Opposition Leader Godwin Friday says Finance Minister Camillo Gonsalves’ decision to wrap up the Budget Debate on Wednesday after only two ministers had debated it, shows that the government “has run out of energy” and is “running scared” after the public’s unfavourable response to the EC$1.6 billion fiscal package that includes higher taxes.
“The government quite clearly is running scared,” Friday told a press conference hosted by his New Democratic Party in Kingstown after the premature end to the Budget Debate.
“Yesterday (Tuesday), the prime minister came into Parliament to clean up the mistakes that had been made by the finance minister regarding the taxes,” the opposition leader said.
In the Budget Address on Monday, the finance minister presented figures that suggested that Vincentian would this year begin paying 25% more for motor vehicle licences, and three times as much for some other taxes.
On Tuesday, however, the prime minister said that while the extent of the taxes remained unchanged, the old figures were wrong, and hence, the increase was not as large as the numbers published in the Budget had suggested.
“This budget was a budget full of mistakes,” the opposition leader said at the press conference at which he was flanked by his parliamentary caucus, except two members — one of whom is said to be ill and the other responding to an emergency.
“You have the arithmetic mistakes that were made there in the presentation of the taxes but there were other mistakes and missed opportunities. It was a budget of missed opportunities as well for the people of this country,” Friday said.
On Wednesday, day two of what the prime minister had said would have been a four-day debate, House Speaker Richelle Forde said “Further debate?” twice in a 10-second period, as he invited lawmakers to make their contributions to the debate.
At the end of the 10 seconds, Prime Minister Ralph Gonsalves stood and said he had not planned to speak until Friday but would do so if no one else was rising to speak.
Then, almost immediately, Gonsalves proceeded to say that he would invite the minister of finance, Camillo Gonsalves to wrap up the debate.
At that time, only Friday, Agriculture Minister Saboto Caesar, Works Minister and Deputy Prime Minister Montgomery Daniel and Opposition Senator, Shevern John had spoken in the debate.
The prime minister invited his finance minister to wind up the debate, even though the prime minister had not spoken on national security matters, as the finance minister had said he would.
Last year, St. Vincent and the Grenadines recorded 55 homicides, 52 of which were classified as murders, shattering the old record of 42 homicides, set the previous year.
Nothing from PM on crime
Friday noted that there was an early wrap up of the budget before, but noted that unlike this year, back then, the prime minister was also minister of finance.
“How can you take the budget seriously when the minister presents and the prime minister is present and does not address what is presented; does not seek to explain even though the minister himself had said that there were certain issues security and crime, for example, that he didn’t deal with in any great extent because the prime minister, minister of national security was going to deal with them?” Friday said.
“And as we all know, crime is out of control in this country. It’s one of the more serious matters confronting the people of St. Vincent and the Grenadines. And we did not get a response, any elaboration on the fleeting remarks that were made by the minister of finance in his presentation. We did not get such from your prime minister and minister of national security.
“We have to ask ourselves what is going on? How seriously do they take this process? How much respect do they have for the people of this country? Why is it that this occurred in the Parliament today that no member on the government side, that is to say, the ministers who are responsible to present, to elaborate on the programmes that are presented by the Minister of Finance did not rise to do so. And most of all, the prime minister did not do so.”
Friday said that he arrived at the Parliament about 15 minutes late, by which time the finance minister was beginning his wrapping up.
‘World Boss’ had plane to catch? Too busy for budget?
He told the media that after the finance minister wrapped up the debate there was a lukewarm response from the government side.
“Extraordinarily, today the minister got up, he said this is the budget, this is the way forward and so forth. And two persons — tepid response — prime minister and one other person,” Friday said and tapped on the table as lawmakers do instead of applauding.
“It shows that they seem to be lacking completely in any enthusiasm, any heart for what is going on. This government has run out. It has run out of ideas, it has run out of energy. It is just taking the people for granted,” the opposition leader told the media.
“I don’t know whether the prime minister had a plane to catch or something, … somewhere to go…”
The opposition leader said that the budget did not seem important enough for the prime minister to ask for a suspension of the proceedings to sort out the apparent reluctance of his members to debate the budget.
You’re gonna wrap up the debate — urge that the debate be wrapped up even before you, as prime minister, address the budget?” Friday said.
“I mean, come on, what are we? We living on somebody’s plantation? Who are they accountable to? themselves?
“While you are playing World Boss you can’t be bothered to deal with the mundane matters of what’s concerning the people of this country? It just tells me that we don’t have a government here. We have one on autopilot and they have completely overstayed their time. And you know, it’s just simply unacceptable.”
Opposition MP ‘were ready to speak’
The opposition leader said opposition lawmakers were willing to debate the budget.
“It is a normal course that you want to hear, of course, what the minister would present if you’re shadowing so you could respond. They seem to want it the other way around. But in any event, we were ready to speak. But that opportunity was not presented because of the surprise and premature termination of the debate,” Friday said.
He noted that only two ministers spoke during the debate, although the finance minister indicated in the address that a number of ministers, including tourism, and social development would speak to projects and programmes in their ministries.
“None of this happened,” the opposition leader told the media.
“It is the obligation of the government, through ministers, to present the plans for the year ahead, and to seek to explain and to defend them in light of anything that the opposition, you the members of the media, or the general public, the ordinary people, the taxpayers, the people they are supposed to represent, any questions they might have, any comments that might make.”
Higher taxes more reason for gov’t to explain budget
Friday noted that the budget contains higher taxes, adding that this is all the more reason for the government to seek to explain them.
“Tuesday was a rough day and Wednesday morning — this morning — was a rough time for the government because it took a lot of flak, a lot of criticism for what the minister presented on Monday evening,” Friday said.
“The reaction to the budget, tax increases, that is in vehicle licensing fees, particular conductor fees, and the half measures that were presented, the reaction was clearly not what the government had hoped for.
“There was a lot of pushback and criticism of what they were doing because the people of this country, quite rightly, had seen through and continue to see what was in the budget.
“What is there for them is more pain and hardship, more costs, no empathy for the suffering and the hardship the people are feeling… The reaction was quite understandably, one of saying, ‘These guys, they’re either out of touch or they don’t care.’”
Friday said the opposition did not see in the budget anything to alleviate the hardships that people are people.
He said the government operates on the assumption that big projects would automatically make people’s lives better.
“There is no deliberate attempt to plan as to how this is going to actually translate into better for the people of this country,” Friday said. “And that is why the disconnect exists, and they don’t seem to understand that they couldn’t fathom it.
“When I responded in that manner to the budget yesterday (Tuesday), and I think they anticipated that my colleagues would have proceeded in the same line of attack.”
He said the fact that no government member got up to debate the budget on Wednesday was “extraordinary”.
“What is happening with the government of this country? They seem to have run out not just of ideas, but of energy.
Friday said the opposition would create opportunities in which it can communicate to a large audience, including by radio and social media, its thoughts on the budget.