Budget Speech - Lt. Col. (Ret’d) Harmon—20143828 03 Apr, 2014
Lt. Col. (Ret’d) Harmon: I rise to make my contribution to the debate on Budget 2014 titled, A Better Guyana for All Guyanese.
Yesterday in the debate certain Members, the right wing of the Government side, offered to retire me and then to give me a comfortable room at the Marriott Hotel. Well, I just want to say to my dear friends that I do appreciate their concerns to my welfare but I need no room at the Marriott Hotel and I will be retiring from this seat until such time that the people say I should be over there.
I have no resources of the people which I have to manage. In fact, all that I have to offer the hard-working people of this country is hard work, and I offer my hard work to the people of this country, but, it is for those persons who have the resources of the country to manage, and to manage properly, who sometimes in the course of their work improperly managed those resources and sometimes do other things with them, they are the ones who have to fear that the rooms, they may have, might be rooms with a single bunk bed or a double bunk bed.
Since the time allocated to me is a very short one, I will get to the meat of the matter immediately. If indeed my language is not extremely elegant as some other Members of the House, I would hope that the House appreciates it because, in my humble view, because the people who are the real judge or judges of this debate are the people of this wonderful country and therefore I shall be speaking to the people of Guyana in the course of this debate.
From the outset, I wish to make one thing very clear, that is, that we, in the APNU, reject the notion that any person or entity can authorise expenditure from the public purse which is not approved by this National Assembly.
The eight years continuous growth, which was a boost by the Government, is little comfort to the hard-working people of Guyana. What they know is that the People’s Progressive Party/Civic (PPP/C) has now been in Government over 21 years and for the vast majority of them their lives are no better. So please, Dr. Singh, Hon. Member, recognise your position, you are part of an administration that has failed to deliver a good life or a better life for all Guyanese. There is no doubt that your policies have created a fabulous life for a small number of them, but for the vast majority of our people it is a hard life.
Our friends on the other side of the aisle have made, and have been making, the case that we should work together. I was eagerly looking forward to the Hon. Minister Dr. Westford leading us in singing the song Let Us Cooperate but she did disappoint me by not singing. Unfortunately, these noble ideas of cooperation end here. Outside of this House is another world, the world of the PPP, confronting an uncompromising, contemptuous and arrogant political machinery which seems to feel that its minority status in the House can be made up by being the proverbial schoolyard bully outside of it.
This budget, such as the two previous ones, in the Tenth Parliament, has an underlying feature, or a golden thread, running through it which says this: Never concede anything to the Opposition, stay on course, more of the same.
How else does one explain the attitude of the Government to initiatives by the Opposition? Since 2012, in our budget debate, the combined Opposition made certain proposals to the Government about budget considerations, but what has it done:
• The Government refused to engage in any meaningful budget talks at the tripartite level.
• The Government refused to reduce the toll on the Berbice River Bridge.
• The Government refused to reduce Value Added Tax (VAT) by, at least, a single per cent with a promise by His Excellency, the President, to look at the tax structure and to establish a tax committee.
• The Government refused to increase old age pension to $15,000 which we were asking for in 2012.
• The Government refused to commission an inquiry into Guyana Sugar Corporation (GuySuCo) and Guyana Power & Light (GPL) as a precondition to any further subventions to those entities.
• The Government refused to guarantee the independence of constitutional entities. Even after a motion was passed in the National Assembly it continues to refuse to do so.
• The Government refused to give presidential assent to any Bills passed in the National Assembly which the PPP did not support.
• The Government refused to address the issues affecting the National Insurance Scheme (NIS).
• It refused to have the moneys in National Industrial & Commercial Investments Ltd. (NICIL), lotto funds, Guyana Geology and Mines Commission (GGMC) transferred into the Consolidated Funds.
• It refused to take action on National Communications Network (NCN) and the Government Information Agency (GINA).
• It refused to establish a Public Procurement Commission.
It is all of those within in the last two years. Even if we had even a modicum of movement in the majority of these measures proposed by the Opposition, we would certainly have had a different kind of budget today and this is what the people of Guyana must know.
The problem, though, is that this rising tide of unemployment, joblessness and hopelessness, in Guyana, has the tendency to create an outcome that will consume us all. No amount of macroeconomic fundamentals and selective use of statistics, by my honourable friend, Minister Irfaan Ali, will change that reality. As a mass based partnership, the APNU has travelled the length and breadth of this country over the last two years. We had the opportunity to look into the eyes of our citizens and what they said to us was reflected in our speeches and the questions we asked in this National Assembly.
It is quite all right for the Hon. Member Mr. Joseph Hamilton to refer to an excellent presentation by Mr. Ronald Bulkan as suited to a Regional Democratic Council (RDC) meeting. Mr. Hamilton, we make no apology for that. That is what you call bringing the business of the people to a forum which, from all appearances, you are either ill-equipped or unable to do.
Since the commencement of the Tenth Parliament APNU has consistently said that public infrastructure plays an extremely pivotal role in transforming Guyana. We have consistently stated that we do not believe in the current pattern of development which sees large sums of the people's money being spent on projects which have the appearance of providing jobs for boys and benefits only a segment of our population.
We called for a national conversation on the transportation system of our country, including roads, bridges, airstrips, airports and waterways. Last year, we repeated a call from the chairman of the Ogle Airport Inc., calling for a comprehensive long-term infrastructure development plan to support growth in the economy. Since then, we have had meetings of the National Competitive Strategy Committee, a component of which made certain recommendations for infrastructure development. The Government also sponsored an engineering conference in 2013 but sadly we see no evidence of these outputs manifesting itself in the major expenditure in this budget.
The problem is that the Minister and his budget team are locked into a budget matrix, set by this Government, in which the bulk of the public purse is spent on a few so-called transformational projects. Even if the Government intends, after eight years of this Dr. Ashni Singh budget's team, to respond to the calls of the people for change, it simply cannot do so without causing a budget disaster.
For example, we are locked into spending on Amaila Falls Hydropower Project, even if the investor has pulled out; we are locked into spending on Cheddi Jagan International Airport (CJIA) expansion project, even if the economic reality calls for change or modification and we are locked into spending on roads, even if the cries of the population require a change in priorities. While speakers, on the Government side, extol the virtue of this budget being pro poor, the reality is that it is not so and we have more of the same.
My colleagues, let us face it, Dr. Singh and his budget team are tired and they have produced an uninspiring budget, so uninspiring that the Hon. Minister, himself, in his presentation, seemed to have been infected by the tiredness of his team.
Thank you Dr. Singh for your many years of budget presentations, but I am of the opinion, and one which many persons in Guyana share, that it was your worst presentation and that you should follow that small voice within you which must be saying, “Give it up Ashni. Find another job.”
Since our Budget 2012 presentation APNU has said that the Government's spending on public infrastructure has been wrongly prioritised. We believe that public infrastructure must serve human development. If we understand that development prerequisite, we can then look at the infrastructure of our country in a different way. Since this issue is so important to the future of Guyana, rather than addressing the sums allocated to the projects within this sector, I will attempt, in this presentation, to give an insight into the broad policy approaches, in specific areas, that an APNU government will adopt in public infrastructure.
A more detailed examination of the budget for roads and bridges has been done by my colleague, Ms. Annette Ferguson, and further details of our approach to housing, water, and so on, will emerge in our consideration of the estimates, but in a broad sense. In 2012, the Government said that it was to invest $11.88 billion on roads and bridges, it spent $9.4 billion. In 2013, the Government said that it would have invested $12.68 billion on roads and bridges and it only spent $13.3 billion of that sum. In 2014, we are investing $13.7 billion to improve roads and bridges and once the pattern holds true the full sum will not be spent. It seems clearly that there is an issue here of either poor planning or poor execution of infrastructure works or both. Is it that there is a systemic problem in the way Government spends in this sector? I refer to the manner in which responsibility for the construction of roads and bridges are divvied up in the Government.
The Ministry of Works is generally responsible for public works in Guyana. In this regard it is provided with resources by the state to undertake these works. However, what we find in Guyana:
• The Ministry of Housing and Water is building roads and bridges.
• The Ministry of Local Government and Regional Development is building roads and bridges.
• The Ministry of National Resources and Environment is building roads and bridges, and
• The Ministry of Public Works is building roads and bridges.
The result is that in different communities there is different quality of roads. Contractors are allowed to get away with bad practices and citizens’ complaints are not heeded.
Our demand is that this practice must be put to an end. It is to make one Minister responsible for roads and bridges in Guyana. If Minister Benn cannot do it, straighten him out or his Ministry. In an APNU government this will be a priority. An old Guyanese proverb says too many cooks spoil the broth, but, in this context, we may see that too many cooks steal the pot.
The fact of the matter is that since the commencement of this Tenth Parliament, the Government has spent, and will spend, nearly $34.3 billion on roads and bridges. Is this the true picture? In this year, the Minister has allocated a further $7.7 billion for rural communities and hinterland roads. On page 32 of the Minister's budget speech, he said that $12.7 billion, this year, in the budget, will be spent on roads among which will be the construction of the Parika to Ruby backdam road. This opens up access to over 330 farming households.
No sooner that the budget was read, we saw a notice in the Guyana Chronicle newspapers, dated 30th March 2014, calling for expressions of interest for the building of a road from Parika to Goshen by GGMC. Are we building one road over the other? If this is a flyover I would really like to see the design. We are building one from Parika to Ruby and another which starts from Parika and flies over Ruby and goes straight to Goshen, all within the same budget period.
What APNU advises is to put all the moneys to be spent on roads and bridges together from all sources. Do a proper assessment and prioritise roads and bridges construction and hand it to one Ministry.
To continue in the present vein is to encourage situations as presented as the case of the bridge at Moruka. This is a situation in which the contract of a bridge, which actually costs $43 million, was awarded to a contractor, the contractor then did some poor work but because it was work being supervised by the Ministry of Local Government and Regional Development he said that it was not poor work, that it was good work. This is what he said here in the Stabroek News dated Tuesday July 28, 2013. Even though the contractor said that it was good work this is what he said about the project design and the engineering capacity of the Ministry (The contractor’s name I would not call, but it is in the papers.):
“Many of the complications associated with the project, especially those related to the quality of the structure stem from the inadequacy of the design.”
In fact, what the contractor was saying is that “It was not me, blame the Government. It gave me an inadequate design to build a bridge”.
In fact, when we talk about looking our citizens in the eye,… On Thursday, January 30, 2014, a team from the APNU visited and spoke directly to the Toshao of that community – Basil Cornelius. The photograph is here; we were looking straight in the eyes of Mr. Cornelius and this is what Mr. Cornelius said. He spoke of what was called favouritism by the regional officials in granting of numerous contracts to a single individual or a selected few. Even after the community had complained about the quality of work the contractor was paid his money. He was paid $28 million in the first instance and there was a sum of $15 million which was held so that the Ministry would have been satisfied that the work is completed. Even though Minister Whittaker went to that community and expressed his concerns, as he quite rightly did, about the quality of work on this bridge and basically made certain statements that he will take action against the contractor, the contractor has been paid his full sum of money.
Our two major bridges require some special comments, the Demerara Harbour Bridge and the Berbice River Bridge.
Before that, however, the Minister, in his speech, on page 33, paragraph 4.52, stated:
“Our Government has collaborated with the Surinamese Government for the construction of the fixed bridge over the Corentyne River. Resources are budgeted to...prepare the bridge terminal.”
Yet, agreement with a foreign state is reached, an unspecified amount is budgeted, work is to commence soon and the Minister has not provided the details of this transaction to the National Assembly. This is a clear example of the contempt which the Hon. Minister and his budget team treat with the National Assembly. We will have to demand that the Minister gets it right.
The volume of traffic on the Demerara Harbour Bridge and the Berbice River Bridge requires separate attention. In this Budget, the Minister allocated $338 million for critical works to extend the life of the Demerara Harbour Bridge. We are aware of the condition of the Demerara Harbour Bridge and the staff of the Demerara Harbour Bridge, under Mr. Adams, must be congratulated for keeping that Bridge afloat. My dear Colleague and Friend, Mr. Irfaan Ali, traverses there on a daily basis and I am sure that might have been one of the motivations to ensure that the Bridge stays afloat. Time has run out on that Bridge and the regular patching would not extend the life of it for any significant period, given the volume and weight of traffic on it on a daily basis. I am advised that on a daily basis, at least, 17,000 vehicles traverse that Bridge.
We urge the Government to expedite the work on the new bridge. In fact, last year in our budget presentation, we said that we support the construction of a new bridge. We are asking you this year to expedite the work on it. But we have one caveat. It is that a bridge authority should be established to deal with all issues related to the bridge. In this regard, what we are saying is that we do not want Mr. Winston Brassington to be part of the construction process for this bridge. What we are saying is we do not want National Industrial & Commercial Investments Ltd (NICIL) to be part of the construction process for this bridge. We want a bridge authority that will be able to handle all matters with the exception of that individual and that entity. This is A Partnership for National Unity’s (APNU) recommendation on the matter.
The Berbice River Bridge: the toll for this Bridge has been a drag on the citizens of Guyana, but, more particularly, on the citizens of Berbice who are forced to cross the Bridge on a regular basis. If ever there was needed a clear demonstration of the callousness of this Government, it is the way in which it has dealt with the needs of the people in Berbice.
Here is one example: after taking millions of dollars from the National Insurance Scheme (NIS) – the nation’s social safety net — to invest in the Berbice River Bridge, the Comrades on the other side of the House, by themselves, their servants, agents or assignees, allowed the Berbice River Bridge Company (BRBC) to set a toll which can only be seen as taking from the poor to give to the rich. It is what I call Robin Hood reversed.
This Government has further facilitated a deferral of the payment of dividends to the NIS in preference to other shareholders in the Bridge Company. In the face of this assault on the people of Guyana, but the people of Berbice more particularly, the Government was either compliant or complacent.
The current toll for the Bridge is as follows:
Motor cars - $2,200
Mini Buses - $2,200
Motor Cycles - $2,000
Four wheel vehicles - $4,000
SUVs and pick-ups pulling a boat for recreational activities - $4,000
It goes on.
In recognition of the toll being too high, the Berbice River Bridge Company Inc., for a specific period over 1st August, 2013 to 12th August, 2013, reduced the toll for the crossing of the Berbice Bridge to the following rates:
Four-wheel drive vehicles and sport utility vehicles (SUVs) were reduced from $4,000 to $3,000; SUVs and pick-ups pulling a boat for recreational purposes were reduced from $4,000 to $3,000; four-wheel drive vehicles, SUVs and pick-ups pulling horse buggies were reduced from $4,000 to $3,000; four-wheel drive pick-up transporting BBQ grills were reduced from $4,000 to $3,000; 50-seater buses were reduced from $12,800 to $9,000; 30-seater buses were reduced from $7,200 to $6,000; large trucks were reduced from $13,600 to $10,000.
This reduction coincided with the People’s Progressive Party/Civic (PPP/C) Congress in Berbice and only catered for the large vehicles which are used to bus and truck PPP/C supporters from one event to the other - how selfish. This is the PPP/C that speaks about being a pro-poor government.
Having heard the cries of the people of Berbice for lowering of the toll to ease the burden on them, we of the APNU filed a motion in this National Assembly. We trust that the ebullient Member from Berbice, the Hon. Member Mr. Jafarally, will, for one moment in his life, stand on the side of the poor people and support the motion when it comes to the Floor for debate.
Mr. Speaker: Hon. Member, you will require an extension of 15 minutes to continue.
Dr. Roopnarine: Mr. Speaker, I ask that the Hon. Member be granted an additional 15 minutes to continue.
Question put, and agreed to.
Lt. Col (Ret’d) Harmon: What APNU proposes is not a reduction in the cost for the big vehicles and SUVs. Our proposal is to reduce the toll for vehicles which carry the ordinary people, the small man, and the poor. We are seeking reduction as follows: motor cars from $2,200 to $1,000; mini buses from $2,200 to $1,000; we believe that motor cycles, which are poor people’s vehicles, should be travelling free; SUVs and pick-ups from $4,000 to $3,000. The prices for the other big vehicles should be left alone. We are dealing with the poor man. That is basically our position on the Bridges.
I now turn to water transport. I must say that I believe the Hon. Member, Mr. Robeson Benn, must have had a peep of my presentation and produced in the today’s edition of the Kaieteur News an artist’s impression of a floating ramp. I want to address that issue.
The population we have, dwindling though it might be, is a very mobile one. This has been the result of the building of new housing communities, which we acknowledge. That is a fact. But while these communities are being built, the major centres of business and employment have largely remained static.
In addition, the increasing number of persons who seek a livelihood or to live in the hinterland of Guyana has placed a greater reliance and stress on the roadways, waterways and airstrips. Unfortunately, our budgetary allocations have not taken note of this reality. So while the Government boasts of the number of cars on the road as an indicator of development, what we have is crumbling deteriorating infrastructure to cater to the needs of this change.
On any day, if one were to stand at the Vreed-en-Hoop, the Georgetown, the Parika, the Supenaam, or the Charity Stellings, one would see the vast numbers of citizens who utilise speed boats to get to their places of work, school and business. At these wharves, the landing facilities are ancient and, in many cases, dangerous. No provision is made for the physically challenged among us. Old and infirmed persons are not considered. Sanitary facilities are non-existent. If we are concerned about Guyana’s citizens, the poor people, this must be seen as priority.
The account of a member of the Parika Speed Boat Owners Association last Sunday, when the Leader of the Opposition and his team were there on their way to Bartica, echoed some statements made by Mr. Stephen Bell, several months early, on the condition of the mooring at Parika. The gentleman said the members of the Parika Speed Boat Owners Association are frustrated over the docking arrangements at the decaying Parika Stelling. He said that it is inadequate for the daily traffic that leaves there and vulnerable to damages from waves and passing vessels. “This place”, he said, “is way too congested.” That is the present situation at that wharf.
He explained that speed boat operators from Bartica, Supenaam, Leguan and Wakenaam all vie for space at the Stelling, where a single set of stairs serves as a gangway onto the boats. Because of this confusion, a person might be intending to go to Bartica and end up at Supenaam. That is the reality. Sometimes people do not recognise what is happening until they get to the wrong destination and has to be taken back. [Dr. Ramsaran: What “nancy” story is that?] Ask Mr. Stephen Bell. He will tell you.
The Minister of Public Works, who has now arrived, stated that breakers would have been installed to help deal with the waves since last year. This development has not materialised. Mr. Speaker, you can take a trip to these Stellings and see the conditions. But, Mr. Speaker, I must caution you. If you take your wife, tell her to avoid a shoe with narrow heels since that is an invitation to a sprained ankle or broken feet.
If we accept a minimum of 15 passengers in these 300 boats that land there on a daily, we are talking at 4,500 persons at that one place on a daily basis.
The Transport and Harbours Department (T&HD), in January, 2013, stated that it was directing efforts to the construction of floating ramps to accommodate speed boats at Parika, Vreed-en-Hoop and Georgetown Stellings. Of course, no mention was made of Supenaam or Charity. Even so, nothing was done in 2013. Now in March, 2014, the Hon. Minister stated that the engineers in his Ministry are studying the designs and, by a strange twist of fate, by coincidence, today there is an artist’s impression of what this ramp would look like.
In Budget 2014, $62 million is allocated for rehabilitation of Stellings at Parika, Leguan, Wakenaam and Supenaam. However, even from a visual survey of those Stellings, it appears to the common man that this is inadequate for the task because so much work needs to be done there. There appears to be no allocation for speed boat terminals.
I have some friends who like to compare us with Trinidad. My dear Hon. Friend, Mr. Ali, loves to make comparisons. I say to you, Minister, that you should compare the landing facilities to water taxis in Trinidad at Port-of-Spain and San Fernando or Port-of-Spain to Tobago with those at Parika and Bartica. Then, tell me what your statistics say. Also, please use photographs when you make your presentations, Mr. Minister.
Many of the Members of this House, who so aggressively represent the people of the islands of Leguan and Wakenaam, carefully navigate their way on these rotten boards at Parika. Where is the concern for the poor people? “To thine own self be true.”
During this Tenth Parliament, the House passed motions calling on the Government to set up inquiries into riverain accidents. We also passed a motion seeking the reintroduction of the ferry service on the Berbice River. We expect that the Government will act in accordance with the Resolutions of those motions as failure to do so will cause the Guyanese people to judge them harshly and they will not be able to wait too long on an APNU Government to correct the mess.
In relation to the airstrips, we have seen an increase in the persons travelling to the hinterland to live and to earn a livelihood. APNU says this: there must be at least one municipal type airport in Regions 1, 7, 8 and 9. We believe that it is time that the development of our country is put on such a footing. These municipal airports must have proper lights, airstrips facilities, and terminal buildings with proper lavatory, rest rooms and other facilities. That is what is meant by municipal type airport.
This Budget allocates $185 million for works to be done at Matthews Ridge, Port Kaituma, Kamarang and Imbaimadai airstrips. This is clearly an inadequate sum. There are 116 airstrips in this country, of which 72 of these airstrips are Government owned. How many of these airstrips are being serviced by the Government? As our people venture out more into our vast hinterland, our focus on these airstrips has to be intensified.
There are too many accidents involving aircrafts in our hinterland and our weakness in search and rescue has been well documented in the public domain by Captain Gerry Gouveia. Captain Gouveia made the point that there must be an agency which coordinates search and rescue and suggested that these entities which deal with search and rescue – air, maritime and disaster preparedness - should all be under one agency. He recommends that the Civil Defence Commission (CDC), since it already has the capacity, might be the right place to do it. That is a recommendation which we support.
Regarding the issues related to safety in the sector, we are told they should be addressed in 2014 and a clarion call has been made by the Chairman of the Guyana Civil Aviation Authority (GCAA), Mr. Hugh Denbow, in this regard. According to the Chairman of the GCAA, some of the challenges which the body recognise include Guyana’s ability to respond to issues which deal with aviation safety, air traffic management, economic regulations for both domestic and international operations, reliable and adequate air transportation services, aviation security and the modernisation of airport facilities. He said Guyana is faced with the challenge of the need to strengthen institutional capacity and, most importantly, to recruit additional staff and provide specialised and relevant training for current qualified staff.
Mr. Speaker, there was information in the public domain that some staff from the Air Traffic Control left his or her post when the aircraft was about to land. I understand that an investigation took place and some persons might have been suspended or otherwise, but the story goes deeper than that. There is a shortage of the type of staff that is needed in this very critical area. Yet, I do not see in this Budget any allocation to deal with this very critical issue.
These are urgent priorities of the time and they must take precedence over pumping the bulk of the allocation in the sector to the Cheddi Jagan International Airport (CJIA) expansion project. These are important and urgent matters.
With respect to the speed boat operations and floating ramps, we say the money that has been allocated to Amaila Falls, where the investor is not yet known, and from the newspaper reports, the President is trying to court Sithe Global, should be used now to fix those ramps. Give it to Minister Benn and let him fix the ramps. [Mr. Benn: Are you giving me money, Mr. Harmon?] Yes.
Mr. Speaker, in concluding, our position on infrastructure issues in this Budget are as follows:
APNU recommended a hydro power authority which will review and decide on all matters with respect to Amaila Falls. We said that last year. This must include the environmental assessment done by the Inter-American Development Bank (IDB). In the absence of the above and a clear identification of the investment partner, we shall be obliged to withhold our support for the allocation to Amaila Falls.
With respect to the CJIA expansion, what we are saying is that we must have the full details of this project with all the amendments being made available to the National Assembly. As a pre-condition, the issue of the residents of Timehri North must be settled.
In relation to the Demerara Harbour Bridge, we say that a harbour bridge authority should be established. Take NICIL, former President Jagdeo and Mr. Winston Brassington out of the project.
Regarding the Corentyne River Bridge, we demand full disclosure of the contract before we can allocate any money to it.
We are saying that the allocations for the construction of facilities for speed boats should be increased. The money from Amaila Falls Hydro Project should be utilised to fix that situation now. We cannot postpone that anymore, Minister, like we have been postponing the local government elections for all these years.
Finally, what we are saying is that the building of roads and bridges under the Ministry of Works must be consolidated. Put the resources and money there. Cut the fat and spread the wealth of the friends of the Administration and ensure that proper work is done in the infrastructure sector.
With those statements, I wish to say that the Budget, in its present form, unless these issues we raised are addressed, we would be obliged not to be able to support it in total. I thank you. [Applause]
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