Responding to the EC$976.4 million (One EC dollar =US$0.37 cents) budget presented to Parliament on Monday by Prime Minister Dr. Ralph Gonsalves outlining new taxes and plans for economic growth, job creation and social development, Friday however, demanded that taxpayers be given an account of how monies spent on the project were used.
Gonsalves told Parliament that the airport project has resulted in an EC$400 million debt, which he said can be covered by assets owned by state companies.
But Friday has called for a full report on the spending.
“We, therefore, call for a full and comprehensive report on the status of the construction, financing, certification and prospective sustainable operation of the Argyle International Airport, including, but not limited to, audited financial statements from 2008 to the present. I don’t think that is too much to ask, Mr. Speaker,” Friday said.
He told lawmakers that he agrees that the EC$700 million project is “too big a deal” not to succeed.
The airport will open on February 14, nine years after construction began and six years behind schedule.
Friday said the completion of the project was inevitable.
“Mr. Speaker, this is a very big deal for the country; failure in not an option,” he said, asking what were the plans for the sustainability of the operations of the airport.”
Friday said that the Argyle International Airport “is an extremely costly project and it has been implemented with zero transparency and accountability.
He noted that the original cost of the airport was announced to be EC$481 million, a figure that was revised to EC$729 million in 2015.
But the Opposition Leader said Gonsalves said on Monday that the cost of the airport was EC$700 million, and that with in-kind contribution the value was over one billion EC dollars.
Friday said that the National Democratic Party (NDP) done a study which said that the airport would cost EC$1.1 billion, even as the government was saying EC$500 million.
“It seems that we are right on track, Mr. Speaker, as we have been with so many things in the past.
“So we have a project that, according to the government should have taken three years, at a cost of $481 million, but instead it is going on eight years and over one billion in cost and a large part of that cost, Mr. Speaker is long-term debt.
“Mr. Speaker, the government’s mismanagement of this project from start to finish means that taxes and hardships for Vincentians will continue. And then, to add insult to injury, when we asked in this house for audited statements, of financial accounts of the IADC … none was forthcoming.”
Friday said this shows “contempt for the very idea of transparency in government.
“Mr. Speaker, our position on the airport in summary, is thus: that we support the intention to build an international airport at Argyle, but we do not support and we deplore the extreme politicisation that is taking place, the reckless behaviour in the administration, planning, financing and execution of the project. We deplore the expenditure of hundreds of millions of dollars of funds without proper accountability. And that is yet to come.
“We must have that. Because if we are asking people to pay addition taxes to finance the on-going work,– we are told that it will cost $20 million to operate the airport, which is EC$13 million more than it costs to operate E.T. Joshua Airport. That money has to come from somewhere. So, if the taxpayers have to put money into it, Mr. Speaker, they deserve proper accounting of the finances,” Friday said.
In his response to the budget, Friday was also critical of the increase in the value added tax (VAT), saying the government had planned to increase the tax since last year, but recoiled after the opposition disclosed the plan to the public.
“And we said that this was not acceptable at a time when the country is going through such difficult times and poor people can’t make ends meet,” he said, adding that the ruling administration had denied planning to increase the tax.
“But they didn’t raise the rate. What happened, they came into Parliament and they added a lot of basic items, like cooking oil and butter and chicken –not neck and back, but the good parts of the chicken — and salt. They added all those things onto the VAT, so you started paying tax on them. So all these basic items that used to be exempt, they were added. That, in effect, is an increase in the rate of VAT,” Friday said.
“So this year now, on top of the increase that took place last year where new commodities were added, then it means that people were paying more VAT to the government,” Friday said, noting that the government has now added a one percentage point across the board.
“So the same items that were added last year, that were exempt before, you are now paying VAT on that and you are adding more on top of it this year. I mean, come on. How can we support this? We know the difficulties that people are going through in this country. We said it, you know.”
He speculated that next year, the government will increase fees on vehicle registration, which he said is so high now that some persons have parked up their vehicles.
“So, Mr. Speaker, these are two increases in VAT in two years and we do not support that. We think that the people of this country, they need a break too, not just government finances. They want to go to the grocery stores and know that they don’t have to pay more for things because of VAT and they have to put back more items because they can’t afford to come out with them in their grocery cart. It’s simply not fair.”
Friday expressed hope that Vincentians understand that the opposition is standing up with them and make their voices heard as well and tell the government no.
“You just can’t go around spending money left right and centre and then you come in Parliament and say let’s go get some more for VAT,” he told government lawmakers.
“We have to stand up for the poor people of this country and I know that they (the government) say they are the government of the poor, but they always say that and do something else.”
In the budget, Gonsalves also announced that the two per cent levy on outgoing telephone calls will now apply to incoming calls and data usage.
Friday also criticised this tax, saying that sometimes people don’t have money on their phones and, therefore, can’t make a call but can receive one.
“So, imagine, you can’t make a call and you have to pay two per cent to the government to receive,” Friday said, but the government said that is not how it works.
“But the point is, Mr. Speaker, you have a two per cent levy that is being introduced now on calls going out and calls coming in. So that is going to affect the use of the cell phone for data and so on,” Friday said, adding that the expression ‘talk is cheap’ is no longer true in St. Vincent.
“I know the young people are going to be very interested in this because they use their phone … more than you and me and so, they will know who imposed this levy on them. And hopefully, when the time comes, they will make their judgment and they will say, ‘You see, Dr. Friday and the NDP, I think they have my interest at heart. I think they will look out for the future of this country, better than what we have here today.”
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