Persad-Bissessar: Budget is war on people

BUDGET TALKS: Siparia MP Kamla Persad-Bissessar speaks with reporters on Friday outside the Red House in Port of Spain before she gave the Opposition Leader's response to the 2022 budget in the House of Representatives. PHOTO BY JEFF MAYERS  -
BUDGET TALKS: Siparia MP Kamla Persad-Bissessar speaks with reporters on Friday outside the Red House in Port of Spain before she gave the Opposition Leader's response to the 2022 budget in the House of Representatives. PHOTO BY JEFF MAYERS -

OPPOSITION Leader Kamla Persad-Bissessar accused the Government of ignoring the cries of the jobless, the small businessman and the pupil struggling to do schoolwork on a cellphone.

"The Government has declared war on the people," she charged.

She was giving her budget response on Friday from 10 am-12.30 pm in the House of Representatives.

On top of accusing the Government of offering no new measures to help people, Persad-Bissessar said people can expect more pain from rising household bills such as electricity and water.

She said the budget had no new revenue streams nor plans to create jobs. Persad-Bissessar said it was the first budget in 59 years which did not state last year's spending, earnings and deficit.

On her "war" theme, she said the Government passed bad laws to subvert civil rights, so waging war against its own citizens.

"When, at the beginning of a global pandemic, despite the Opposition’s pleas and warnings, a Government chooses to ignore the health and safety of its own citizens for the sake of who knows what, and then desperately engages in treacherous, misleading propaganda to fool citizens, such dangerous disinformation is war against the people."

She accused the Government of "war on the citizens" by hiding statistics amid an rise in covid19 cases, while telling people it was safe to go to Tobago for Easter and queue in their thousands for vaccines. Persad-Bissessar saw lockdowns and curfews as war, by causing joblessness, hunger, and economic, health and social destruction.

"When a Government openly promotes discrimination among the population by engaging in hate-mongering and divisiveness between vaccinated and unvaccinated citizens, when it robs the nation’s children of their right to an education, when it viciously bullies, defames and seeks to destroy every single citizen who dares to speak out against its failure, incompetence and tyranny, that is waging war against your people." She saw the Police Service Commission debacle and the budget as war against the country.

"When that Government shadily takes over $100 million of taxpayers’ dollars to pay off its 'well-oiled' friends, but in its shameless, con-job budget, chooses to tell a starving, desperate, pauperised citizenry who are forced to choose between feeding their children or paying rent to 'Let them eat biscuit and pigtail,' that is the worst kind of war against a population."

Persad-Bissessar vowed to fight the Government both inside and outside Parliament, within the law.

She said the Government's safe-zone plan would fail, after starting next Monday at leisure spots such as restaurants, cinemas and casinos, where staff and patrons must be vaccinated.

Calling this "vaccine apartheid," she said the zones were "illogical, poorly conceived, and bound to fail." In a half-vaccinated population, families of unvaccinated young children would avoid them.

"I expect that these chambers and businesses that are currently supporting this safe-zone policy will eventually ask for it to be discontinued."

Asking who pays for a fortnightly PCR test for unvaccinated staff, she said, "This contradicts the opinion of the president of the Industrial Court, Deborah Thomas-Felix, that terms of employment cannot be arbitrarily changed by an employer. No one in Government has answered this question."

With schools partially reopened last Monday, she lamented that thousands of children must use their parents’cellphones to do online classes, while those without devices rely on photocopied work.

"So you can imagine my shock to discover that last year, while our children suffered, this Minister of Education did not spend $4.7 million allocated for the purpose of acquiring and distribution of laptops and tablets. That could have purchased almost 10,000 devices."

Persad-Bissessar asked if the Government had helped 79,000 pupils who formerly got school meals. She said it was the Government, not the pandemic, that had crashed the economy.

She queried Imbert saying the salary relief grant in 2020 was 86,924 grants worth $143.6 million, saying a budget document (Estimates of Expenditure) said the actual expenditure was $186.2 million.

"That is a difference of $42.6 million! Where has this money gone? Is this another typo?"

This was a reference to Imbert's announcing that VAT would be removed from curry and other items which were already VAT-free.

Persad-Bissessar said Imbert had also said for fiscal 2021, some $24 million was paid out in 8,200 salary relief grants, yet documents showed "absolutely no allocation in 2021."

She accused the Government of demanding more and more tax from citizens, citing taxes on car tyres, businesses and online purchases, plus a loss of gas subsidy and the addition of property tax.

"Persons today are struggling to keep a roof over their heads, by paying a mortgage or rent for an apartment to live in. Some are being served eviction letters. They have no money to buy food and devices for their children, but the minister (Imbert) wants them to pay property tax or higher rents which would come as a natural consequence of the property tax.

"This is war on the people."

Persad-Bissessar asked if valuations to implement the property tax were first being pursued in chosen places, saying, "Is this valuation apartheid?"

Pointing out that a failure to register by November 30 could result in a $5,000 fine and a criminal record, she declared, "Again, this is war on the people."

Persad-Bissessar said the property tax would also act to raise water rates.

"Government has boldly signalled that utility rates will be increased in the near future. At a recent meeting of the JSC on Land and Physical Infrastructure, the acting CEO of WASA stated that property tax will drive water rates up, because water rates are calculated at annual taxable value."

She said T&TEC and the Ministry of Energy have completed negotiations, alleging electricity rates will rise even as T&TEC owes the NGC $4 billion.

Persad-Bissessar declared, "Wow! A triple whammy!

"The bottom line of all of this is that despite the harsh economic climate, the tremendous suffering, the high poverty rates and the high unemployment statistics, government will impose higher rates on water and electricity and is moving full speed ahead to do so."

She said her government gave a regular water-supply to 75 per cent of people, unlike today's protests, bucket brigades and dry taps.

Persad-Bissessar accused the Government of failing on basic measures to support business activity.

Asking if the Government was serious about ICT, she said of $20 million allocated to an ICT plan last year, only $995,560 was spent.

"Has the plan been shelved?"

She scoffed that the year-old Ministry of Digital Transformation does not have a website.

On the ease of doing business, she recalled Imbert's last budget, saying it takes ten days to start a business, 254 to get construction permits, 61 days to obtain an electricity connection, and

77 days to register property, among other things.

"What has changed?"

She cited worsening macroeconomic data such as public debt, GDP, deficit and oil production.

On Tobago, Persad-Bissessar said under her government the island had seen unprecedented growth. She accused the budget of offering pie-in-the-sky with five proposed hotels, wondering who would stay at them. She also hit the Government over the previously crashed seabridge, failed Sandals hotel proposal and stalled zipline project.

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