In his column in last Sunday’s Weekend Mirror defending the government’s $5.7 billion Supplementary Appropriation Bill No. 1 of 2012, Mr Ralph Ramkarran SC may have been guilty of some of the very charges – political opportunism, a disregard for essential facts and, over one significant issue, the taint of racially inspired motives – which he makes against Mr Carl Greenidge, the APNU shadow Finance Minister.
Even politicians, who often find truth and history inconvenient, do their best to avoid some of the errors made by Mr Ramkarran in his column. It is more than semantics that Mr Ramkarran describes the Bill as Estimates rather than what it was – an appropriation for 2011 transactions for which parliamentary approval is being sought in 2012. Mr Ramkarran’s statement that the Fiscal Management and Accountability Act 2003 Act, which he mis-identified, had “only one material amendment” to a 1961 Act is way off mark. In fact, the 2003 Act repealed twenty-eight of the forty sections of the 1961 Act, including two of its three substantive parts. The remaining substantive part and one general part were removed one year later.
I find those lapses most amazing since Mr Ramkarran, as Speaker of the National Assembly, was in the chair when the 2003 Act was debated and passed on December 16, 2003, assented to the same day, and gazetted one day later. I can overlook, as an inconsequential error, Mr Ramkarran’s miscalculation about the duration of the combined operation of section 24 of the FAA Act (it really is section 25) and section 41 of the FMA Act – it is fifty and not forty years as he states. What I am hesitant in allowing to pass is his suggestion of similarity between “the methodology and format … of approaching the National Assembly to approve the expenditure of funds by way of supplementary estimates” under the 1961 and 2003 Acts. The contrast between the two Acts is fundamental, touching on provisions of the Constitution of Guyana and involving the difference between substantial sums – half-a-million dollars under the old Act and billions of dollars currently.
I will take a short walk down memory lane with Mr Ramkarran and point to the fact that Guyana was a colony when the Financial Administration and Audit Act was passed in 1961. Five years later in 1966 we had our Independence Constitution, and fourteen years thereafter, the present day 1980 Constitution. In 2003 came what on paper was the path-breaking Fiscal Management and Accountability Act designed to give effect to the provisions of the constitution requiring strict financial discipline over the moneys received by the government and the procedures for approving and accounting for expenditure.
Mr Ramkarran is therefore being more than a little disingenuous in speaking of “only one material amendment”; that ‘section 41 added “unavoidable” as a qualification to “unforeseen and urgent.” The real and substantial differences between the two Acts lie not only in whether or not the Minister of Finance has discretion but in several major areas:
1. The amount in the Contingencies Fund is now 2% of the previous year‘s budget which in 2011 would have translated to approximately $2.5 billion compared with $500,000 prior to the passing of the 2003 Act.
2. The Minister is required to report to the National Assembly all withdrawals from the Consolidated Fund, providing specific information on the payments made.
3. Specific allocation of responsibilities, the creation of offences and imposition of penalties, including on the Minister;
4. the concept of conditional appropriations;
5. mid-year reporting;
6. government guarantee levy, etc.
Mr Ramkarran seems to find it inconvenient to acknowledge the vastly different sums involved in “Contingencies” spending between 1961 and now, or that the concept of transparency and accountability is a defining feature of modern public sector management. As a defender of a Bill and financial papers not brought to the National Assembly in accordance with the Act, Mr Ramkarran and the Finance Minister Dr Singh should be happy that the parliamentary opposition allowed almost all of Financial Paper # 7 to pass, not mock them with references to the “Indian” hospital.
Let me put this scenario to Mr Ramkarran as the CEO of the country’s oldest law practice. His chief finance officer comes to him saying that he has spent, without any evidence whatsoever, not only the $150 million the management had approved for “preparatory studies and designs on a specialty hospital,” but also another $29.1 million on “mobilization payment” for which he now seeks approval. I cannot see Mr Ramkarran approving the additional payment – as he is now asking not only the opposition, but the entire National Assembly – without some serious and penetrating questions and demands for documentary evidence. I know Mr Ramkarran quite well and I am certain that, couched in some good Guyanese language, he would demand, under threat of sacking, a copy of the study to examine its recommendations before any further expenditure is incurred. It troubles me therefore that in what amounts to a similar response by the Opposition, Mr Ramkarran can see some racially inspired undertones.
If Mr Ramkarran had understood the significance of the legislative changes in the 2003 Act, he would not have filled the remainder of the column with a learned but irrelevant discussion on the exercise of ministerial judgment. The space would have been better utilised reminding Dr Singh that as Speaker he had cause to caution the Minister with the message that arrogance and disrespect ought to have no place in Guyanese society, let alone the National Assembly.