President’s address overshadowed by protests

– greeted by placard-bearing protesters from outside and within Parliament’s chamber
– PPP dubs sitting ‘another waste’ of taxpayers money

By Jarryl Bryan

Parliament got underway on Thursday with President David Granger addressing the House. But after passing through a large crowd of placard-bearing protesters outside Public Building, there was no respite inside the Parliament chambers as Granger was also faced with protests from parliamentarians seated on the Opposition benches.

Members of the parliamentary Opposition hold up placards in protest during the President’s address to Parliament on Thursday (Carl Croker photo)

Doggedly reading from a prepared speech even as the Opposition Members of Parliament heckled and waved placards, Granger reeled off the measures his Government has been implementing. At the same time, however, cries from the Opposition regarding Government’s job creation policy and Guyana Elections Commission (GECOM) went unanswered.

President David Granger’s address to Parliament

“The nation’s economy has been prudently managed over the past 30 months,” Granger claimed. “This has allowed for moderate economic growth of 3.1 per cent in 2015 and 3.3 per cent in 2016, despite the unfavourable external environment.
“Economic growth would not have been possible without the achievement of macroeconomic stability. The Ministry of Finance has acted to create a favourable environment for business development, to protect investments, to moderate inflation and to maintain a stable exchange rate.”
Granger also lauded his Government’s work in social protection. According to the President, much has been done to improve the lot of workers. He referred to the Government’s increase of the minimum wage as an example.

Opposition Leader Bharrat Jagdeo interacting with protestors

“Your Government adopted measures to improve the living standards of workers. The minimum wage of public servants increased by over 50 per cent, or from $39,540 to $60,000, within the past 26 months. We reduced the income tax rate and increased the income tax threshold by a minimum of 20 per cent – measures which boosted our working people’s disposable income,” the President stated.
According to him, national competitiveness has been enhanced by the reduction of the corporation tax rate for manufacturing and non-commercial companies from 30 per cent to 27.5 per cent. President Granger also declared that the Value-Added Tax (VAT) was reduced to 14 per cent and the VAT threshold increased from $10 million to $15 million.

Opposition Leader Bharrat Jagdeo speaking to members of the Media outside Public Buildings

The President heaped praise on the work of the Ministries in other areas, such as Public Telecommunications and Agriculture. In the case of Education, Granger expressed his commitment to improving conditions for students and teachers.
He also spoke of efforts to upgrade the physical infrastructure of hospitals and health clinics. Noting that the manpower needs of the Police Force were being addressed, Granger said that extensive upgrades of systems were being completed.

Elephant in the room

Opposition Leader Bharrat Jagdeo being embraced by protesters outside Public Buildings on Thursday

But there was a proverbial elephant in the room that was in fact only mentioned by the President in passing. And that is the unilateral appointment of retired Justice James Patterson as the Chairman of GECOM.
A number of individuals and organisations spanning a wide cross-section of society have soundly criticised and condemned the President’s decision, including the Guyana Bar Association; the Berbice Bar Association; the Private Sector Commission (PSC); the Guyana Manufacturing and Services Association (GMSA) and the Georgetown Chamber of Commerce and Industry (GCCI).
Criticism has also come from the Guyana Human Rights Association (GHRA) and members of the Diaspora. In addition, the political Opposition filed a legal challenge in the courts seeking to revoke Patterson’s appointment.
There have even been resignations following the appointment; that of noted activist Christopher Ram from a committee handling the setting up of a local law school; and Major General (ret’d) Joe Singh from his position as a Presidential Advisor.

And while the Alliance For Change (AFC) has solidly been in Granger’s corner, its Canadian chapter broke ranks, recently announcing its split from the party over the issue.
In light of the heated debate in the public domain, persons had expressed expectations that the President would use the occasion to address concerns regarding the issue. In his reaction to the President’s address, Opposition Leader Bharrat Jagdeo was not impressed.
“I said it at the press conference yesterday. This is standard fare for the President. We could have expected another good life speech, opening up the interior, that the forestry sector’s job is to monitor the forests; useless things.
“He has not dealt with any of the major issues affecting Guyanese. Crime and how he will tackle it, how he will tackle the loss of jobs in our economy, how he will tackle investments. In fact, he said we are attracting more investments, when the reality is very different. He even talks about projects that were started under the PPP. Does he not have anything original or relevant to say?” the Opposition Leader questioned.
Jagdeo said that while Granger provided a “lecture” on governance and the law, he has in fact been undermining the rule of law. He also noted that the PPP/Civic opted for an active protest in Parliament over walking out, in order to better highlight its grievances to representatives of the international community sitting in the gallery.
In a press statement, the parliamentary Opposition went even further in slamming the President. According to the Party, the President paid “lip service” to the rule of law in his speech, as it relates to the highly contentious GECOM appointment.
“As usual, the President’s speech consisted of his usual platitudes and patronising sentiments. It did not address the real issues about which the Guyanese people are genuinely concerned at this point in time.
“For example, the unconstitutional appointment of a Chairman of GECOM, job creation, heavy taxation, the lack of investment, the closure of the sugar industry, the neglect of our farmers and miners, the spiralling crime wave and other pressing issues of public importance.”
The Party also called Thursday’s parliamentary sitting “another waste of taxpayers’ dollars”, in light of the fact that the Government did not deal with any other business on the Order Paper after the President completed his address.
“After a three months’ hiatus and with several issues of national importance pending on the Order Paper, we expected that the Government would have used the occasion to treat with those matters.”
“However, after the President’s address, the Government side appeared exhausted and were not prepared to continue with the important business of the National Assembly. So, millions of dollars have been wasted today just to hear President Granger deliver a speech filled with rhetoric, propaganda and which was devoid of substance,” the Opposition Party posited.