· Opposition Leader says gov’t speak as if pandemic is over
· Finance Minister accused of not charting course for nation
· Projects dismissed as regular gov’t activities
The EC$1.2 billion Budget for 2021 that Parliament approved on Thursday reads more like an academic thesis and “misses the most important point of all”, says Opposition leader Godwin Friday.
In his response to the fiscal package, Friday, who has been MP for the Northern Grenadines since March 2001, noted that he had been a lawmaker for almost two decades.
“This budget — I am serious when I say — I mean half of it really could have been left out because it seems so like an academic thesis,” Friday said as he led off the debate.
“A lot of it is historical. Some parts of it are like a thank you letter to people who have done well for a country and so on over the past few months. All very nice, but that shouldn’t be the substance or the key substance of a budget presentation because if you have that, you still have to go on to say how this document charts the way forward,” he told lawmakers and media audiences.
“The greatest disappointment that I have with this budget is that it misses the most important point of all, which is COVID-19 safety and security and COVID-19 recovery, continuing recovery and response,” Friday said.
“It is not sufficient to say this is how much we have done. And this is where we have been. We need to know, acknowledging the seriousness of the problem that we confront, where we are and where we are going… We are now in a worse state than we have been with respect to this pandemic.”
Friday was speaking three days before the government would announce community spread of COVID-19 in SVG.
“Madam Speaker, honourable members, my fellow Vincentians, let’s make no bone about this. We are at a time of crisis in this country. Our country cries out for effective leadership, decisive leadership,” he said.
The opposition leader noted that he budget was being presented at time when the country was confronted by the coronavirus pandemic, the on-going effusive eruption of La Soufriere volcano, its worse dengue outbreak in a decade and the upcoming hurricane season.
“This budget process is or ought to be a good opportunity for the government to show the people the direction that the country will go and how we will get there. I didn’t see this in the presentation yesterday,” Friday said.
He said that the finance minister’s presentation was, very often, “a recitation of what has happened; there may even be a description or an identification of a problem but that is as far as it went.
“The next step is what are we going to do in this budget? Don’t tell me what happened 10 years ago or give me an academic treatise on trade or something else. When you identify the problem, this exercise is intended to identify the solutions — at least to say, ‘This is where we are going; come with us.’ People could disagree but you don’t get there and then leave everybody hanging.
“This budget, as presented yesterday (Monday), it fails to reflect a proper understanding of the current crisis and fails to point the way out of it,” the opposition leader said.
What’s the way forward?
He said that the responses of governments globally have made the pandemic better or worse in their respective countries and in SVG, the government has made it worse.
“Notwithstanding the self-praise that you find in the utterances of the government, or what is in the budget yesterday, but rather, the government basically has dropped the ball and made the situation worse in SVG.”
Quoting the budget speech, Friday said the opposition agrees with the finance minister that the COVID-19 crisis has had a very serious impact on SVG.
He, however, noted that Minister of Finance, Camillo Gonsalves said that the government’s intervention, in the form of the recovery and stimulus package last year “was timely and targeted. It was also sufficiently large to maintain some degree of economic activity and, more fundamentally, to help vulnerable households to hold things together during the most devastating global economic downturn in over 100 years.”
Friday noted that the opposition supported that stimulus package.
“But, what is remarkable about that statement is that it is written in the past tense,” the opposition leader said.
“The government seems to have come to the conclusion that we have done this thing for you and if you look in pretty much the entire presentation about the response to the pandemic, this is all about what was done, the money that was spent, how many people were helped, 54 million dollars the interventions cost and it may be more when the accounting is completed, as if we are out of this thing.”
Friday said that the United States, which he noted is the richest country in the world, is grappling in their congress with their largest stimulus package since the pandemic, debating whether US$1.9 trillion is enough.
The opposition leader said that as he read pages 5 to 9 of the address it kept coming back to him that the government had missed the point because all of the issues raised therein were debated last year.
“That’s all on the record,” he said, adding, “So, the articulation of it here is useful for record’s sake and maybe it’s intended to be a kind of a bragging rights kind of thing to say, ‘Look how much we have done for you.’
“But the fact of the matter is, it is the most glaring example of what I said earlier, which is to say that the minister identifies the problem. I don’t see where he indicates how we are going to go forward from where we are today. Because when he describes the problem, he speaks about it in the present tense. He said, ‘The coronavirus is a killer. The COVID-19 pandemic that we face today is a destroyer of lives, livelihoods and economies.’”
“So, there is an acknowledgement, which is hardly a revelation but there’s an acknowledgement that the crisis continues, yet we have no direction forward other than taking various programmes of government and construction projects here and there that often would be done as part of the work of government in any budget exercise…” Friday said.