As the debate over the government’s accounting for monies spent to build the Argyle International Airport continues, Minister of Information, Camillo Gonsalves is urging Leader of the Opposition, Godwin Friday to convene a meeting of the Public Accounts Committee (P.A.C.)
The P.A.C. hardly met over the 16 years that it was under the leadership of Member of Parliament for East Kingstown, Arnhim Eustace, who stepped down as opposition leader last November.
Opposition lawmakers said in 2011 that the government blocked its last attempted to examine certain accounts at a meeting of the PAC, saying that they could not verify whether the guidelines used in previous meetings were ever approved by Parliament.
Shortly after becoming opposition leader last year, Friday committed to ensuring that the P.A.C. functions, as intended by the Constitution.
Speaking at press conference on Friday, Gonsalves said:
“If he (Friday) wants to talk about public accounts, let him convene a meeting of the Public Accounts Committee. The New Democratic Party has never done it in their time in opposition, because that is the hard work of governance; not going on radio and talking. This government has been accountable.”
Gonsalves was responding as part of the ongoing public debate, which Friday revived on April 19, about accounting for the EC$700 million that the government said was spent to build the airport.
Financial statements for the years 2004 to 2013 have been lodged with the Commercial and Intellectual Property Office (CIPO), where the government says they should be filed.
Gonsalves said: “I wish that the 2014 and 15 statements were already completed.”
He said the auditors have indicated that they will be completed by the middle of this year and that the 2016 statement will come thereafter.
“Then they will have the full set. That is why Dr. Matthias is still working at the IADC. He is wrapping up these accounting matters. We can wait for them to come to have the fulsome conversation or we can begin the conversation now. But don’t pretend like the data doesn’t exist,” Gonsalves said.
Asked about the roadblocks that the opposition says the government has placed in the way of convening meetings of the P.A.C., Gonsalves said:
“I do not believe that any imagined procedural hurdle can obstruct the highest law of the land, which is the Constitution of St. Vincent and the Grenadines. I do not believe that you can say that the Constitution of this country is not being enacted because of a procedural hurdle.”
Gonsalves, who became a parliamentarian when he was appointed a government senator in 2013, noted he was not in Parliament at the time when the issue surrounding the P.A.C. meeting arose.
“So I don’t know what the nature of this perceived procedural hurdle is. But it would boggle my mind that a procedural hurdle would stop the Public Accounts Committee from acting, when it is provided for in the Constitution and when Public Account Committees met prior to the Honourable Arnhim Eustace being the Leader of the Opposition.
“There were public accounts committees that met when the roles were reversed — when the New Democratic Party was in office and the ULP was in opposition. And whatever those procedural hurdles that exist or whatever those procedural hurdles or complications, did not stop the public accounts committee from functioning at that time…”
But that is exactly the point that some members of the opposition and observers have made about the government’s objection to the meeting going forward under the existing guideline.
“I always hear them say that there were procedural hurdles, therefore you have blocked us on procedural grounds, but I have never heard them explain to me, quite frankly — and that may be my own failing, but I have never heard them explain to me what that procedural hurdle is.
“All I am saying is, we have a constitution, it provides for this thing in the highest law of the land. I don’t see what could stop the Constitution’s enactment from going forward.”