FINANCE Minister Colm Imbert sought to fend off what he saw as attacks on the Elections and Boundaries Commission (EBC) by the Opposition in the Standing Finance Committee of the House of Representatives on Wednesday.
Oropouche East MP Dr Roodal Moonilal asked if an allocation for new computer equipment would make any difference if fed with the same 1,600 inconsistencies on the voters list that the Opposition had complained of to the EBC without a reply yet.
Imbert responded, “Madam Speaker what they’re trying to do is tarnish the reputation of the EBC. I object! It’s a travesty! Over and over and over, regurgitating the fake news. Over and over and over.”
Moonilal interjected, “But we are spending $4 million!”
Speaker Bridgid Annisette-George restored order and took the vote to approve $108 million to the EBC.
Earlier, Princes Town MP Barry Padarath asked if the allocation for EBC salaries included the Chief Election Officer (Fern Narcis Scope), and whether she was related to a Government MP – a claim already denied by the EBC.
"That is an illegitimate question," Imbert said.
Padarath retorted, "No. It's very legitimate."
Annisette-George told him, “I’m not going to allow those outbursts. Any time you don’t like the ruling you could always go out and come back.”
At one point Imbert repeated his threat to hand back his degree to the University of the West Indies (UWI), but was met with derision by Caroni Central MP Dr Bhoendradatt Tewarie.
The two argued over the budget allocation to the EBC for a hike in staff to run the upcoming local and general elections as the House sat in Standing Finance Committee to consider the budget item by item.
Tewarie queried a $300,000 increase in the allocation for contract employment (totalling $1 million) but a zero increase for short-term employment (totalling $3.7 million) compared to last year, but Imbert dismissed him.
“I want to give back my UWI degree,” Imbert scoffed at the query by Tewarie, a past principal of UWI.
Tewarie replied: “It would make no difference to your capacity.”
Imbert then explained a separate allocation– election expenses– getting an $18 million increase in this year’s budget over last year.
Imbert said staff hired on contract employment would do verification of the voters’ list, while some 15,000 individuals hired on a short-term basis would work on election day staffing polling stations and organising paperwork and ballot boxes.
Caroni East MP Dr Tim Gopeesingh asked if an allocation for salary overtime would allow for EBC staff to check up on alleged inconsistencies on the electoral register. Saying a verification exercise on that list must be done within a statutory period before polling day, Imbert warned him not to try to insinuate anything against the EBC. Moonilal said the Opposition had found 1,884 alleged inconsistencies, but the EBC has not responded to the Opposition's concerns.
"Will the EBC respond to our letter?" he asked. Imbert replied, "That is not for the Finance Committee. The EBC is independent."
Anisette-George said, "It might be a burning question but it is not for the committee."