By Jomo Sanga Thomas*
(“Plain Talk”, Feb. 14, 2020)
The biggest story of the 2020 budgetary debate went virtually unnoticed. Every citizen should be outraged, angry and demand correction, punishment even, but alas only a few persons caught the importance of the revelations. Not many appear bothered.
This big story was not Daniel Cummings’ charge that the government allowed a tourist ship with passengers possibly afflicted with the deadly coronavirus to enter port Kingstown because it wants to boost its cruise ship arrival numbers.
Nor was it Camillo Gonsalves’ “voyages of a pothole tourist”, parody of Opposition Leader Godwin Friday in his closing budgetary address; or the declaration that an NDP government will refurbish and light all of the nation’s parks and hard courts, as well as provide for a national stadium for our athletes. And surely it was not Camillo’s delivery of a billion-dollar budget or eclipsing his father as an eloquent orator.
No, it was none of those. The biggest story was that the government had routinely violated statutory law and the constitution by not adhering to the legal demands relating to overdraft limits. The legal limits set for government overdraft currently stands at EC$50 millions. Government gets this authority according to the Financial Administration Act. However, over the last decade, the government borrowed way above the EC$50 million limit. In 2014, the government borrowed as much as EC$83 million.
Of critical importance is that whenever the government exceeded its overdraft limits, it never seeks Parliament’s approval for the excess borrowing. But that was not all. The government compounded its illegal, unconstitutional actions by engaging in another illegality. It created an Accountant General Loan at the Bank of St Vincent and the Grenadines, and hid the entire transaction from the parliament and by extension the people of St Vincent and the Grenadines.
The overdraft is a facility intended to tide the government over as the national demands require. But this is to be short term, no more than 12 months. However, when the overdraft is not paid and the balance is turned into a loan at one of the commercial banks, the government simply and routinely exceeds its budgetary and legal limits and creates even greater public debt problems for the country. Fundamentally, these acts are in clear violation of the Finance Administration Act and by extension our nation’s constitution.
When this explosive charge was levelled against the government by the opposition leader in his response to the budgetary proposal, one naturally sat in a state of surprise and wonderment. The hope was for PM Gonsalves and or our Finance Minister Camillo to forcefully refute these statements by the opposition.
But alas there was no denial.
In a stamina-testing 4-hour address, as though priming for another election battle, PM Gonsalves took citizens on a 20-year journey that compared his tenure to what came before during the opposition 17-year rule, not once did he touch the issue of illegal borrowing allegations hurled at the government by the opposition leader.
In his closing address on the 2020 budget, Finance minister Camillo Gonsalves failed to explain, rationalize, apologize for or refute the charges regarding the government’s illegal actions and fiscal irresponsibility. The closest he got to showing any form of contrition was his genuflection to the opposition regarding the government’s request to lift the Special Warrants limit from $25 to $35 million. He promised, as he did during the October 2019 debate, not to be so tardy with bringing Special Warrants to parliament for discussion and approval.
This is not the first time the government was found to be acting outside of the law. This is not the first time the government acts as though it will not be constrained by the law. Last September, opposition parliamentarian, St Clair Leacock asked the government to list and itemised all the Special Warrants it issued in the previous 5 years. In October 2019, special warrants spanning 2013 to 2018 were brought before the parliament. We learned then that in more than one instant, government exceeded the legal limit of $25 million. In that debate, PM Gonsalves acknowledged the transgression and proclaimed that the exceeding the Special Warrant limit the government had not committed “a hanging offense”.
Now, before we start jumping all over ourselves, this is not a partisan issue. All citizens of whatever political colour should be concerned at the very least. This is by all respects a serious national issue of great importance. People, this is serious stuff. If government could so willy-nilly disregard legal requirements, are there other illegal actions that have not yet been disclosed? What other illegal acts will it be prepared to do in the dark, quiet halls of power?
We cannot encourage or condone illegality and or misbehaviour in office by any government minister or the government itself. Every 5 years, we go to the polls and elect a government. Those elected swore to uphold the laws and to conduct public affairs in keeping with the laws.
Moreover, this is a government that touts law and order as a major plank of its rule. It cites Transparency International, which rates SVG high on the list of transparent government. In his address, Gonsalves told the nation that he was the lyrical master. Well, we must demand that lyrics are not selectively dropped. The lyrics of national affairs must be wholesome, truthful and legal. We must develop a democracy that is anchored in laws and not the power or guile of men.
The law clearly requires the government to seek parliamentary approval by resolution or other legal acts. To do as it did, clearly fly in the face of the requirements of good governance best practice of transparency and accountability.
How are we to view the violation of the Special Warrants and overdraft facility and the sleight of hand way government turned the excess of the overdraft limit into an illegal government loan? This is not a laughing matter, because it relates to the violation of both statutory law and the constitution. Given a chance, this government may be inclined to do as it pleases. This the people of SVG must not allow.
*Jomo Sanga Thomas is a lawyer, journalist, social commentator and Speaker of the House of Assembly in St. Vincent and the Grenadines.
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