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Estimates debate triggers 'vitriolic' exchanges in House

BY BALFORD HENRY Observer senior staff reporter balfordh@jamaicaobserver.com

Sunday, March 09, 2014    

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DEBATE on the 2013/14 First Supplementary Estimates in Gordon House Thursday night ended in a noisy trading of insults across the aisle, which acting Speaker Lloyd B Smith described as "vitriolic behaviour".

The tone was set by Minister of Finance and Planning Dr Peter Phillips, who in closing his opening presentation in the debate said: "There is no doubt that the programme of economic adjustment is a difficult one, but equally it is absolutely necessary if we are to correct the macro economic and fiscal imbalances which have been inherited."

Opposition spokesman on finance and planning Audley Shaw took on the issue of inherited macroeconomic imbalances raised by Dr Phillips, when he opened his contribution.

"That inheritance of macroeconomic imbalances is an inheritance that would be at least 20 years old and so, just for the avoidance of any misunderstanding that anyone listening to the minister speaking of his inheritance of macroeconomic imbalances, it would be very important to remind the honourable minister, and to remind this honourable House, that the relatively short time that the previous Government was in power, between 2007 and 2011, the truth is that when we came to power, we had inherited 18 years of

macroeconomic imbalances," Shaw responded.

Phillips countered, in closing, that he had made the point "time and time again" that, particularly over the last 40 years, "what we see is a situation where the country has grown at an average, in terms of GDP, by less than one per cent per annum".

He said that over the same period of time the debt had grown by 700 per cent, constituting an impediment to the country's capacity

to grow.

"If there is blame that one seeks to apply, there is enough to go around for all of us. My friends over there (the Opposition) seem to be mired in the past and will make them, if they keep looking back, like Lot's wife, salt," Phillips said.

He said that the Opposition needed to focus on the country going forward, "rather than seeking to engage in all kinds of contortions to find blame".

"What we have now is a reality, for too long," Phillips added.

He admitted that the main issue was that the Government is faced with a reduction in tax revenues of $11 billion, up to December. However, he added that this was only 2.5 per cent of the projected revenues and was not a "grand divergence of revenue earnings".

Phillips ascribed the hole in the revenue budget mainly to the loss of tax from tobacco; "because we all agreed that we should not smoke in public places".

"It had a consequence when the budget was being prepared. We didn't have a timetable in view, and we never estimated the consequences," he explained.

He said that, in addition, the price of oil fluctuated in the market, resulting in lower earnings, and there were some reductions in terms of income tax revenues of about $2.5 billion.

He said that despite the fall in revenues, the Government remains committed that "where revenues are down, we are going to live within the means available to us", by reducing expenditure. He also accused the Opposition of suggesting that the Government borrow money to fill the gap, by criticising the reduction in government expenditure in the supplementary estimates.

"(But), we are not going to borrow anymore," Phillips shouted.

This triggered a strong response from Leader of the Opposition Andrew Holness, who asked that the member provide proof that the Opposition had made any such suggestion. Holness asked the Speaker to consult with Hansard to show where that was said by the Opposition.

Phillips: "Let's take the charitable path, and say you did not hear it, or do not understand."

Holness rose again on a Point of Order to respond to Phillips.

Phillips: "Mr Speaker, I am on my feet."

Holness: "I am on my feet, too."

The Speaker told the House that the time constraint (the time being past 10:00 pm), would not allow for a reference to Hansard.

Desmond McKenzie: "We will wait."

As the noise and shouts across the floor continued, the Speaker said, "Members, remain calm, there is no need to descend into this

vitriolic behaviour."

Speaker continued: "I am suggesting some common sense here, and I am requesting you, Dr Phillips, based on the fact that we can revisit the Hansard at another time. I think it is your constant loud talking that has done it. I suggest, Dr Phillips, that you move away from that, and pursue the rest of your closing remarks, so that we can leave here in good stead."

The House of Representatives, eventually, passed the estimates at approximately 10:30 pm.

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