to be concerned when the safety and security of our homesteads are treated in such a very casual manner or caviler manner, as my friend advises me. This is the reason we are concerned that the critical works to be done and the allocation of funds in this budget for critical works is far too little. It is far too small an amount of money for the challenge which we face by overtopping and flooding.
In the area of air and river transport, there is more glaring evidence of poor choices that we make in the budgetary allocations in this sector. This sector represents the economic and commercial life of Guyana. In 2012 the Government expended amounts totaling $5.4 billion; the bulk of which went to mobilisation advances for the Cheddi Jagan International Airport expansion. This year another $5.3 billion has been budgeted for this project. $248 million was allocated to rehabilitate airstrips in Region Nos.1, 2, 7, 8 and 9. Let me here add that the $4 billion made available for the completion of a four-lane access road to the Cheddi Jagan International Airport… Then we begin to see the vast sums of money spent on what this flagship project is all about. For 2012 - $5.4 billion, for 2013 another $5.3 billion and then one throws in another $4 billion for the road that goes to the airport – the four-lane road. This is not a road that is critical at this point in time and this is why my contention is that we have made bad choices in how we allocate funds – bad choices.
This is a road, of course, that has been stalled for a long time because we could not address issues such as the removal of the telephone posts. We could not address issues of the squatters that were on the road. We could not address of the pipes for Guyana Water Incorporated (GWI).
I cannot understand if a major project such as this is contemplated, why all of these issues are not dealt with even before one breaks ground. [Mr. Ali: It was dealt with.] Why was it held up for so long? Something is wrong about that. Something smells about it. We are doing all of this to create an aviation hub for flights to Africa. On which rationale I am prepared to debate the Hon. Minister and I am prepared to say now that that rationale cannot stand the scrutiny of an experienced time. It is again fluff. That is a hub.
If we were to factor in the developments that are taking place at the Suriname International Airport, they have been saying the same thing and they have actually spent the money already and extended their airport and all of that so we have missed the bus and we still continue to pour money into this project when we cannot even organise airlifts for Guyanese residents and citizens who want to go to North America, Canada or the Caribbean. We are now going to Atlanta in some little group to see whether we can encourage another airline to come here. We still have to understand the reason why Delta pulled out – the full reason – but that is another matter which I shall have to discuss with the Hon. Minister of Transport.
The hinterland is Guyana’s El Dorado. This is what the Minister Robert Persaud said, this is what Minister Ali said. All of these persons who speak good things about Guyana who came here – the birdwatchers, the people who speak about Kaieteur Falls – all of those platitudes were about the beauty of the hinterland, all of them. [Mr. G. Persaud: Are you disputing that?] I do not dispute that. From this said hinterland, Minister Robert Persaud said to us that in 2011 363,000 ounces of gold were declared… [Mr. G. Persaud: Public knowledge.] …almost $10.2 billion. That is public, but in 2012 he said that 438,645 ounces of gold were declared – $13 billion. When we add this to the other precious and semiprecious stones, the rare earth that is being discovered in the Rupununi, the rice cultivation in the Rupununi, timber and all of these things we recognise the dynamic nature of what is happening in the hinterland.
Interestingly enough, the vast majority of flights that go into the hinterland take off from Ogle. While we are saying that the hinterland is important, while we are saying that this is where El Dorado is we are trying to build an airport to take people to Africa; that is what we are trying to do.
The Ogle Airport has been built and is extended and expanded to the beautiful structure it is and according to Mr. Michael Correia, who spoke at that ceremony, after all of this work was done there is no debt for the Government to repay. He said that he estimates that the Government of Guyana, therefore the people of Guyana, will benefit from over 50% of the future profits of Ogle Airport Inc.
What I am saying is we have a development at Ogle where the majority of the flights go into the hinterland that we say is El Dorado and yet we are trying to pour over USD$150 million into an expansion that we do not even have air lift capacity for right now. This is why I am saying that we have made bad choices in the allocation of resources in this budget.
I would like to look next at the development of our port – Port Development. This is another area that is the life blood of this country. The largest volume of business, the largest volume of trade is done by the sea. It is not done through the Cheddi Jagan International Airport, apart from… I should not even say that. The largest volume of trade is done through the ports of Guyana.
Again this year the Government has not allocated any funds, the Government has allocated not a cent, for port development, but this is what the Minister said in his analysis of the situation. He said, “Government remains cognizant of the need to keep our commercial riverine passages passable by ocean going vessels; in particular, access to the Demerara port by optimally-sized vessels is a critical prerequisite to trade activities”. Do you know what? The Minister has not allocated a cent to this fiscal activity.
Last year I addressed several issues in this sector which the Government continues to pay no attention to. In May, 2012, the Chairman of the Shipping Association of Guyana…
Mdm. Deputy Speaker, in May, 2012, the Chairman of the Shipping Association of Guyana, Mr. Anthony Astwood, presented a financial proposal for the improvement of the operational efficiency of the Demerara Harbour to the Government, to the Hon. Minister, Mr. Irfaan Alli. The Hon. Minister said to the Shipping Association of Guyana that he will take this plan to the Cabinet Subcommittee on Infrastructure and they will get back to the Shipping Association of Guyana. The next time anything was heard was last night when Bishop Edghill came out and said, “Oh, we just met with the Shipping Association of Guyana and we are going to have a public/private partnership”. This was since May, 2012, and this is not the first time that this matter has been raised; since 1995 when Mr. Anthony Xavier was the Minister of Works there was a document which they called a Compendium of Reports and Surveys done by an international organisation that ranged between 1961 to about 1995 and in that document Mr. Anthony Xavier, who was the Minister at that time, recognised that the development of a port authority was a crucial and important issue to the development of this country in 1995. Since May, 2012, the Shipping Association of Guyana gave their framework plan to the Hon. Minister and nothing was heard since. They said that they gave it to you. May, 2012, I have the report of the meeting, Minister. Yes, I have it.
Ms. Teixeira: Sorry but just the point about the Hon. Member. Minister Xavier became Minister in October, 1996.
Lt. Col. (Ret’d) Harmon: Thank you for the correction, Mdm. Teixeira. It would have been 1998. The fact of the matter is the story was there for a long time. Mdm. Deputy Speaker, you can see where the bulk of the money is going. It is going on the flagship projects – Amaila Falls, Cheddi Jagan International road and other areas – were the PPP is preparing to pump money into it for an election which they feel that they can win.
My colleagues here, on this side of the House, Mr. Sydney Allicock, Ms. Dawn Hasting, Mr. Ronald Bulkan, Mrs. Valerie Garrido-Lowe have all spoken about the inadequate allocation for roads in the hinterland with the particularly sorry state of the roads and bridges in Region No.9.
I want to put here on record that the announcement made by the Hon. Minister of Transport about a bridge across the Demerara Harbour is one which we fully support. We believe that it is necessary for there to be another bridge across the river.
Several months ago when the bridge had broken down, I said that we need to have a better bridge than the Marriot. That is where the money should be spent; not on the Marriot. Build a bridge that would affect the lives of more people than a Marriot Hotel. We did not want that.
In the issue with relation to housing and the impact of the Government policy on housing to the poor has been adequately dealt with in my respectful view by my colleague, Mrs. Volda Lawrence. However, what I wish to say is that I agree with Mrs. Lawrence that the price of land for building of houses is still too high and that the Government keeping the price of land so high that they are riding on the backs of poor people in this country. We have to do something about this and make the land more accessible and cheaper. We have to look at – this is a matter which I discussed with the Minister – the question of building housing schemes and things of that nature. We had a discussion on that and we need to see it done.
In relation to water, this year $2.7 billion is being spent to increase the level of quality of potable water in certain areas, but I do not want to go too much into this but I would again say to the Minister that even thought we spend so much money on water there are people in Sophia, up to now in Fields A, B, C and E, who still do not have access to potable water and in cases where they have access to it is only done for a very short period of time. There are people still in Dazzel Housing Scheme, at Blairmont Estate who still do not have water on a 24-hour basis.
The water in Georgetown, I am will to bet that the Hon. Minister would not put a glass under his pipe and drink that water. [Mr. Ali: Mdm. Speaker, I am willing now to take from any tap in Georgetown a glass of water and drink it.] Have somebody go and bring a glass…
Mdm. Deputy Speaker: Gentlemen. Mr. Ali, if you do not… Mr. Harmon, please be seated.
Lt. Col. (Ret’d) Harmon: Yes, Mdm.
Mdm. Deputy Speaker: This is not a house of worship so I do not expect silence, but it is also not a bar.
Minister of Housing [Mr. Ali]: I stand…
Mdm. Deputy Speaker: Mr. Ali, I am speaking. It is not a house of worship nor is it a bar nor is it a rum shop so I would expect that I would not see two and three men seeking to exchange glasses with each other, hence my reference to a rum shop. Mr. Harmon, could you please continue?
Mr. Ali: May I stand on a Point of Order, Mdm.?
Mdm. Deputy Speaker: What is the Point of Order, Sir?
Mr. Ali: The Hon. Member issued a challenge and I wish to accept the challenge.
Mdm. Speaker: That will be done at the end of this sitting.
Mr. Ali: I would want to do it in the presence of the media.
Mdm. Deputy Speaker: Mr. Ali, I am not Mr. Trotman. I will not adjourn the House. I will adjourn you, outside of the House. Mr. Harmon, please continue.
Lt. Col. (Ret’d) Harmon: Thank you very much. We have been asked by my friends on the other side of the aisle to dream but I do hope that when the Hon. Minister goes to sleep he does not dream about the youth from Builders Beyond Borders and the pipe that they turned on the brown stuff which came out which they thought was blood. I hope he does not have a nightmare of that nature.
So far as communication is concerned… I have such a wide berth I shadow at least three Ministers so I do have to have some time. The allocation of radio frequencies by President Jagdeo, shortly before demitting office as President, in the manner and the numbers given to his party comrades is wholly unacceptable and the APNU views this as an improper exercise of his discretion.
I believe that the Speaker of the House, Mr. Trotman, was moved to describe that decision as obscene – this is the publication here. He said that it was an obscenity and I agree with him. Much of the information about this matter is already in the public domain and therefore I need not go over it again but what I would wish to say is that the persons who have been issued with these licenses must be subjected to the same scrutiny with which the persons who are now applying for licenses have been subjected to and those who have been asked to reapply. The chairman of the board must act and be seen to be acting on this matter. Equity and justice demands it. [Ms. Shadick: The Chairman alone…] The Chairman and the board, everybody. If they cannot get it right let them resign.
In this Budget the Minister allocates $81 million to National Communications Network (NCN). This is an entity whose allocation we will not support. The Minister of Communication, who is the President, Must release the report of the investigation into the wrongdoings of this entity; a matter over which the Office of the Leader of the Opposition has written the President’s Office twice and all he got back from him is ‘we are considering the report’. We need the report. The public needs it.
In conclusion, I wish to say that this Budget fails to address the true realities of Guyana in 2013. The choices made by the Minister in allocating the resources of this country does not reflect the urgent priorities in physical infrastructure. The flagship projects – the Marriot Hotel, the CGI expansion, and Amaila Falls – all suffer from one fatal defect, public buy-in. These projects were conceptualized in secret and their executions still contain certain elements of secrecy. As such, I wish to reiterate APNU’s position on these matters. Bring all of the information on these projects to the National Assembly and let us have an open debate on them.
While we appreciate the efforts made by Government to share some classified information to a small group of persons we believe that anything short of bringing the information to Parliament is unacceptable we must have a broad stakeholder involvement in infrastructural development of Guyana. A revised National Development Strategy would be a useful starting point in this regard. For the foregoing reasons I believe that this budget has given the wrong priorities to allocating resources and requires rework. As such I would not support its passage in its present form. I thank you. [Applause]
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