Minister of Finance Camillo Gonsalves says he was “still getting information” for his wrap up of the Budget debate when Prime Minister Ralph Gonsalves invited him to do so on Wednesday — two and a half days earlier than expected.
The debate on the EC$1.6 billion budget ended prematurely when no one rose during a 10-second period in which House Speaker Rochelle Forde said “Further debate?” twice.
The PM then said that he had not planned to speak then but would do so. He then immediately went on to invite the finance minister to wrap up the budget.
The move by the PM triggered protest by opposition lawmakers, West Kingstown MP, Daniel Cummings and Senator Israel Bruce, the only two opposition members who were in the chamber at the time.
The finance minister wrapped up the debate after only two members of the government — Minister of Transport and Works, Montgomery Daniel, who is also the deputy prime minister, and Minister of Agriculture, Saboto Caesar had spoken.
“I didn’t expect to be in the position to be wrapping up the debate at this point,” the finance minister said, when he began the wrap up after several exchanges between opposition lawmakers, the prime minister and the speaker about the premature end to the debate.
“So, I will not have sufficient content to last for three hours,” the finance minister said, referring to the time he has to respond to the debate.
“But I do note madam speaker that you called for further debate multiple times. Nobody wants to. I don’t know if after you have done that. We were all supposed to just sit and stare at each other in silence?”
He noted that the speaker had repeatedly called for further debate on the budget.
“Nobody got up. The Honourable Minister of Agriculture spoke yesterday afternoon. The shadow minister of agriculture on the other side did not speak in response. The Honourable Minister of Transport and Works spoke yesterday. The honourable shadow member for transport and works decided not to speak,” the finance minister said,
He said there were three members from the opposition side who had not addressed the debate and none of them rose to their feet.
When the PM invited the finance minister to wrap up the debate, the opposition members who were present were Cumming, MP for Southern Grenadines Terrance Ollivierre and Senators John and Israel Bruce.
John spoke on the budget on Tuesday.
The finance minister continued:
“In fairness, there are multiple members on this side of the house, who also have yet to address the house and none of them rose to speak. But in a position where you’re asking and asking and asking for further debate and nobody gets up, they’re playing chicken with one another.
At some point somebody has to get up, Madam Speaker. So here we are. Here we are… Again, I would have preferred not to wrap up now. I was still getting information for my wrap up. But here we are.”
The finance minister then went on to speak for 2 hours and 45 minutes.
The finance minister ended the debate without the PM debating it, even though the finance minister had said in the budget address, that the PM, who is also minister of national security, would elaborate on the citizen security provisions of the budget.
The PM had an allocation of four hours to speak on the budget.
Only two opposition lawmakers — opposition Leader Godwin Friday, who led off the debate, and John – spoke during the debate.
In Parliament, the PM defended the controversial decision to invite the finance minister to wrap up the debate.
“There is a tradition in this house that speakers on both sides of the house, we alternate and where we have large discrepancies and members on one side of the house, naturally, you would expect more would speak in sequence from this side of the house.”
He said that because the attorney general is a public servant and does not speak in Parliament, the government has 13 members to take part in the debate – nine elected and four senators, and the opposition has eight – six elected and two senators.
The PM noted that the finance minister presented the budget and the opposition leader responded.
“Then we had one person from the opposition speaker and two persons from the government side spoke yesterday evening. I expected, frankly, this morning that someone from the opposition side will get up to speak so that we keep doing the alternation,” the PM said.
He said he asked Bruce, informally, if he was ready to speak.
“He said no. Other members of the opposition are obliged to be here to speak other than of course, the Honourable Leader of the Opposition and the honourable Senator John who has spoken before.
“So that there are other members of the opposition who could have gotten up to speak. They decided to hang back and wait. I got up to indicate … to the people of this country that I will normally speak on Friday. But since nobody wants to speak, I’ll invite the –”
However, Cummings interrupted, saying that was not in the PM’s power and accused the PM of wanting to “run this like this is your own fiefdom”.
But the house speaker told Cummings he was incorrect in his interpretation of how the budget should be conducted, a conclusion that Cummings rejected.
“You may think what you wish but you are incorrect and where the interpretation of these rules … is concerned that is within my purview,” Forde said.
The PM continued, telling the speaker pointed out the verb that he used in his initial intervention.
“The verb I use is that I invited the Honourable Minister of Finance. It is then madam speaker for you to call on him if he wish to wrap up the debate.
“I cannot call on him to wrap up the debate and the Honourable Member for West Kingstown used both verbs interchangeably. ‘Invite’ and ‘call’.”
The $1.6 billion Budget 2024, projects a current account deficit of $25 million and includes a record EC$570.5 in planned capital expenditure.
It also includes increased taxes on motor vehicle licences and drivers licenses and related services, as well as reform of the National Insurance Services included raising contribution from 10 to 15% in increments beginning June 1 through 2027.