Business Page July 15th 2001

 

The Budget Debate - There Is Hope


Introduction

Last Sunday I went to visit a friend I had not seen since for the year. Naturally and inevitably the conversation soon drifted into a long discussion on the "situation in the country." He had, he said, shared the sense of hopelessness felt by many Guyanese although like a very small minority, he either had no place else to go or simply could not bear the thought of living outside. But then he added, again reflecting the sentiments of some, that the events of the past few weeks had made him pause and believe that there was yet hope. Guyanese have endured roller-coaster emotions for decades and it is both easy and dangerous to become optimistic about the lowering of the temperature which is blowing over Guyana.

The economy remains in the doldrums, joblessness is on the increase, crime continues to drive fear in the population and our best brains line up at the gates of the Canadian Embassy to seek better opportunities abroad while others just want to get out of here. So where is the hope? The hope does not lie in any single event such as a handshake between our two principal political leaders or a visit to a community by the President. It does not lie in band-aids, nor is it capable of quick fixes but a combination of these circumstances can lead to confidence building and to more fundamental solutions which are not seen as threatening by one side or the other.

Difficult Conditions

As Finance Minister Kowlessar had noted, the Budget was crafted under extremely difficult political and economic conditions which prevented him from making any concessions to the two groups that see themselves as the principal stakeholders at Budget time - workers and businesses. In a rare show of agreement, both these groups criticised the failure to increase the income tax threshold which means that the government takes the first bite of any salary increases including those to its own workers. The universal criticism of this omission will inevitably bear fruit next year and the Minister will score points if he presents an early Budget next year which recognises the plight of the worker.

Even if the contents of the Budget were less than expected, the debate itself was generally constructive. Politics being politics and just coming out of a bruising elections campaign, it was not surprising that a few Parliamentarians behaved as though they were still on the campaign trail - minus the threat of stones being thrown at them. A nation that has grown accustomed to very low-level discussion and puerile political point-scoring was surprised by the positive contributions from the MP's and it was good to see Ministers who came prepared for a fight, editing their notes and acknowledging the merit of the points made by the opposition. In an unusual step, Mr. Kowlessar acknowledged that PNC-R frontbencher, former Trade Minister Mr. Winston Murray had made 'some very good points and constructive criticisms' in his presentation to Parliament. Mr. Kowlessar's colleagues may not have been as generous but MP's Deborah Backer, Sheila Holder, Raphael Trotman, Dereck Bernard and Vincent Alexander all made extremely valuable contributions which adequately respond to the untried argument that we do not have the skills to make this country great and that our politicians offer no added-value. Business Page also acknowledges the presentation by Public Service Minister Jennifer Westford whose contribution was equally constructive and included none of the polemics of her male colleagues.

Dialogue

This was all a bit of a pleasant surprise since Mr. Desmond Hoyte, Leader of the Opposition with whom President Jagdeo has been engaging in talks to resolve the country's conflict peacefully had only a few weeks earlier indicated that the talks were coming under "stress" Mr. Hoyte had also reacted negatively to an editorial in the Stabroek News which had suggested that "slow fire", the slogan used in his Party's campaign may have inspired some of the mayhem following the elections. Chairman of the PNC-R reflected popular sentiments when he described the joint committees set up by the two leaders as a final test for both parties. The responsibility on both parties is therefore enormous, a fact which did not escape two of the most seasoned politicians in the House - Mr. Hoyte and Pandit Reepu Daman Persaud who wound up the debate for the Government.

Mr. Hoyte in his presentation said that he had discerned the opportunity for a fresh beginning adding that the significance of the talks would soon dawn on people. If any further proof of Mr. Hoyte's influence on the political affairs of this country was needed, it was provided by Mr. Persaud himself who acknowledged the important role of Mr. Hoyte in the development of this country.

Constituency MPs

Another factor which may have added to the quality of the debate is the presence of Members of Parliament representing geographical constituencies. Unfortunately not all such MP's actually live in the constituencies they are supposed to represent in Parliament, a situation which was very apparent from their presentations. Those on the Government side in particular found themselves in a dilemma - where does their loyalty lie? Do they ask for more money for their region or accept whatever is provided in the Estimates? With no changes in the financial arrangements for the regions, the constitutional changes are less effective than they otherwise might be. Notwithstanding this obvious limitation, the very detailed presentations of the constituency MP's ensured that vague generalizations about the regions will no longer be acceptable.

The debate was not without its low points and the regrettable response by Works Minister Anthony Xavier to allegations and criticisms of corruption reflected an unfortunate misunderstanding of democracy, the principle of accountability and the responsibility for difficulty of establishing proof. It would have been refreshing for Mr. Persaud to offer some assurance to the House that his government takes corruption seriously and will pursue credible allegations with vigour. The echo of the late Gordon Todd about "arrogance in high places" reverberates. Mrs. Sheila Holder had earlier reminded the House about the impact of corruption on investments which everyone accepts is now more crucial than ever. Mr. Xavier should be familiar with the serious deficiencies identified by the Auditor General in his annual reports to which Mr. Hoyte drew his attention. This period of healing demands self-reflection and a willingness and courage to accept criticisms. Does Mr. Xavier consider himself the arbiter on whether corruption does or does not exist or that it is the role of the opposition to produce proof?

Lessons

Apart from the hope which the debate offers, there were also a number of lessons to be learnt. It must have been very challenging to the new MP's to wade through the mass of figures contained in the Estimates which they were supposed to speak on intelligently. Being an MP must be a most challenging job which requires education, training and guidance. They should have received help not only from their more senior and seasoned colleagues and their party whip but from the Ministry of Finance as well.

Now that the debate is over, the Minister can show that he meant what he said by identifying and pursuing the issues raised by the opposition which he can and should take on board. Management of the economy is a continuous process that involves more than presenting a Budget annually. The Investment Code which has been promised for several years is yet to finalised although the Investors Road Map has since been launched. It would have been better to have completed the Investment Code first but the launch is still a positive step and the business community in particular would be looking forward to the publication of the Investment Code.

Conclusion

To plagiarise the name of the Report on Caricom this is a time for action. The debate has shown that our major parties are not demons or that Parliament does not have to be a waste of taxpayers' money. The debate is proof not only that our politicians can work together but that the ideas and the resources to rebuild the country exist. There are many on the fringes who see co-operation as concessions and reason as weakness. Some had gone so far as saying that Hoyte's supporters would not accept any rapprochement with the PPP-C. The recent events seem to dispel this notion and offer the opportunity to strengthen co-operation among the political players. Indeed it is tempting to hope that this will take the logical path to shared governance. That would be the day that will place Guyana firmly on the path of greatness, when we will be more that a country of potential, of six races and two ethnic groups.

It is an opportunity that will allow both President Jagdeo and Mr. Hoyte to make their indelible mark on this country's history. We all hope that they not only see but also seize this unique and historic opportunity.