Leader of the Opposition Arnhim Eustace (File photo).

KINGSTOWN, St. Vincent – Opposition Leader Arnhim Eustace Tuesday emphasised his experience as an economist and said he was the most qualified parliamentarian to analyse and comment on the nation’s economic health.

“… So when I speak in this honourable House, Mr. Speaker, on the presentation made by the honourable Prime Minister, I say we are at unprecedented moment in our economic development. Those who wish to take what I say lightly may do so, but what I say, Mr. Speaker, is based on my many years of experience in matters of this sort,” said Eustace who has 45 years’ experience in economic planning across the region and locally.

Parliamentarians are this week debating the EC$793.9 million 2012 budget Gonsalves outlined in his 5.5-hour address on Monday.

The budget comprises recurrent expenditure, inclusive of Amortization and Sinking Fund contributions, of EC$528.7 million and capital expenditure of EC$184.9 million.

Eustace, in his four-hour contribution to the debate, said that Gonsalves’ speech was “several hours of excuses for failure”.

He noted that the local and Jamaican economies were the only ones in Latin America to register three consecutive years of negative growth, even as the International Monetary Fund (IMF) projected a fourth year of decline — 2011 — for this country.

“The Prime Minister tells you the seas are rough out there on the international scene and our ship – SS St. Vincent and the Grenadines — remains adrift; tossed about. The main reasons, Mr. Speaker, is as simple as the analogy: the captain can’t steer,” Eustace said. He cannot find grid north on an economic map. St. Vincent is worst off in terms of growth because the captain can’t steer. The seas are rough for captain Gonsalves. …

“Not for Tillman Thomas in Grenada … not for Freundel Stuart of Barbados … not for Denzel Douglas of St. Kitts-Nevis … not for Kamla Persad Bissessar [of Trinidad and Tobago] … not for Roosevelt Skerrit of Dominica … not for Dean Barrow of Belize … It wasn’t for Bharrat Jagdeo [of Guyana] — his [economy] probably grow the most. And even Stephenson King in St. Lucia grew. Not for Hubert Ingram because the Bahamas grew,” Eustace further stated.

“Mr. Speaker the captain may give hours upon hours of excuses but the fact remains, ours if the only ship that is sinking. Captain, the ship is sinking,” Eustace said.

“Mr. Speaker, I am yet to come to grips with what there is in the budget to consolidate our fiscal situation; what is there to promote economic growth,” Eustace said, adding that all sectors of the economy are in trouble notwithstanding the growth in tourism towards the end of last year.

“You are not going to tell me that the Ministry of Agriculture will suddenly jump up from next week … and suddenly become more efficient,” he told lawmakers

“You said there is need for bold action. I agree there is need for bold action but I ain’t see nothing bold in the budget. … I didn’t hear anything of the countercyclical approach because we ain’t have no money to conduct any countercyclical approach,” Eustace said, adding, “We should not be witnessing these things in a country celebrating 32 years of Independence.”

The estimates and budget for this year were similar to last year’s and the economic situation would continue to deteriorate under Gonsalves’ Unity Labour Party administration, Eustace said.

The deficit is at unsustainable levels and the balance of payment continues to worsen while as unemployment, according to IMF data, was around 30 per cent even as a significant number of Vincentians are underemployed, Eustace further stated.

“All this is taking place under the watch of the Prime Minister of this country who is the Minister of Finance,” said Eustace, a former prime minister of minister of finance.

He said that nonperforming loans at the nation’s commercial banks stood at 7 per cent while those at credit unions were 8 per cent or move even as the government owed millions to the private sector.

Gonsalves boasted of the marginal reduction of the national debt, many persons in the public and private sectors had lost their jobs, Eustace said.

But Eustace told lawmakers that the government couldn’t continue to keep on its payroll retirees whose job description are unclear but consume large amounts of financial resources while many of the nation’s youth are unemployed.

Eustace described as “insensitive and unnecessary” Gonsalves’ recent 15-day trip overseas over the Christmas and New Year holidays.

He said that while he is not against Gonsalves travelling because doing so is important to promote the interest of the country, the trip should have been postponed because it was undertaken even as some state employees were not paid.

Eustace also said that Gonsalves’ request for a new vehicle for the Official Residence of the Prime Minister also shows a “lack of insensitive” in the current circumstances.

Eustace said that Sir James Mitchell used one car for 14 years of the 17-year New Democratic Party administration.

That car was passed down to Eustace when he became prime minister in October 2000.

“And I had the grand duty once of having to get out and push it after attending an official function at Government House. … Yet, when provision was made for EC$56,000 … to get a new car for the Prime Minister, all hell broke lose in this country. Well, this one, Mr. Prime Minister, I am saying to you, is not acceptable,” Eustace said.

He said that several developments within the government have not been redressed, pointing to special audits in 2010 of the Ministries of Agriculture and Health that unearthed misappropriation of funds and the sale of commodities to the government at exorbitant prices.

These development, Eustace told lawmakers, make the nation’s fiscal situation more difficult.

“We have people like they only eat KFC,” he said in reference to the Ministry of Health, which purchased large, unauthorised quantities of the fast food.

Eustace also spoke to increase in water rates by the state-owned Central Water and Sewerage Authority, saying that while the corporation has to survive, the government often finds funds for “other things which are less worthy”.

On the issue of public assistance, Eustace said that he is not opposed to the state helping less privileged Vincentians but added that the government must create the environment for economic growth.

“Not jobless growth but genuine growth,” he said, adding that if employment were increasing so many citizens would not have been requiring Public Assistance.

“That is the part I want answered. What is being done to put the economy in a position where there is significant job creation?”

He further accused the government of not being upfront with citizens about its agreements with the IMF.

He read from a document in which the government in February 2011 agreed with the IMF to contain the wage bill until the economic situation increases.

Eustace further said that the government should be upfront and tell public servant that it will not be able to pay in June this year a 3 per cent increase in salary due since January 2011.

The budget debate continues.

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