Budget Speech - Dr Ashni Singh—20144044 08 Apr, 2014
Ministry of Finance [Dr. Singh] (replying): Mr. Speaker, I hear the chants of “same old PPP” and I think, to myself, immediately that there really is no shame in being the “same old PPP”. The People’s Progressive Party is a party that has practised and believes in democracy and we will always do so. When it comes to a party who believes in democracy, we will be the “same old PPP”.
The People’s Progressive Party has been a party that has always stood with the working people of Guyana. When it comes to that regard, we will always be the “same old PPP”. The People’s Progressive Party has never issued an instruction, through the commander of the Guyana Defence Force, that soldiers must march after a party’s congress. We will always remain that way. Sir, we have nothing to be ashamed of in our past. As a matter of fact, Sir, we have a party whose track record is sufficient for us to be immensely proud of it. If it means that we will adhere to our principled positions, we will stand with and serve the people of Guyana, then, Sir. We will always be the “same old PPP.”
We did not have to change our name from PNC to APNU to deceive the people of Guyana. Sir, the Leader of the Opposition would have us believe that if you change the colour of your tie or the style of your shirt, that if perhaps you change your name and hide behind the flimsy negligee of a new name, that somehow you would not be the “same old.” On the contrary, what we have before us, even if they call themselves the APNU, is the same old PNC. For them, “same old” is something to be embarrassed and ashamed of. No wonder they speak of “same old” as if it is something to eschew because in their case it is. As soon as they can plausibly have the people of Guyana forget their disgraceful and outrageous legacy, the trauma that they wrought upon the people of Guyana, they will unleash upon the people an imposed amnesia.
We do not have to look far for examples of this. We heard the Leader of the Opposition spoke so passionately about Rwanda. It appears that he heard a Member from this side of the House spoke of Rwanda. Conveniently, immediately before a Member on our side of the House spoke of Rwanda, a speaker on that side of the House spoke of Nuremberg, but apparently no one on that side of the House heard the reference to Nuremberg. The Leader of the Opposition is a historian and indeed a historian of some respect and renown. He must know the significance of Nuremberg. Conveniently, that reference was ignored – missed completely - and much ado has been made about the reference to Rwanda. The story of Nuremberg is well known and its insinuations are no less than implications of a reference to Rwanda. Once again, the same old PNC will ignore what transpires on that side of the House and only sees and hears what is happening over here. It is the same old PNC trying to deceive the people of Guyana.
We do not have to look far to see the same old PNC at work. The Hon. Member Mr. Greenidge circulated before this honourable House, this afternoon, copies of email exchanges purporting to represent and indeed representing communication that he and I exchanged. However, he rather conveniently stopped at 28th November, 2013 - same old PNC, selective memory. Mr. Speaker, I draw to your attention, Sir, that as recent as the 24th January, 2014, I wrote Mr. Greenidge and I said:
As I so often address it. I would not be able to replicate the Euro-philic accent, but if I could I would. I said:
Government maintains that there is still adequate time for input to be received and considered in relations to Budget 2014 and wishes to restate our invitation to meet a delegation from the parliamentary Opposition in this regard. To this end, I repeat our invitation to you to suggest a date and time for such a meeting. Alternatively, please feel free to share with us, in writing, any specific suggestions you may wish to make in relations to Budget 2014.”
I went on, Sir, because the email was copied to the leadership of the other parliamentary Opposition party, to say:
“I wish to take this opportunity to clarify also that Government will be please to meet with a delegation from either of the parliamentary Opposition parties individually, should one or other be disinclined to meet.”
I went on further Sir:
“Accordingly, by copy of this email, I invited Mr. Ramjattan to suggest a date and time, should the AFC be willing to meet with us on the matter.
We would similarly be willing to receive a submission in writing, either alternatively or additionally.”
That email on the 24th January. Mr. Greenidge did reply, to his credit. Mr. Ramjattan did not, at least not according to my records. Mr. Greenidge did reply on the 26th January and outlined a very lengthy reply. I am not going to read his reply. He elected not to share his reply with the House. I can only speculate on what his motivation might have been for sharing a partial or abbreviated sequence of the communication. [Lt. Col. (Ret’d) Harmon: He was answering Mr. Nandlall who said that there was no meeting.] Why did he not share the complete sequence of correspondence? Do you know why, Sir? It is the same old PNC – selective memory. They want to conveniently omit from their memories parts of the history of this country, hoping that the people of Guyana would be misled. Why did the Member not share with the people of this country the entire sequence of communication?
Mr. Greenidge left the Chamber.
Hon. Members (Government): Run Carl, run.
Dr. Singh: Typically, Sir, the Hon. Member scurries out of the House. I believe the appropriate verb is to scurry - same old PNC. Do their mischief and then run away – same old PNC.
If one were to peruse the course of this debate one would observe a very clear pattern emerging, a pattern whereby... The Leader of the Opposition’s presentation, which ordinary I would look forward to immensely every year, fell into the same category, unfortunately, this year, and that is to say, Sir, that instead of proffering alternatives or how we could do what we are doing better, and I have no doubt that there are some things that we could do considerably better,... [Ms. Wade: You were not listening.]
I hear the Hon. Member Jennifer Wade saying that I was not listening. I would say that, in fact, I was listening and I paid very keen attention and it would be remiss of me not to acknowledge those instances where recommendations were made because they were made. I see Dr. Cummings here, a new Member of Parliament, who identified, I thought, in a very structured manner, specifics things that she thought were issues and made recommendations, most of which I do not think any of us on this side of the House had a major problem. Instances where recommendations were made they would have to be acknowledged and I would be happy to do so. Instead what we were regaled with was a series of most regrettable misrepresentations and even more unfortunately resort to insult and invective. I say this because it is something that I feel very strongly about because we see emerging now, in our political culture, what appears to me to be, an asymmetric entitlement to criticise.
When the Opposition Members criticise us, in Government, they are holding us accountable. Irrespective of what names they call us and what insults they throw, irrespective of the cacophony or the extent to which their tirade is cacophonous, they are holding us accountable. When we criticise them we are cussing them out and it is arrogance on our part. This asymmetry is most unhealthily. The Opposition does not enjoy a monopoly on the right to criticise; the Opposition does not enjoy a monopoly on the right to call people names; the Opposition does not enjoy the right... I heard, even during the space of today, a reference to something about the donkey’s ears; I heard something about a kangaroo, and those are just the two that I recall. [Hon. Member (Government): Kourchour.] I heard something about kourchour. If we were to use such language we would be castigated for cussing them out because somehow the Opposition, apparently, has no obligation to be accountable to the people of Guyana; it has no responsibility for being truthful; it has no responsibility for being factual about anything that the Members say. It appears that they have no responsibility to be accountable.
In the Leader of the Opposition’s presentation we heard about the school that was broken, and indeed, there are school buildings that are broken; we heard about the water reservoir, I think that was the example which I took note of, that was broken. A few examples were offered. There was the water reservoir and one or two other things that were broken, but we did not hear of any of the two schools that were built; we did not hear about the new dormitory at Waramadong, somehow that was not noticed, that houses hundreds of students; we did not notice the new Amerindian Hostel at Liliendaal that houses dozens of students; we did not notice the new businesses that are being opened throughout the length and breadth of our country, the new industrial and commercial estate in Lethem. We did not notice that because somehow we have no obligation if we are sitting in the Opposition to be balanced or truthful. We can say what we please.
Mr. Basil Williams, the Hon. Member, displayed this well when yesterday he said to us and he will correct me if I am wrong, I have no doubt. He said that of 182 countries in the world, Guyana ranks 5 places from the bottom on the lowest on the lowest of the Human Development Index. It is an index published by the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP). He went further to say that it is apposite to note that Barbados ranks third in the world behind the Unites States and Canada.
I was astonished, astounded. I was worried that I had read the wrong report so I immediately requested a copy of the report to establish whether my memory is failing me more rapidly with the onset of time. Having requisitioned a copy of the Human Development Report of 2013, we see that there are 186 countries listed – it is the Human Development Report of 2013, incidentally of 2013 and I believe that he did say 2013 - of which Guyana is 118. Now I do not know, I would not claim to be a mathematical genius, but 186 minus118 is not 5, at least not when I did arithmetic. [Mr. Neendkumar: Same old PNC.] Yes you said it there Hon. Member - same old PNC. Here is the report. [Minister raised report to the Assembly.] Stop misleading the people of Guyana. Do not mislead the people; stop misrepresenting the facts to the people of Guyana. [Interruption]
Mr. Speaker: On second Hon. Member.
Mr. B. Williams: Might I respectfully refer to Standing Order 40. [Interruption]
Mr. Speaker: Unfortunately the Speaker does not have a copy to make any…
Dr. Singh: I would happily tender it to you, Sir.
Mr. Williams: I am on my feet. I am making a Point of Order.
Mr. Speaker: Yes. Hon. Prime Minister.
Mr. Hind: Mr. Speaker, I think the issue is whether Guyana is five from the bottom or whether we were at 118.
Mr. Speaker: Thank you for that...
Mr. Hinds: This is an issue that can be determined objectively.
Mr. Speaker: Thank you for that Hon. Prime Minister. Hon. Members we all have access to different reports at different times.
Hon. Members, we have a debate. We must have a debate.
Mr. B. Williams: Is the PPP challenging that Guyana is the second poorest country in the Caribbean Community (CARICOM)?
Mr. Speaker: Hon. Prime Minister, Members of this House, we will proceed with the debate. No questions will be put to the Minister of Finance. We all have our opinions. We are winding up this debate tonight. Proceed Hon. Minister of Finance.
Dr. Singh: Thank you Sir. Suffice it to say that, according to the report, which I would be happy to share with you, contrary to the assertion of the Hon. Member Mr. Basil Williams; Guyana is not fifth from the bottom or even remotely close to that. We should not be surprised by this. There is a simple way that we can characterise this discovery – same old PNC.
Let me say this: the dilemma is that throughout this debate we have been regaled with such misrepresentations from that side of the House and when misrepresentations were not readily at hand resort was had to what I described earlier as insults and invectives. I could give many examples of these but I will select one in particular that resonated with me. [Mr. Nandlall: Dear Carl.] It is not Carl on this occasion, but instead it is my friend and honourable brother the retired Lieutenant Colonel Joseph Harmon. I select this example for a reason that, I have no doubt, will be evident to him. In another place Mr. Harmon would call me a friend and brother. [Mr. Bond: I know of that place.] You do not know that place yet, son. In another place the good colonel would call me a friend and brother but when it came to the amphitheatre of competitive politics my friend and brother elected to say to me that I am tired and that my team is tired. He said, “Dr. Singh and his budget team are tired”. He went on further and offered me, what perhaps he would characterise as fraternal advice, that I should listen to the small voice within me and that I should give up and find another job. I was struck by the highly personalised nature of this comment, particularly given that it came from one who I would readily and happily describe as a friend and brother. [Lt. Col. (Ret’d) Harmon: I have a bigger work for you...to the party.] The colonel is offering me a promotion.
I will say this: First of all my team is far from tired and I think that it is tragic that... Put me aside for the moment because I signed up for this amphitheatre of competitive politics. There are dozens of hardworking professionals in the Ministry of Finance, young and experienced professionals, who work day and night in the interest of and in service of the people of Guyana and you insulted them, Sir, by calling them tired.
I do not know if I heard correctly but I believe I heard the Leader of the Opposition spoke of the blind commissioner. Leader of Opposition if I am quoting you incorrectly stop me immediately. I believe I heard the reference to the blind commissioner. I do not know any commissioner who is a politician and I do not know which commissioner was being referred to, but no public officer should be insulted in this manner in this House. We are politicians in this House and even if we might argue about whether we should call each other names, and so on, I do not think that we should call each other names. The Leader of the Opposition is not an ordinarily a man who calls people names but perhaps he is now signed up for the same old PNC, intimidating public officers, hoping that if do his bidding he will stop calling them blind and they might march after his congress. It is the same old PNC - insulting and intimidating public officers. I condemn it on behalf of this Government.
I will go further and say that the economic policies of the People’s Progressive Party (PPP) are not about Ashni Singh and if Ashni Singh gets tired the Member can be assured, long after Ashni Singh would have tired and fallen it will still be standing and succeeding - the same old PPP. The Member needs not worry about whether I look tired and he needs not to worry about whether I might be getting another job, because long after I am gone the PPP will still be on this side of the House.
There is even a more important lesson and there is a reason why I chose the contribution of my friend and brother. You know why, Sir, because even though in that other place he would call me a friend and brother and take all manner of solemn oaths and obligations, that I rather suspect you would be vaguely familiar with,... I hope that you do not mind that I am disclosing that you and I are not the only two Members of that organisation because I gather that rumours abound that you and I are the only two, there are a few over there. Mr. Harmon is not the only one.
I would say the reason why I chose that example is because it illustrates the hunger for political power, that in the haste to seize political power every boundary of decency is crossed, every principle is abandoned and personal attacks are unleashed if they are politically expedient to do so, even by them who would profess and proclaim you to be a friend and brother. That is the reason I chose that example. Such is the hunger for political power by the same old PNC. [Lt. Col. (Ret’d) Harmon: That is why you are angry because that goes directly to you.] I am not angry, Sir. As I said this is very little to... As you know, I am a partner of a collective and long after I am gone, Sir - let me repeat it slowly and listen to me keenly - the People’s Progressive Party will still be on this side of the House.
Mr. Speaker: One second Minister. I recognise Mr. Basil Williams, the Deputy Speaker.
Mr. B. Williams: I stand in relation to Standing Order 41(1) and it states that we must be relevant in this House. The Minister of Finance is not proceeding on any matter that is relevant to this debate. We could understand if he wants to throw in a snippet or so but he cannot continue to regale this honourable House with irrelevant matters. I am objecting on the grounds of his irrelevancy. If he does not wish to treat with the material issues, which are before this honourable House, we will not give him a hearing. I have already indicated to him that we are giving him an hour and he has already used up 45 minutes and he has not said anything.
Mr. Speaker: One second Mr. Williams. Just let me deal with a few matters. One point of correction is that the Minister of Finance shall speak and finish his debate without a time restriction, except that reasonableness must apply.
The second thing is that relevance went through the window weeks ago. However, Minister I would ask that we proceed onwards. I believe that you have driven home your point. The matter has been made on the point to Lieutenant Colonel (Ret’d) Harmon and Mr. Harmon, retired, whichever version one wishes to use. The point has been made metaphorically and literally.
Dr. Singh: This has been the nature of the debate over the past week or so. There are a number of things that were said. I would not respond to each of them because I think almost all of them have been adequately responded to by my colleagues on this side of the House. There was one matter in particular that I feel constrained to correct and that is a matter... [Mr. Ali: Nagamootoo and economics.] I would not deal with Mr. Nagamootoo. An elementary textbook would explain to Mr. Nagamootoo how to calculate per capita Gross Domestic Product (GDP). I would not detain this House. I would not detain 65 Members of this House with a lesson to Mr. Nagamootoo on how to compute per capita GDP. I would have thought that, given his experience with death last year, he might have been a bit more careful but never mind Mr. Nagamootoo.
Mr. Ramjattan said something that I think really needs factual correction. He said many things that I could respond to but I would be here all night. He made reference in particular to Government’s bank accounts and balances that were recommended by the Auditor General to be transferred to the Consolidated Fund. That is a fact. The Auditor General did identify that there are bank accounts that, for one reason or the other, have residual balances in them of various amounts. The amounts are stated in the Auditor General’s report. The Auditor General did say on page 11 of the report:
“The Ministry of Finance indicated that considerable action was taken in 2010 with respect to the closure of bank accounts resulting in 136 accounts being closed and the relevant balances transferred to the Consolidated Fund.”
A similar reference is in the previous year’s report. That is not the point that I really wanted to make. These are all Government’s bank accounts. The Consolidated Fund is the Government bank account. Let us say, to use one example that he used, I think, he used the Agricultural Rehabilitation Project and that is another of Government’s bank account. That bank account might have originated from an old project, perhaps a project called the Agricultural Project. The project was executed and at the end of its execution a balance was left remaining, perhaps to discharge unknown liabilities at the time, or perhaps to meet any obligations that might have been in dispute or, indeed, not transferred because somebody did not do what he or she was supposed to do. Any one of those things could have happened.
Fast forward, now several years after that project would have completed execution that account has money in it and that money, according to the Auditor General, has to be transferred to the Consolidated Fund. Most of those balances are extremely old; they have been there for 15 to 20 years and sometimes more than that. We need, first of all, to thoroughly investigate and examine, why those balances are still there, if the undischarged purposes have now been discharged and whether the balances are unencumbered and can be transferred, but the more important point is that that account is also a Government bank account, so moving money from one of Government’s bank account to another of Government’s bank account does not create revenue out of which expenditure can be met. That is as moving money from your left pocket to your right pocket, Sir. You do not become wealthier by moving money from one account that you hold at Scotia Bank to another account that you hold at Demerara Bank Limited; you do not become wealthier by moving money from your left pocket to your right pocket, Sir; you do not become wealthier by changing a cheque to cash, Sir. These are both bank accounts that belong to Government. Moving the money from one account to another - I am not saying that it is not required in many instances, it is - does not generate revenue that becomes available to meet expenditure. Were that to be the case, Sir, you could generate income... You know that housewife, who you referred to, in that case her husband could... Do you, Sir, remember that example that you gave about the housewife whose husband was not declaring all of his income to her?
Mr. Speaker: Dr. Singh, you have had a go at Lieutenant Colonel (Ret’d) Harmon and you moved on to Mr. Ramjattan, but the debate is really to the Chair.
Dr. Singh: My apologies, Sir.
Mr. Speaker: I know that Mr. Ramjattan seems to be very engrossed... [Interruption from Opposition Members.]
Dr. Singh: The same old..., but in our case it is something to be proud of and not to be ashamed of. As I said, I was doing this as level headed. It requires some patience on my part.
The husband of that housewife, were we to use that analogy, Mr. Ramjattan’s couple, the husband was under declaring his income to his housewife, that husband will be able to generate additional income by moving money from his left pocket to his right pocket or by moving money from his shirt pocket to his wallet. Both accounts belong to the Government and moving money from one account to another account does not generate revenue, does not increase the net balances of the Government. The same applies...
Mr. Ramjattan cited the total revenues of a number of statutory bodies, including National Industrial & Commercial Investments Ltd (NICIL). Let me say this: each one of these entities was established by a law. The Guyana Geology and Mines Commission (GGMC) was established by an Act enacted by this Parliament. It retains its revenue under a statute enacted by this House. The Guyana Forestry Commission is established under a statute enacted by our predecessors in this House.
In 1991 our predecessors in this House enacted something called the Companies Act 1991. NICIL is incorporated as a company under the Companies Act that this House enacted in 1991. Let us not create the misleading or mistaken impression... I would like to give Mr. Nagamootoo the benefit of the doubt and say that it was not his intention to mislead. I can only assume that it was a mistaken impression. I do not believe that he gets wealthy when he moves money from his left pocket to his right pocket. I am sure he knows this. The people of Guyana must not have this mistaken notion perpetuated that somehow these entities are operating outside of the framework of the law. They were established under a law. They retain their revenues under one law or another enacted by this House. In fact, this People’s Progressive Party/Civic (PPP/C) Government is proud to have been the first government to include in the national estimates, for the information of the Parliament, the detailed revenue and expenditure of these very statutory bodies. We are the ones who brought them here. They are not a secret. We put them in the Estimate and bring them here. You can check the Estimates of 20 years ago they were never there. I sought myself constrained to mention...
Mr. Greenidge: I just like to correct two points being made. First of all, as regards whether or not the accounts of the public corporations were incorporated in the Budget, I wish to assure you that whilst they may be more comprehensive now...
Mr. Speaker: Mr. Greenidge, you may clarify on a point of clarification based on something you have said, but to go back into old practices means the debate will never end.
Mr. Greenidge: Let me just clarify something because it is not the first time I have run into this difficulty. To the extent that a speaker states something that is factually wrong, I am not allowed to object to it or to correct it. Is this what you are saying?
Mr. Speaker: It is a debate and, therefore, on both sides, erroneous things and misinformed things will be said. For example, Dr. Singh brought a United Nations (UN) report just now. Mr. Williams said he has another one. Where do we go? It is a debate. Do you see? Standing Order No. 40 (b) states that a Member may rise to clarify something based on his own speech at some time. Standing Order No. 40 (b) states:
“...to elucidate some matter raised by that Member in the course of his or her speech...”
You may rise to elucidate or clarify something said while you were speaking, if it is misinterpreted by another Member. Strictly speaking, to be able to rise to give corrections as we go really interrupts the flow of a debate. You may make the point quickly and we will move on, but we cannot have multiple interruptions.
Mr. Greenidge: I hear you, Mr. Speaker. I would like to have your assurance that when the speaker is finished, on two matters...
Mr. Speaker: No, sorry. We are going to finish this debate tonight. If not, it becomes an unending...a right of reply will then have to be given to the Minister because the Standing Order is that any debate which is unfavourable to the Government, the Government has the right of last resort to it and so we will never end. It must be brought to an end tonight.
Proceed, please, Dr. Singh.
Dr. Singh: I am happy to hear the Hon. Member, Mr. Greenidge, acknowledge publicly that the level of detail submitted on the finances of public corporations and other public enterprises is greater than before. I believe I heard him acknowledge that and I thank him for that admission.
What was most regrettable is that there was, almost for the entire part, an absence on the part of the Opposition of any acknowledgement of anything at all that is happening that they agree with or that is positive in Guyana. [An. Hon. Member: That is not true.] Like I said, with notable exceptions. I did not say for the entire part; I said for the greater part. I think there were one or two attempts at magnanimity, including by Mr. Ramjattan until he got excited this afternoon and went off about kangaroos and so on. Setting that aside for the moment, Mr. Ramjattan, you did acknowledge one or two. I think you started off on a generally positive note.
I have said it before and I must say it again. Where this Government brings to this National Assembly an initiative, a policy, a programme, or a project that the Opposition has, itself, advocated and chooses now, either conveniently or opportunistically, to denigrate it or even, perhaps, to ignore it, it is disclosing its hands as a critic for the sake of criticising. I have, as I do every year, perused the promises that all three of the political parties made to the people of Guyana. I would not regale you, Sir, with those promises contained in the People’s Progressive Party/Civic (PPP/C’s) manifesto that we have continued to deliver on. They are many. We have remained faithful to our manifesto. We have delivered on our promises and done so considerably. We are well on our way to delivering on all of our promises and I think that does deserve some applause. We are well on our way to delivering on all our promises to the people of Guyana, notwithstanding what I described in the Budget speech as this self-styled new dispensation.
A more interesting reference for current purposes is the manifestos of the other parties in this House. I heard Mr. Granger say that this Budget is anti-people, anti-poor people, anti-old people, and anti-progress. Mr Granger said that this Budget is counter to the interests of the poor people, the middle class people, the business people, the old people, and the young people. He saw nothing of merit in the Budget. The only problem is that having gone through APNU’s manifesto...and I do not have a problem with our budget theme being similar to APNU’s budget manifesto theme, whether it is a good life for all Guyanese or a better Guyana for all Guyanese; it is something we do not disagree on.
I would not detain this House, but I could pick a page anywhere and regale you with examples where APNU, itself, promised things that we have delivered in this Budget. I heard of the east/west divide, big words intended to drive fear. Do I hear same old People’s National Congress (PNC)? I heard of the east/west divide but we included hundreds of millions of dollars for hinterland airstrips, a promise, in fact, made in APNU manifesto. We are delivering on the promises that they made and not only on the promises that we made. We are delivering on our promises and theirs. Did I hear any acknowledgment of the $1 billion we are investing in hinterland roads? No. If you listen to the Leader of the Opposition, nothing is being done for the hinterland at all. [Mr. Nandlall: They cut the money for the airstrip the last time.] As a matter of fact, I am reminded by my Colleague, the distinguished Attorney General, that, last year, APNU, although it promised the people of Guyana rehabilitation of hinterland airstrips in its own manifesto, cut the money for the hinterland airstrip from the Budget, failing to deliver its own promise to the people of Guyana.
Would you like me to read what APNU manifesto states? Hinterland airstrips, major and key secondary roads to mining and forestry sites, and Amerindian villages and other communities outside of main settlement areas would be upgraded. That is what we are doing, but they cannot see that and acknowledge that. They would not. Do you know why, Sir? It is because it is the same old PNC, no matter that they think the people of Guyana can be hoodwinked by the new name APNU. Even if they call themselves APNU, they know you are the same old PNC.
Whether it is the new Demerara Bridge, whether it is a transportation subsidy, whether it is tourism training and enhanced facility... [Lt. Col (Ret’d) Harmon: Did you not hear me recognise the Harbour Bridge?] To his credit, Mr. Harmon did acknowledge but his Leader saw nothing in the Budget. At least, he could have said that the people who will cross the Demerara Harbour Bridge got something.
It is APNU that promised tourism training. Do you know what they promised, Sir? They promised a separate and dedicated training institution for the tourism and hospitality institute. Does it sound familiar? Yet, when we announced the establishment of a hospitality institute, which will train hundreds of young Guyanese to get jobs, the Leader of the Opposition said he saw nothing in the Budget for business; he saw nothing in the Budget for young people; he saw nothing in the Budget about jobs. Do you know what, Sir? It is the same old PNC. The list goes on.
The same, indeed, could be said of the AFC’s manifesto.
We might have struggled with this one-seat majority and the legislative challenges we face but we will not be diverted from the calls of delivering on our promises to the people of Guyana. Where appropriate, where we find things that are commendable in the Opposition parties’ manifestos, we will deliver those two. Do you know why? It is because we are a listening and caring Government.
The Private Sector Commission (PSC) and the organised private sector bodies in Guyana have identified a number of priority areas – the dredging of the Georgetown Harbour, the East Bank road, an alternative bypass on the East Bank, the Linden to Lethem road, interior airstrips and hinterland roads, the Demerara Harbour Bridge and, certainly of no less importance, environmental enhancement and clean up of our city. Do you know what, Sir? All of these things that they identified as priorities are in the Budget, identified by the people of Guyana and not by the people sitting in Congress Place.
Much was said, almost disparagingly, about Main Street. If results were to be the measure, Main Street has a far better consciousness of the pulse of the nation than Sophia, Congress Place. I assume that the reference to Main Street was the Ministry of Finance. I could have been mistaken. Small wonder then that so many persons, both through their organised representative groups and individuals in the streets of Guyana, came out and said they welcome Budget 2014.
The Hon. Minister, Minister Rohee, spoke so movingly of the ordinary Guyanese citizen who stopped him at the corner of Avenue of the Republic and Robb Street and who said to him, “I saw something in Budget 2014 for me.” Many of us have been on the receiving end of similar acknowledgement. [Mr. B. Williams: What is this thing about who praised your budget? Who gave views and all kinds of things; who liked your budget and who did not like your budget; what is the point? Tell us something about our responses.] The utility or lack thereof of responding to what Mr. Basil Williams has said has already been demonstrated to this House.
We have a responsibility in this House for leadership and I hasten to add that we have an obligation to display responsible leadership. Responsible leadership is about ensuring we manage the expectations of our people. I tried to catch the words of Mr. Granger towards the end of his presentation. He spoke of what the Budget is supposed to do for people and he gave a few examples. I really did not manage to catch the words he used but I will say this: as responsible leaders, we have an obligation not only to say to our people that they must expect wages to be doubled next year, they must expect old age pension to be enough to live on, or they must expect the Government or the public treasury or the State to provide for every need... The State has its responsibilities and obligations, but a responsible leader must also ensure that he does not create in the minds of his people an expectation that the state will solve all of their problems.
The truth is that the citizen has a great individual responsibility for his own future and his own prosperity. Any leader, anywhere in the world, who says to a public employee that his or her wage should be doubled and that is what is reasonable, frankly speaking, is creating an unreasonable expectation and creating a misleading expectation. Any leader who stands up and says that Value Added Tax (VAT) should be slashed from 16% to 10% is a leader who is creating an unrealistic expectation in the minds of his people. Having created an unrealistic expectation, because he does not have an obligation currently to deliver on that expectation, he then has to turn around and use his one-seat majority in this National Assembly to create a dysfunctional situation and then go out there and say that the good APNU wanted to cut VAT from 16% to 10% and the big bad wolves on the Government side refused to do it. That is the game but APNU has been unmasked in this game. It is irresponsible to say to the people of Guyana that wages will be doubled, pensions will be doubled, and VAT will be cut by half.
Mr. Ramjattan spoke of the family. If a family reduces its income by half and doubles its expenditure, it will soon be bankrupt. I do not know, Opposition Leader, if your advisor is Mr. Greenidge. He has some experience with bankrupt economies. I like how you smile at my Mr. Greenidge jokes, Mr. Leader of the Opposition. I know that you have a particular fondness for my Greenidge jokes. This PPP/C Government and our successors in successive PPP/C Governments will never bankrupt Guyana at the altar of political expediency. Do you not think it will make me an immensely popular man to go out there and cut VAT? Imagine our prospects if we cut VAT from 16% to 10% and call an election. My President would be the most popular man in the universe. He might win one of those parliamentary majorities – 93% or one hundred and something per cent, like it used to be in those days. My President could say to me that I should cut VAT from 16% to 10%, call an election and let me win one of those 93% or 103% majority that the PNC used to win in those days. But we will never do that! We will never sacrifice the sovereignty and prosperity of our country at the altar of political expediency. Never shall be the day, Sir! Never shall be the day! [Mr. B. Williams: The PPP/C says it will never cut VAT.] No, Sir. Mr. Speaker, do you hear the...
Mr. Speaker: What I would like to hear is you addressing the Chair and not trying to get into cross banter.
Dr. Singh: Okay, Sir. Let me say definitively that I did not say we will never cut VAT. I said we will never bankrupt Guyana like Mr. Greenidge did! I never said we will never cut the VAT! [Interruption] Mr. Speaker, do you hear the misrepresentations being made on that side of the House? Do you know what you call that, Sir? It is the same old PNC trying to distort what I said. I never said we will never cut VAT! They are trying to misrepresent the facts once again!
Mr. Speaker: Hon. Members and Hon. Minister, could we move on, please? I suggest we move on.
Dr. Singh: Mr. Speaker, lest there be any doubt, I will repeat that I never said we will never cut VAT and no misrepresentation on that side of the House can change that. I said we will never bankrupt this country. We will never pursue policies that are aimed... [Interruption] The point has been made.
Responsible leadership requires us to be frank and honest with our people, but our Friends on that side of the House, not least by their current display, are far removed from honesty and frankness with our people. They would listen to something that I say in this House that is crystal clear and seek to distort it to deceive the people. They would read a report and come and stand up here and recite something that is not in that report to mislead the people of Guyana. Such is the nature of the Opposition that we are dealing with.
This PPP/C Government will always have the interests of the people of Guyana at heart - their interests today, their interests tomorrow, and their interests one generation from today. [Ms. Ally: I will never cut VAT.] I am glad you are confessing that; that is not our position. It might be yours, ma’am.
Mr. Speaker, I could quite happily go on for a long time, Sir, and I could repeat that point a hundred times if you permit me. [Mr. B. Williams: I will never cut VAT.] I am not the one saying it; he is. Confession is good for the soul.
Our track record speaks for itself. It is this Government that has more than doubled the income tax threshold in less than 10 years. It is this Government that has reduced the income tax rate from 33 1/3% to 30%. It is this Government that has reduced the corporate tax rate from 35% and 45% to 30% and 40%. It is this PPP/C Government that has done all of those things. Let there be no mistake about our faithfulness to the interests of the people of Guyana.
The ultimate test is: are we moving in the right direction? If I were told that there were some things we could do better, I would agree. I believe most people in the Cabinet would agree. I know the President would agree. If I were told that in addition to the things we are doing, a few more needed to be done, I rather suspect that all of us on this side of the House would agree. Let me say unequivocally that all of us on this side of the House would like to see more done; we would like to see more done more quickly; and we would like to see it done better. To say that nothing has happened - and I return to my Friend, Lt. Col (Ret’d) Harmon, who said... [Lt. Col (Ret’d) Harmon: I have to give you a copy of my speech.] I have it. I read it with disbelief and some measure of disgust but put that aside for the moment. The Hon. Member, the Lt. Col (Ret’d) Harmon, said that Guyana is not better for anybody or for most people from 1992 to now. These are not his exact words. [Lt. Col (Ret’d) Harmon: Read my lips. Do not misquote me.] No, sir. Your tune changes far too frequently for me to read your lips. I would get dizzy reading your lips because your tune changes so frequently. You are the one who said you would approve funding for the Amaila road and then came here and tried to cut it. Your tune changes too frequently. [Lt. Col (Ret’d) Harmon: All I am saying is do not misquote me. Let me hear what you are saying. I have my speech here.] I do not have to misquote you. I am done with you. I have moved on. The good Colonel said that Guyana is not a better place for most Guyanese. If one were to examine the responsibility with which we have discharged our stewardship of the Guyanese economy and of Guyana, the facts speak for themselves.
Let us examine some key statistics. What was the per capita income of Guyana in 1992? In 1992, the per capita income of our country was US$454, after 10 years of Mr. Greenidge’s distinguished – with emphasis on that word – stewardship. In fact, I will go back a little bit and say how per capita income moved for the 10 years prior and then 10 years subsequent. In 1992, Guyana’s per capita income was US$454.
In 2013, it was US$3, 496. The minimum wage of the public sector, after all of those soldiers and policemen got that memo and they had to march at congress and after Mr. Greenidge had discharged ten years of stewardship of the Guyanese economy, was the equivalent of US$25 per month. Today, it is the Guyana Dollar equivalent of US$192, not where we want it to be.
Our external debt was a whopping US$2.1 billion. Today, our external debt is US$1.2 billion and our economy is many times larger. Our external debt as a percent of GDP... One does not get debt write off as an act of benevolence, Sir, as you should be well aware. One gets debt write off as a result of demonstrating policy responsibility and we quality for debt write off on the basis of responsibly policy [Mr. Greenidge: The debt write off came before you.] We qualified for debt relief on the basis of responsible policy implementation. [Interruption] Do I sense that the cacophony has subsided? I believe it has. Our external debt to GDP ratio in 1992 was 561.3%; that is to say that our external debt was 561.3% of the size of the Guyanese economy and I hear Mr. Greenidge heckling about debt write off. We could argue about when debt write off started, but the question is: why did debt write off become necessary? Why did debt write off become necessary, sir? Sir, the Hon. Member, Mr. Greenidge, presided over the accumulation... [Mr. Greenidge: Do not personalise it.] Mr. Speaker, it is okay when the personalising happens on that side of the House and is aimed at this side of the House. It is okay when the personalising happens from that side of the House and is aimed at this side of the House. [Mr. Greenidge: Did you hear me say “Ashni Singh”? How many times have you mentioned my name? That is all you have done.] These are facts, sir. Face the facts, Mr. Greenidge! Own up!
Mr. Speaker: Okay, Hon. Minister, let us move on.
Dr. Singh: Face the facts. Is there a paramedic in the House? One might be needed. As they say, “Is there a doctor in the house?” One might be needed. Guyana’s total public debt amounted, in 1992, to 600% of GDP. Today, it is 58% of GDP.
Our infant mortality rate – that is a rate expressed in terms of 1,000 live births – was 42.9%; it is now 12.9%, reflecting improved maternal and infant care. The public healthcare system as a percentage of the National Budget in1992 was 4.8%. Last year, it was 13.6%. Number of doctors per 10,000 of the population: in 1992, we had 2 doctors per 10,000, now we have 9.5. The number of nurses per 10,000 in 1992 was 5.9. Today, we have 15.3. This is impact. This is impact, if you want one: the rate of low birth weight babies as a percentage of live births was 23.9% in 1992. Today, it is only 8.9%. Do you know what that meant? It meant that one in every four children was born with a low birth weight in 1992. Today, that has declined to 8.9%.
Every indicator that one looks at, whether it is life expectancy, whether it is expected years of schooling, whether it is mean years of schooling, whether it is our GDP and GNP, as I have alluded to earlier, or whether it is our human development index, a whole digest of statistics could be produced and, indeed, is available to demonstrate that we have made tremendous progress in improving the quality of life of all Guyanese people.
If one looks at an indicator like our exchange rate - and much was said of our exchange rate... I know it is a subject that Mr. Greenidge, in fact, made a number of post speech interventions on. In 1970, the Guyana dollar to United States of America dollar exchange rate was 2:1. In 1980, it was 2.55. For the greater part of that period, our exchange rate was fixed; in fact, perhaps, the whole of the period. The year 1980 is a good point of reference. Mr Greenidge, I believe, became Minister in 1983, although he would have us believe that he became Minister in 1989. [Mr. Greenidge: Did I say that?] No, sir, you did not. Mr. Greenidge often speaks of the post 1989 years and he very rarely speaks of the 1983 to 1989 years, which we can call the years of decay and rot. He seems to have a fondness for 1989 to 1992 and he wants the Guyanese people to forget that he was also Minister for 1983 to 1989.
Mr. Speaker: Move on from Mr. Greenidge, please.
Dr. Singh: Anyway, Sir, our exchange rate was, in 1980, 2.55:1. By 1992, our exchange rate had moved from 2.55:1 to 126:1. Let us compare. What matters is the stability of the rate. [Mr. Greenidge: It went to 200 under you.] It moved from 2 to 126 under you and that is a fact. [Mr. Greenidge: That is not so. You just read something different.] Okay, Mr. Speaker. Mr. Greenidge became Finance Minister in 1983. The exchange rate in 1983 was 3:1. In 1992, the exchange rate was 126:1. That is an incontrovertible fact. Over the last ten years, a comparable period, the exchange rate has moved, if I take 2003, ten years ago, from 194:1 to 206:1. There are many other references. Whether it is our external reserves which, by 1990, were virtually zero, today, we have nearly $800 million in exchange reserves. Yes, your exchange reserves were nearly zero.
Let us talk about what transpired over a period, as we want to talk about same old PPP and same old PNC. In 1975...
Mr. Speaker: Dr. Singh, one second. You have been dwelling for some time on the past. I believe that we are dealing with the 2014 Budget so at some time we expect you to go into the Budget of 2014.
Dr. Singh: Certainly, Sir. I will readily acquiesce to your request and simply make this final historical point. In 1975... [Mr. B. Williams: The Speaker said to move on. You are disrespecting...] I said I will readily acquiesce. I am not the one who refused to obey the Speaker’s order when it came to allowing a Member to speak in this House. I am not the one who tried to drown out a Member of this House from speak when the Speaker had ruled, so do not speak about respect for the Speaker. We, on this side of the House, have respect for authority and the rule of law, unlike you, on that side of the House. Mr. Speaker, if I might be permitted, Sir, to make this final historical point... In 1975... [Interruption] Mr. Speaker, when they try to drown you out, it is because you are saying something that they do not want the people of Guyana to hear. When they try to drown you out, it is because you are saying something that they do not want the people of Guyana to hear. In 1975, our external reserves had accumulated - at the time, sugar was doing extremely well, as most of us know - to US$99.7 million. We had, as external reserves, in 1975, US$99.7 million. By 1988, we had the grand sum of US$4 million of external reserves, after five years of Mr. Greenidge’s tenure.
Mr. Speaker: Okay. I think that we need to move off from Mr. Greenidge. Move on to the Budget.
Dr. Singh: Yes, Sir. Today, our external reserves stand at US$776 million. I could easily regale this House and detain this House with every statistic, be it macroeconomic, be it social indicators, be it educational attainment, be it our standing in the international community, but I would not. I believe that the point has been made.
Budget 2014 represents the latest instalment of responsible policy by this PPP/Civic Government. Whether it is the purchase of uniforms for our children at school or the payment of a cash grant to parents, whether it is the construction of a new hospital, whether it is the construction of a fibre optic cable to attract investors to create new jobs, whether it is responsible management of the macro economy to ensure that investors coming into Guyana do not have to worry about exchange rates stability, interest rates stability, domestic price stability or domestic wage volatility, this Government has demonstrated a track record of taking Guyana in the right direction and Budget 2014 will continue to do so.
The Leader of the Opposition said that there are no jobs. We want jobs in Guyana. Give us Amaila. If you give us Amaila, power will be cheaper, energy will cheaper. I will say this: no responsible political leader...never mind they say that we get personal with them; they do not ever get personal with us. The nation is watching to see the double standards practised by this Opposition. The nation is watching. I do not mind the personal bard because the nation is watching them. No political leader in this country can claim to be responsible and not want our country to harness hydropower so that we can have cheaper energy, so that we can attract investors, and so that we can create jobs, and any political leader who stymies or frustrates that project is a political leader who is not serving the interest of the people of Guyana. One cannot say that one wants to create jobs and one is deferring hydropower in this country for another 15 years. One cannot say that one is committed to creating jobs and be frustrating the passage of legislation like the Anti-Money Laundering legislation, trying to use it as a political bargaining chip, trying to extract political rents in exchange. One cannot, Sir. No responsible political leader can claim to be serving the interest of his people if he will place his country at risk of being black listed by the international community.
Mr. Speaker: One second. What has happened? Members of the public, you are not to engage in taking photographs engaging Members of the Assembly, please. Unless you are a member of the press corps seated over there, you are not to do that. I have not seen anything, but please desist.
Go ahead, please, Dr. Singh.
Dr. Singh: Mr. Speaker, as I was saying, there are some things that we must be prepared to put above partisan politics and we have two examples, the Amaila Falls Hydropower Project, with a major international investor ready to invest in this project, with the prospect of energy being cheaper and more affordable and more reliable, with the prospect of investors – again the Opposition Leader spoke of job creation. Who is going to create these jobs? Investors are coming in, who will find Guyana an attractive place to do business because electricity is not as expensive as it currently is. Those are the people who will create the jobs. One cannot say that one is committed to private sector growth and then frustrate the achievement of affordable energy in our country. And so we have before us two prime examples, to extremely illustrative examples, the Anti-Money Laundering legislation and the Amaila Falls Hydropower Project.
I hope that we would have learned from our collective experiences over the last two and a half years. I said in the Budget Speech that this, perhaps, is the occasion for some introspection. I sense, from the Opposition, mixed signals. Sometimes I hear the proverbial scissors being wielded and, on other occasions, I get different signals. I trust that the Opposition will use the days available to them or the hours available to them to have a look at their manifesto, to have a look at the things they promised the people of Guyana, to remind themselves that there is much in Budget 2014 that they said to the people of Guyana they will do. They cannot abandon those now. And there is much that they might not have promised the people of Guyana, but that the PPP/C promised the people of Guyana and we are delivering. I invite you to peruse, at the same time, our manifesto as we have done yours.
Let me say, Sir, that when we come to the time, only now a matter of hours, a day at most, perhaps, for consideration of the Estimates, I hope that we can rise above the business of brandishing these scissors just for the purpose... [Mr. Greenidge: [inaudible] favour.] I am not asking for a favour. I am asking for the interest of the people of Guyana to be served. I have no apology for asking for that. I am asking for the interest... Do you believe that you are doing the people of Guyana a favour, sir? I am not doing the people of Guyana a favour. I am their servant. You might believe that you are doing the people of Guyana a favour. I am not doing the people of Guyana a favour. Mr. Greenidge might believe that he is doing the people of Guyana... I heard him say that we are asking for a favour. The people of Guyana are not asking you for a favour, sir. You and I are servants of the people of Guyana.
As I said, I will end on the same note, the note of this asymmetry. I hear Mr. Greenidge lamenting about the ‘cuss out’. It is okay for every disparaging and insulting comment to be made from that side of the House, for every criticism...when they do so, they are holding our feet to fire; they are holding us accountable. [Mr. Nandlall: Parliamentary scrutiny.] Is that what it is called, AG? It is called parliamentary scrutiny, Sir. When the shoe is on the other foot, as they say, they cannot take it because they believe that they are above criticism. Does that sound familiar? Do I hear the cries ‘same old PNC’? They are tired of the same old PNC. Just like the people of Guyana, they are tired of the same old PNC. Finally, they and the people of Guyana are saying, “We are tired of the same old PNC.”
We will approach these Estimates in good faith. We have no problem answering every single question that will be asked. We know that we can withstand scrutiny. We have never shied away from a question asked at this Parliament - never. There is no question remaining unanswered in this Parliament except for one, I think, for which the answer is pending until after... Apart from one which has been deferred to after this Budget deliberation, no other question has been unanswered in this Parliament. We have no difficulty answering any question posed to us. We will subject the Estimates to the ultimate degree of scrutiny and we trust that once that would have been done, those on that side of the House, my distinguished Hon. Friends, will see merit in the proposals contained in the Estimates for 2014 and will vote resoundingly in favour of this year’s Budget.
I thank you very much, Sir, and I exhort them and I encourage them to give us their support. Thank you very much. [Applause]
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