Leader of the Opposition Godwin Friday, on Tuesday, invoked the Bible and described as “sounding brass and tinkling cymbals” the EC$1.067 billion budget Finance Minister Camillo Gonsalves is asking lawmakers to approve for 2019.
“You would have thought, Mr. Speaker, that we had won the lottery here in St. Vincent. All these new terms and projects that, I suppose, are intended to dazzle not just the members of this Honourable House, or the electorate, as elections are around the corner,” Friday said as he began the debate on the fiscal package.
In the budget, the second since becoming finance minister in November 2017, Gonsalves, announced an increase in the excise on gasoline and diesel as well as tobacco, sweetened drinks, and landing fees at Argyle International Airport.
He said that the tax measures are expected to contribute EC$8 million to the financing of the budget, which represents a 7.4 per cent year-on-year increase that is accounted for on both the capital and recurrent sides of the fiscal package.
Friday said that when his New Democratic Party was in office — 1984 to 2001 — the then Labour Party government derided its village roads as ‘gouti tracks’.
The same programme, he said, is being re-introduced by the Unity Labour Party administration under the rubric “PAVE” – Pedestrian Access for Village Enhancement.
The opposition leader said the usual work of ministries has been divided up and repackaged as “Renewal @ 40”
“Old wine in new bottles,” Friday said, adding that the minister listed among the things to be done under “Renewal @ 40”, refurbishment of schools and learning resource centres.
“Renewal @ 40”, which is a programme of initiatives and activities to celebrate the nation’s 40th anniversary of political independence from Britain, will also include the clean-up of Kingstown, and refurbishment of Heritage Square and other national heritage sites, such as Fort Charlotte.
Friday said that even the finance minister acknowledged that all of these things are part of the work of the ministries, adding that Gonsalves said that “Renewal @ 40” is a wide-ranging and multifaceted programme of reflection and reinvention.
“It’s more like cleaning,” the opposition leader commented, adding that the minister said the programme ranges from the cultural to the infrastructural and is spread across various ministries.
“So, Mr. Speaker, it’s an attempt to give a new gloss to things that are pretty much normal and many of them come in for a lot of criticism under our side.
“Of course, Renewal @ 40” is a referral to our independence and everybody wants to be patriotic and celebrate independence and so to embrace anything that suggests that we are doing something to celebrate our independence.
“That, I suppose, was part of the plan,” Friday said, adding that they are all “grand-sounding things in a billion-dollar budget.”
He noted that one newspaper carried last weekend — after the passage of the Estimates last Tuesday — the headline “billion dollar budget”, adding that the government got its headline.
“… but when all is said and done, we have, with all the projects, all the initiatives and the grand-sounding words and hype, we had for 2018 an estimated growth rate of 2.5 per cent.”
The opposition leader said that the Estimates show the International Monetary Fund, projecting 2.3 per cent growth for 2019 while the World Bank says that the growth rate would be a more modest 1.6 per cent for 2019.
The Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean (ECLAC), which Friday noted focuses primarily on Caribbean and Latin American countries, and perhaps have a more specific knowledge than other institutions, have a preliminary projection of 1.5 per cent growth, Friday said.
“So we have, Mr. Speaker, a budget, and the minister said the budget is about creating jobs and generating economic activity and a good standard of living — I don’t know if he used those exact words, but it is pretty much the point he was making — for the people of St. Vincent and the Grenadines. But, if those estimates turn out to be accurate or anywhere near that, it will be nothing new or different in this budget.”
The opposition leader said that the country would see the same “average growth rate of 2 per cent that this government has had since coming to office” in 2001.
He said that after its 2017 Article IV consultation with Kingstown, the IMF said the Vincentian economy grew by 0.2 per cent from 2009 to 2013.
“The point is, Mr. Speaker, this budget, for all its gloss and for all the attempts by the new minister to differentiate himself from the previous minister of finance, the substance remains the same.”
The finance minister took over the portfolio from Prime Minister Ralph Gonsalves, who held it from March 2001, when his government came to office, to November 2017.
“There is something of the heft that is lacking in it. It lacks substance, what it needs to generate growth,” Friday said of the budget and referred to the Bible book of Corinthians, which likens talent without love as sounding brass and tinkling cymbals.
“No love in the budget, Mr. Speaker. No love at all, because the people, the young people whom the minister proclaims to love so much, they are still confronted with a same old, same old budget; same old, same old projections of growth.
“And, Mr. Speaker, we have seen where this has led to a situation where over 46 per cent of young people,” Friday said, quoting a government statistic that the administration later said was incorrect as it included students, who should not have been factored in as part of the labour force.
“You would think that this would generate some urgency in the government to try something different,” Friday said of the budget.
“And you would see, Mr. Speaker, from my presentation today … that even with the things that we have in place, that we have been executing over the years, that sense of urgency is lacking.
“The sense that we have to do something different to jump-start this economy, to give hope to young people, to give some solace to those people who cry daily about how difficult life is in St. Vincent and the Grenadines. And I don’t think any member of this Honourable House escapes this, Mr. Speaker, because, very often, we are the first port of call for those persons who are having difficulty.”
The opposition leader then said he would follow in his response, as much as possible, the issues in the order of the budget.
He, however, said that if opposition lawmakers confine their debate entirely to what is in the budget, the people of SVG “would not get a sense of what is possible”.
“Because we would be treading down the same path, behind the minister of finance, questioning figures, whether this one is bigger or smaller, and what to call this programme this year, as opposed to last year, and whether we are on the cusp of an economic take off, and arguing about things like that, when, in fact, Mr. Speaker, there is a path, or there are paths, that are less travelled or not travelled at all by this government, that we have to explore in order to show the people of this country that we can do better,” Friday said.
The 2019 budget is made up of recurrent expenditure, inclusive of amortisation and sinking fund contributions, of EC$844,763,703 and capital expenditure of EC$222,579,580.
The budget is financed by current revenue of EC$656,590,775 and capital receipts of EC$410,743,508.
The debate continues.