The government and the opposition are at loggerheads yet again — this time, over duty-free concession on disaster relief items, which was granted by the Director General of Finance and Economic planning, but denied by Cabinet.
The Unity Labour Party (ULP) administration has refused to grant duty-free concession to disaster relief supplies sent by Vincentians in Canada to the opposition New Democratic Party (NDP).
The items are intended for distribution to persons affected by the December 2013 floods.The NDP was, on Sunday, calculating the cost of import duty, VAT, and Customs Service Charge on some 45 barrels and cartons of relief items.
In a Jan. 20 letter to NDP Chairman, Sen. Linton Lewis, the office of the Director General of Finance and Economic Planning, approved 100 per cent waiver of import duty, VAT and Customs Service Charge on the items.
But in a Jan. 23 letter, also to Lewis, the Director General of Finance and Economic Planning, Maurice Edward, said the approval “was conditional on Cabinet’s ratification in accordance with the law governing such matters.”
Edward said that Cabinet, in its Jan. 22 meeting, denied the application for duty-free concessions.
Opposition and NDP leader, Arnhim Eustace, told I-Witness News on Sunday that his party will try to raise the money needed to clear the items at the Customs.
Eustace, in January, told Parliament that “over my dead body” will disaster relief items coming to the NDP pass through the National Emergency Management Organization (NEMO).
He restated that position at a press conference last week, saying, he will not work through NEMO, and that he has “sufficient evidence” that disaster relief was not being distributed “properly”.
“And therefore, I don’t trust them to be involved in the distribution,” he said.
Asked what the NDP will do if the duty-free concession was not granted, Eustace said, “If the government wants them to stay there in the Customs and rot, then they can take that decision. I know there are people out there who need the stuff.”
On Sunday, Eustace repeated his allegation of political interference in the distribution of disaster relief items, telling I-Witness News, “The experience we have had in the past, particularly around election time, has been that the materials are used in a purely political fashion. That is happening again.”
He noted that Minister of Works, Sen. Julian Francis, who is general secretary of the ruling Unity Labour Party, is coordinating the distribution of disaster relief items that pass through NEMO.
“If it was just NEMO, I won’t have a problem, because I would assume that they are going to be fair. But if the person appointed by the government is the general secretary of their party and a minister of government, that is not NEMO. He will direct NEMO what to do and how to give,” Eustace said.
“I believe my attitude would have been different if it was a straight NEMO distribution. But when you appoint a minister and the general secretary of the party at a time when people are thinking that the elections might not be far away, that’s what will happen; it happened in 2010. There are a lot of people still waiting for things from 2010 in our party.”
The government purchased EC$6 million worth of building materials after the passage of Hurricane Tomas in 2010, but some persons whose homes were damaged have not received any of these materials.
Some of them claim that they have not been assisted because they are supporters of the NDP, an allegation that the government has denied.
Eustace said that the NDP is concerned about the interest of all persons affected by the disaster and not just its supporters.
“I don’t think that will happen under the present arrangement, and we have evidence that it is not happening,” he told I-Witness News.
He further said that the NDP “of course” will give relief items to ULP supporters.
Eustace outlined the NDP’s plan for distributing disaster relief, saying that the material will be taken to its headquarters in Kingstown and be divided between only the five constituencies affected by the extreme weather.
“The candidate then comes to collect the things for his constituency along with other members of the constituency division and they carry them to the distribution in constituency.
“And that is how we operate. And our policy has been strict all the time: help people who need help, not necessarily our party supporters,” Eustace told I-Witness News.
He said that persons who feel that they have been overlooked because of politics can report it directly to him.
“I won’t tolerate that. I have said that over and over again. I won’t tolerate it. We cannot continue to operate on that basis,” Eustace told I-Witness News.
Prime Minister Ralph Gonsalves addressed the issue at a press conference and raised questions about the ability of the NDP to be unbiased in the distribution of relief items.
He further said he would like them [the NDP] to demonstrate about his government’s refusal to waive the concession.
“I want the people of St. Vincent and the Grenadines to take a turn on them,” Gonsalves said, noting that St. Vincent and the Grenadines is a free country where anyone can demonstrate.
Gonsalves noted Eustace’s “over my dead body” comment in parliament.
Gonsalves noted that NEMO is a state agency and questioned how Eustace, knowing that, could then request concessions from the state.
“So what are you saying? You who head a political party can be fairer than NEMO, where you have the public servants and volunteers, including the Red Cross? How could that possibly be?”
The Prime Minister said that if NEMO is not informed of what relief items are being imported, there would be “chaos”.
He further said that the Catholic charity and the fledgling Democratic Republican Party were working through NEMO and had received concessions.
Gonsalves suggested that there could be double distribution of the same items in a single community if NEMO is not informed.
“But, they believe that the NDP is a government unto itself. So, go ahead, protest.”
He said that the NDP really believes “their own echo chambers”.
Gonsalves mentioned the party’s statements that it will write to international agencies and call to the attention of mainstream media in Canada, developments surrounding the distribution of relief supplies in SVG.
“They will either laugh at them, I am talking about the NDP, or don’t bother with the story at all, saying this is a village story where the fellas are behaving foolishly or they might embarrass them by writing the truth,” Gonsalves said of the Canadian media.
“They think that the World Bank and the Canadian government and everybody else doesn’t know how we are functioning, in a very open and transparent manner?
“The Canadian government is giving money to NEMO, but the leader of the opposition doesn’t want to recognise NEMO.”
Regarding Eustace’s statement that the Government can leave the supplies in the Customs to rot, Gonsalves noted that the items were not consigned to the government.
“They are consigned to the NDP. After things are there for a while, under the regulations, Customs will put them up for auction and sell them,” he said.