The Budget Debate will enter its final phase this week, when the specific line items being funded by the Government would be scrutinised as the National Assembly transforms itself into a “Committee of Supply”. In this scrutiny, the policy preferences of the two parties will be made clear in the spending they will be allocating to each item in this largest of all Budgets, at $981 billion. The process is very tedious, and it is hoped the Opposition MPs would give the process the seriousness it deserves, since this is the people’s money being spent. Just like the Government, their task is to represent the interest of the entire country by presenting their ideas, which would, in turn, be scrutinised by the people who will be voting in 2025.
If Guyana is to develop, it is critical for the Government and Opposition to agree on the rules of the political competition, if for no other reason than that the US has made no secret of its interest in the stability of the region. The US has made it pellucid with its passage of the “Global Fragility Act” in 2019 by the Trump Republican Administration, which has been adopted by the Democratic Biden’s, that democratic governance is the sine qua non of stability. The Act outlines a framework for evaluating “fragile states” – it used to be called “failed states” – and the criteria for the US’ intervention. Surely it is time we demonstrate that we can resolve our differences democratically, and not be subjected to outside interventions.
The Budget Debate probably signals that the Opposition has gotten over its chagrin at being caught with its hands in the ballot boxes, to defensively refuse to shake hands with the President, and label the PPP Government as an “illegally installed regime”. But their MPs walking out after their presentations or during Government MPs’ presentations undermines that assumption. If the MPs do not listen to the other side, they violate one of the fundamental tenets of democracy: audiatur et altera pars: may the other side be heard. This sets the foundation of due process in governance, and it applies to both sides of the Assembly. Ironically, it is usually the majority party in Government that usually denies this principle.
The Leader of the Opposition made good use of his time in summing up his party’s position on the Government’s initiatives. Basically, he adopted a populist line in promising all things to all people, especially the poor. However, Guyana’s rise from a Highly Indebted Poor Country (HIPC) that was bequeathed by the PNC in 1992 to an Upper Middle Income Country (UMIC) under the first PPP regime means that the criterion for defining the “poor” rose from a US$1/day to US$2.50, and thus inflating the number of poor. But it is unquestioned that, combined with the recent rise in the cost of living and inflation overall, the populist appeal – which does not necessarily have to be practical from a developmental standpoint – will find favour. This should keep the Government on its toes, and benefit the country overall.
While the incendiary cries of racial discrimination were somewhat muted from the Opposition benches, it remained a subtext that was easily deciphered by the Guyanese populace. While the Government is loathe to provide figures in regard to its allocative and distributive programmes, there were two instances when it so did, and rebutted explicit and implicit claims. The Minister of Public Services, Sonia Parag, announced that 48% of the GOAL scholarships were awarded to African-Guyanese, while Prime Minister Mark Phillips said “more than half” of the house lots distributed went to that demographic. Since historically there have been claims of successive governments favouring their core constituencies, an expansion of this ethnic openness might be advisable.
All in all, while Budgets are a snapshot of only one year’s income and expenditure of the Government’s, we now have a clear picture that – as has been its tradition – the PPP Government is serious about fulfilling its manifesto promises. This signals an admirable consistency, since it was this manifesto on which it received its mandate.