Parliament approved around 1:40 a.m. Wednesday estimates of Revenue and Expenditure for 2024 totalling EC$1.6 billion, with Minister of Finance Camillo Gonsalves accusing the opposition of having undergone a metamorphosis in their political propaganda.
He, however, said that he will wait until the budget debate in January to respond to some of the “falsehoods’ the opposition spoke during the 12-hour debate on the Estimates.
“I am under no illusions that I even have the attention of everybody in this honourable house at this moment, much less the listening public. So, I will keep the majority of my powder dry for the later discussions we will have on the budget,” he said at 1:10 a.m. when he rose to conclude the debate.
“I want to point out to you, Madam Speaker, Honourable Members, an interesting transition that’s taking place in the propaganda,” Gonsalves said.
“I’m getting whiplash. It’s hard for me to follow the various propaganda games that are being played. Not even a few months ago, the propaganda mantra from the New Democratic Party was nutt’n nah gwarn (nothing is happening)…
“And the Unity Labour Party responded, ‘Yuh lie! big things ah gwarn!’ And we started to talk about all the big things ah gwarn in St. Vincent and the Grenadines and the budget. That was our response to ‘nutt’n nah gwarn’,” Gonsalves said.
“Today, we have heard a very interesting metamorphosis from ‘nutt’n nah gwarn’. ‘Plenty things ah gwarn but it’s just projects; it’s just projects; don’t study all the projects because the projects is different from the people.’”
The finance minister said that Central Kingstown MP, St. Clair Leacock, an opposition lawmaker, said that the government is only good for “a whole set of bricks and mortar”.
He further noted that Leacock mentioned the number of trucks on the road and said that something is happening.
In this contribution to the debate, Leacock said that while he was not saying it as a pejorative, “the government really functions as a bricks and mortar machinery.
“They love a lot of hardware. Airport — showpiece; seaport — showpiece, National Library – showpiece,” he said, adding that this is evidenced by the photos that the government put in the cover of the budget.
“And I’m not saying that the government does not train,” Leacock said, adding that the was not trying to score cheap points.
“I feel that we need to get a better fix, a better blend between an estimate and ultimately a budget that is people-centred; people focused, where at the end of the day, the result is not now we have another deep-water pier or an airport — important as they are and we’re not downplaying them.
“But the average man, the working man, the genteel poor, as the prime minister described them, the people who experienced extreme poverty, get a new hope and a new vision…”
On the issue of the number of larger trucks on the road, Leacock said that while construction is an important contributor to GDP and the nation’s economic well-being, it has two elements that have to be managed.
“First of all, construction, in our circumstance, requires hard foreign exchange to pay for the lumber, cement, galvanize, steel and all the tiles and everything that goes into a building. They have to be imported; it worsens our balance of trade.”
He further noted that construction is non-tradable.
“We don’t export it. It brings no foreign exchange to us. … if we continue like that indefinitely, we can have a problem. Where would we get the earnings from? And we could only get those earnings if we have strong agriculture and strong tourism earning US dollars, euros, pounds sterling, not soft currencies,” Leacock said.
Meanwhile, the finance minister noted that Prime Minister Ralph Gonsalves in his contribution to the debate, had pointed to some of the people-centred initiatives of the government.
These included programmes such as Offering National Support for Internship Training and Employment, Promoting Youth Micro Enterprises, TVET training, digital transformation, land distribution housing distribution and scholarships.
“But I heard in the metamorphosis, from nutt’n nah gward to plenty things ah gwarn, but they’re not people things.
“I heard the Honourable Member for Central Kingstown beating this word over and over ‘people-centred. What we need is a people-centred government. We need people-centred policies, we need people-centred initiatives.’
“And I thought for a minute that he was over on this side of the house talking, because we have been talking about people centred policies, like a mantra for years,” Gonsalves said.
The finance minister said that during the debate he looked at the budget speeches for the last 10 years and each of them made repeated references to “people-centred”.
“When I became Minister of Finance (in 2017), I took the phrase from the Honourable Prime Minister and repeated it over and over and over. It is a talisman of the ministry,” Gonsalves said.
He said he used the phrase 14 times in his 2020 budget address and seven times in 2022 and 2023, respectively.
“But today, I was shocked to hear him discovering this phrase. ‘We must have so much ah project. Oh my god. Ao much ah projects let us be more people-cantered.’
“But our projects are people-centred. That is the problem. That is the problem that they’re having a challenge with,” Gonsalves told Parliament.
“When we build the project called the hospital, the hospital is bricks and mortar, and is a project. But it is designed to improve the health care of the people of St. Vincent and the Grenadines. When we build houses in Orange Hill and Sandy Bay, is bricks and mortar, is a project and we got to brag on it. But each one of those houses is a home to people and they are people-centred projects.
“I don’t want to waste all my powder tonight when nobody’s watching. But I want to say that I embrace this evolution of a government in waiting, the NDP, I welcome the evolution from austerity to people-centred. Because in the history of politics and development, austerity has never been people centred. Austerity is about balancing the books on the backs of the people,” Gonsalves told Parliament.
He said the “evolution” of the opposition “from austerity to people-centred is a remarkable transition.
“But just how some politicians start to dress like De Comrade (PM Gonsalves) and try dance like De Comrade and try go party like De Comrade, now I realise they trying to take the words of De Comrade and pretend that they are the ones who invented, in the context of St. Vincent and the Grenadines, the concept of a people-centred social democratic government designed to advance the interests and the well-being of the people of St. Vincent and the Grenadines,” the finance minister said.
“There’s only one people-centred government in this house and it is the Unity Labour Party.”
The finance minister also responded to the claim by East Kingstown MP, Fitz Bramble, an opposition MP, that there was nothing in the capital estimates for his constituency.
“Oh my god. Let’s play a little game — me and you, Madam Speaker. In which constituency is Sion Hill? The Sion Hill playing field refurbishment for Cricket World Cup is in these estimates,” Gonsalves said.
He also mentioned EC$1.2 for road repairs in Dorsetshire Hill, $948,680 for the Roseau Village bottom and Roseau crosslink, EC$5 million for the rehabilitation of Thomas Saunders Secondary School, and EC$5.5 for a modern Parliament building, all in east Kingstown.
“All of those are in the constituency of East Kingstown,” the finance minister said, noting that those projects were EC$13 million in spending.
“If the honourable member has not had the time to properly read the estimates, it’s fine. Say so. Say that I hope that I find things in here. But he quick to say, what is in North leeward, and say you want it in his constituency, but what he has in his constituency, he want to pretend like it doesn’t exist,” Gonsalves said.
The approval of the estimates paves the way for the finance minister to deliver the budget address on Jan. 8, followed by five days of debate of the fiscal package before it is put to a vote.
The Estimates of Revenue and Expenditure for 2024 amount is to ECEC$1,616,496,574. The figure represents an 11.8% increase over the approved budget for 2023.
It is made up of recurrent expenditure, inclusive of amortisation and sinking fund contributions, of EC$1,045,983,963 and capital expenditure of EC$570,512,611.
The fiscal package is to be financed by current revenue of EC$810,855,820 and capital receipts of EC$805,640,573.