Panic budgeting, in which "ratchi" is the name of the game!
That's how Opposition Leader Dr Keith Rowley yesterday described the 2012/2013 budget, which he said was the "worst budget statement ever presented" during his years in the Parliament.
Speaking in the House of Representatives, Rowley said Finance Minister Larry Howai promised austerity but then flip-flopped following the PNM-led march on September 18 in Port of Spain.
The budget then moved from austerity to the largest expenditure and a huge deficit, Rowley said. He said the Minister's stated objective to reduce the deficit was a "bluff" since this administration had "fallen in love with contracts, food cards and other handouts" .
He said this Government was sheepishly and deceitfully but inexorably moving in the direction of some of the very policies it had condemned, citing property tax and the Trinidad and Tobago Revenue Authority as examples.
Rowley said the Government's plan for reducing the gas subsidy was the same old plan of CNG conversion kits and an ill-defined price increase of premium gas. He said the migration of motorists from premium to super would have no effect on the actual subsidy since the super now selling in larger volumes was still subsidised. "There is a view that the subsidy margin on super gasoline is wider than premium and if that is so it is highly likely that this switching from premium to super will actually increase the cost of the fuel subsidy," he said, adding that in such a scenario there would be a significant increase in the price of gasoline in the not too distant future.
On the issue of traffic congestion, Rowley said the PNM would bring back the rapid rail, should it be returned to office.
With respect to the "unfeasible" plan to cut the food import bill by 50 per cent over the next 36 months, "the Minister of Finance really does not want to be taken seriously". On the removal of VAT on food, Rowley said all the food items that would work to make the population healthy had already been zero-rated under the PNM. "So that what is now being zero-rated are largely those other food items which are not good for the health of the population- including all the processed items imported from abroad". He added: "The implication here is that more people in the country will be exposed to poor health and the cost of the health care system will spiral upwards".
Rowley said the measure was "an act of desperation to regain favour with the population, in the light of the population's reaction to the Government's surreptitious proclamation of Section 34 and the aftermath". Referring to the Prime Minister's statement that 7,000 items on the list were being considered for zero-rating, Rowley said one was not even sure if the Customs books had 7,000 items.
He said in agriculture the Minister of Finance had dredged up "tired, tried and failed 'Guyana food basket' ideas'', delivering them as some new innovative initiative. Somebody in the Government or public service could have advised him on the aspirations and expenditure of the failed Caribbean Food Corporation, he said.
Noting that Food Production Minister Devant Maharaj had stated that he had contacted Guyana President Donald Ramotar by telephone and promised to follow up with a letter of offer, Rowley said, "those versed in matters of diplomacy and protocol may wish to offer a comment, advice or counsel members of the Cabinet on matters of protocol". "Clearly such a matter between States cannot be handled in such a casual manner. I wonder if the Prime Minister..was aware that the Minister of Agriculture was calling up a Caricom Head of State to commit Trinidad and Tobago to major policy objectives which obviously had not been properly thought through or may never had received the approval of the Cabinet".
On the issue of Tobago, Rowley said Government had given a mere 3.99 per cent of expenditure to Tobago, "below the peaks of 4.68 per cent and 4.64 per cent set under the PNM in fiscal 2004 and 2007. He said although the Minister of Finance speaks glowingly about collaboration with the THA, he does not provide the requisite funding for scores of projects in Tobago. "One cannot, therefore, escape the conclusion that this is nothing more than a thinly veiled effort to grant their man at the TOP in Tobago an opportunity to blame the PNM administration in Tobago for delays in project implementation," Rowley stated.
Rowley also lamented that the Office of the Leader of the Opposition which requested a meagre sum of $4.5 million for 2013, received $2.8 million, $700,000 less than what the last Finance Minister gave, even though expenditure in this budget was larger. The Parliament Channel which broadcasts on TV, radio and the internet needed $2.5 million to keep functioning and received $500,000; 20 per cent of what was requested. "The Minister obviously intends to minimise or silence the Parliament Channel," Rowley said.
Referring to the early proclamation of Section 34, Rowley said skullduggery is carried out by two or more people acting in concert- "Bonnie had Clyde; Jesse James had Frank James and Cole Younger; Butch Cassidy had the Sundance Kid; Thelma had Louise; Volney and ....".
On the Minister of Finance's boast that the Heritage and Stabilisation Fund was the best performing fund in the world, he said it was to the credit of the former Governor of the Central Bank since the Bank, not the Government, manages the Fund.
Howai never looked at Rowley while he delivered his reply. Instead, the Minister, a newcomer to politics, looked down at documents, engaged in discussions with the Prime Minister on his left and Jack Warner on his right and sometimes listened to what the loquacious Anil Roberts had to say. However Winston Dookeran, who was absent for the Budget presentation, listened intently.
Rowley said Howai appeared to have fallen into the mould of his immediate predecessor who was famous for blowing smoke and waving mirrors.
He said there was tremendous expectation in some quarters for something new, when Howai joined the Government from the private sector, with great fanfare and at great cost. "Sadly, I must report, nothing has changed. The budget which has been presented as a prescription for growth is woefully off target and without any discernible engine. Except for a minor tinker here and there, the budget is a brave serving of yesterday's meal with all the culinary appeal of leftovers of the Dookeran era," he said.