The main opposition New Democratic Party (NDP) is calling on the Ralph Gonsalves Unity Labour Party (ULP) administration to account for the more than EC$700 million it said it spent to build Argyle International Airport (AIA).
NDP President and Leader of the Opposition, Godwin Friday, made the call at a press conference in Kingstown on Wednesday in which he accused the government of breaking the nation’s accountability laws.
Friday, who, like Gonsalves is a lawyer, noted that in Section 70 of the Constitution and in the Finance Administration Act, 2004 say that the Minister of Finance is responsible for “Ensuring that a full account of the finances of the Government is laid before the House of Assembly in the Public Accounts”.
He, further pointed out that the Finance Administration Act says that the Accountant General shall within four months after the end of every financial year prepare, certify and submit to the Director of Audit, the Public Accounts of SVG for that financial year accounting for all public money and showing fully the financial position of St Vincent and the Grenadines at the end of the financial year.
The law also demands that the Director of Audit must audit the accounts prepared by the Accountant General.
“Accountability is not optional. As specified in the subsection of the law quoted above: the work of accountability is legally and constitutionally required; it must be performed annually, and it is the responsibility of the Minister of Finance to ensure that it is performed annually,” Friday told the press conference.
He said that notwithstanding the nation’s laws, Gonsalves, as Minister of Finance, has failed to lay before Parliament annual reports on the financial performance of a number of state-owned companies, including the International Airport Development Company (AIDC), which was responsible for building AIA.
The airport opened on Feb. 14, 2017, six years behind schedule and at a cost almost twice what the government initially said would have been needed to build it.
Friday noted that in reference to the airport, Gonsalves has said it is the responsibility of all citizens to get together and “make it work”.
The opposition leader said that he, too, maintains that given the large scale of the project and the implications for the country, “we must do what we can to make it work”.
Friday, however, asked about Gonsalves’ responsibility as Minister of Finance, adding, “What about the responsibility of the Director of Audit? What about the responsibility of the Accountant General?” he said, noting that these officials have legally specified responsibilities relating to accountability that cannot be shoved aside for any reason.
“But the Minister of Finance, who the law says has the final responsibility of ‘ensuring that a full account of the finances of the Government is laid before the House of Assembly in the Public’ has not done his job; he has not done what the law requires him to do. But he now wants to hand it over to us now and say, ‘Here, all yo’ mek it wuk’,” Friday told reporters.
“He is telling us that “we” must make it work. But what is the ‘it’ exactly? What actually was the cost to build Argyle?”
Friday asked if the cost of the airport was EC$700 million, as has been reported recently in some news media.
He noted that a few weeks ago, Minister of Works, Sen. Julian Francis said on a radio programme that the airport cost EC$$1.3 billion, but that Vincentians only paid EC$$800 million, because EC$500 million was “in kind” contributions.
“And then we were told by Dr. Gonsalves during this year’s budget debate that the country owes $400 million that was borrowed specifically to build the airport. But he brought no audited financial statements from the Director of Audit to support anything that he said.
“So, we are supposed to take his word for it! What is the true cost? All sorts of numbers are being bandied about. Every time you turn around, you hear a different figure. Are we supposed to just believe the PM because he said so in the House?
“Well, that’s not how it works. We cannot simply take HIS word for it. In fact, the law says we must not take his word for it!” Friday said.
“And, the more important question is this: How do we know that all of the hundreds of millions of dollars actually went to the airport? How do we know that some of these monies did not go through the airport and end up somewhere else? The fact is we cannot know, because there have been no audited financial statements. You see why the law of the country says there must be full and annual audited accounts?”
Friday asked reporters and media audiences to recall that the International Monetary Fund revealed last year the ULP government had left EC$112 million dollars of debt to PetroCaribe off of the books.
“Was that a matter of incompetence on the part of the Minister of Finance? Or is it incompetence by design?
“If the Prime Minister had done his job and ensured that the laws were being followed, all of this would have been presented, audited and reported, so there would be no doubt about any of it. But now we are left to ask, is he even capable of doing the job of Minister of Finance? Or is he incapable?” Friday said.
“Why is the minister not doing his job? Why is it that this government is breaking the law? Why is there no accountability for the hundreds of millions of dollars that they have spent on Argyle and on all sorts of other things that we don’t know about?”
Friday asked listeners to consider what they would do if they had one million dollars.
“It’s a huge sum of money! And what we have here is a situation where this government headed by Ralph Gonsalves is handling hundreds of millions of our dollars, and we can’t get a straight answer from them about where the monies went! This state of affairs is simply unacceptable and inexcusable,” Friday said.
The opposition leader noted that a couple of years ago, when opposition lawmakers were asking in Parliament for the government to provide the Vincentian people with audited financial statements for the IADC, Gonsalves asked f he should show a man his title deed.
“Imagine that! His title deed! That response from Dr. Gonsalves was nothing but a dictatorial and disgraceful expression of contempt for the law, contempt for good governance in this country and contempt for Vincentians,” Friday said.