Opposition Leader Dr Keith Rowley yesterday condemned the Prime Minister’s Christmas present of cheaper rice, flour and oil.
Rowley stressed that consumers using these items would always welcome a reduction in prices, but he said it was an abuse of power for PM Kamla Persad-Bissessar and her Government to try and manage State enterprise decisions to benefit herself politically.
He said Government’s directing of National Flour Mills (NFM) to give a 20 per cent rebate to retailers ran counter to good management of the State enterprise sector and had serious implications for the stock exchange and confidence, since Cabinet was getting involved in pricing for a State enterprise which is listed on the stock exchange.
Noting that Government had sold 49 per cent of NFM, Rowley said the persons who made up the significant minority shareholding in NFM would not have expected to see the Prime Minister politically intervening and dictating the price of NFM’s products.
“Somebody has to pay. It is either NFM, under Cabinet coercion, is subsiding the consumer or it is a case of taxpayers’ money is being used by the Government in the most cavalier manner.”
He said the public had already taken a loss in the drop in the value of NFM shares since they were put up for public trading.
Rowley noted that NFM shares were also part of the NEL (National Enterprises Ltd) portfolio.
He said since Government was trying to make itself popular by giving gifts, he wondered whether it would also tell TSTT, which had a similar shareholding arrangement (of 51 per cent against a 49 per cent minority shareholder), to reduce telephone rates under the same “vaps”.
“There is no logical way Government can tell me that they could supervise (the operation of this) over the weekend or the two-day period to make sure that it is not abused. It is a another ‘vaps’ like when they removed VAT from all those imported items which were largely imported products full of sugar, fat and salt that the Government took the taxes off to increase the consumption.
“Government would not be able to determine how much of the products was sold, how much money they would compensate NFM for,” he said, adding that the system was open to further abuse.
He said there was also the risk of persons involved in businesses which used these products buying and hoarding them, to sell their goods after December 24 for a higher profit.
Rowley said the records showed that NFM’s shares have not done well.
He said every December for the last four years the Prime Minister abandoned her post and ran around the country playing Santa Claus.
The Prime Minister gave hampers to Government MPs and Rowley was asked whether PNM MPs were also the beneficiaries of hampers from the Government.
He said the Ministry of Social Development and the People started a hamper distribution programme some years ago and at that time MPs were asked to come to Preysal to collect the hampers in the first year that the programme was introduced.
Rowley said he objected and refused, arguing that the Government ought to “put” the hampers in the MPs respective constituencies, rather than having MPs go to a function to be presented with hampers.
While he declined the invitation that first year, Rowley said since Government resources were being used to purchase the hampers, he demanded that hampers be sent to Opposition MPs.
He said since then the ministry has sent 50 hampers to the constituency offices of PNM MPs. He said the MPs in turn give the hampers to needy people in their electoral districts.
However, Rowley said he had one reservation. He said Government has said there were two sources of funding—Government money and unknown donors—and the Prime Minister was therefore muddling up and mixing up public and private business in the process.
He noted, too, that while each PNM MP received 50 hampers, they (the PNM) did not know how many hampers were being given to Government MPs.
The whole process needs to be more transparent, said Rowley.
“They give us a pittance for our constituencies and take the lion’s share for themselves,” he added. —See Page 19