The 2017 Budget Debate in the Senate saw a vicious verbal clash between Leader of Government Business, Senator Simon Stiell and Political Leader of the National Democratic Congress (NDC), Nazim Burke on who should take the blame for the financial mess that Grenada has found itself in recent years.
Sen. Stiell sought to lay the blame solely at the feet of the 2008-13 Congress government of Tillman Thomas in which Burke held the key position of Minister of Finance.
However, Burke hit back and threw down the gauntlet at current Prime Minister Dr. Keith Mitchell who has been in charge of the country as the longest serving person to occupy the Chair as leader of the country.
“If there is one person who had a real and genuine opportunity to transform our country in this post independence history, it was Dr. Keith Mitchell”, Burke told the Upper House.
Sen. Burke was responding to a claim made by Sen. Stiell who said that one must first start with a comparison of what transpired to give an understanding of where the country was and where it is heading.
The Leader of Government Business choose to make comparisons between the years 2009-13 which he described as the “weakest and most ineffective” in terms of leadership seen in Grenada.
“Without this comparison it is impossible for us to gauge where we are going, whether we are progressing in the right direction or not.
gives us an objective measure as to whether we are better off today than where we were in the past,” he remarked.
According to Sen. Stiell, during the period 2009-13, Grenada experienced the worst of times under Congress.
He said the economy was “in free fall with years of negative growth” and the NDC administration was unable to pay the salaries of public officers, was selling assets to pay salaries and not able to pay its bills.
He spoke of the unpaid claims in the Treasury in excess of 100 million dollars under the Thomas-led government, and that Congress was unable to manage the country’s finances, as well as spending more than it earned, with record high deficits and debts.
He said the Thomas administration was spending 18 million dollars per month more than it was earning and brought to the table “the weakest and most ineffective leadership seen in Grenada (in) generations”.
“The Grenada of today tells a very different story – an economy that is stronger and more robust than ever before; a nation with restored hope and incurred opportunities. Today Grenada has emerged as one of the fastest growing economy in the Eastern Caribbean Currency Union (ECCU) after years of recession under the previous administration from average minus 2.2 negative growth to an average growth rate in excess of positive 5%,” Sen. Stiell told Parliament.
Sen. Burke ripped into the history of Dr. Mitchell as he sought to blame him for the financial and economic woes of the country through an unprecedented borrowing and spending spree of the New National Party (NNP) in its 1995-2008 rule of Grenada.
He said that as the longest serving Prime Minister of Grenada, Dr. Mitchell had many opportunities to put the economy on a sound footing.
The NDC leader told Parliament: “First, he (Dr. Mitchell) has been a member of parliament since 1984. Second, he has been the leader of his political party since 1989, 27 years continuous. Third, he served as a minister of government in various capacities for 23 years. Fourth, of the eight Prime Ministers that passed through this country, only one has served for more than one term and that is Dr. Mitchell who is now on his fourth term in office. He has been the Prime Minister of the country for 17 of the last 21 years. He has been Prime Minister for 17 of the 42 years, since our independence. In the post-independence history of the country, he has been Prime Minister for 40%.
“This is not about 2013 to 2016. This is about a man who has been around …. Prime Minister for 40% of the post-independence history of this country. I make this point to say this, if there is one person who had a real and genuine opportunity to transform our country in this post-independence history, it was Dr. Keith Mitchell. If there was one single person who had the opportunity to change the country, to address the issue of employment in a fundamental way, to address the issue of health in a fundamental way, to address the reform of the tourism industry in a fundamental way, to develop a long term development plan for the country and to truly transform the country and to put it on a path to genuine transformation, the only person who really had such an opportunity was Dr. Keith Mitchell,” he said.
Burke reminded Sen. Stiell that in the anxiety to blame him as the former Finance Minister in Congress it seemed to be forgotten that he has never served as Prime Minister of Grenada.
“I am not responsible for the fact that 50% of the young people in this country are unemployed. I am not responsible for the fact that in 1995, the poverty rate in the country was 32.2% and in 2008, it was 37.7%, I am not responsible for that. Somebody who was there from 1984 must give an explanation to the nation as (to) what has happened and why are we where we are…I agree with Senator Stiell, we must make comparisons and we must make very valid comparisons,” he said.
According to the Congress leader, if comparisons must be made then the 1995-2008 period should be looked at.
“In 1995, Dr. Mitchell came to the nation and said if he wins the election, he is going to abolish income taxes. The World Bank said don’t do that, the IMF said don’t do that, the CDB said don’t do that, the EU said don’t do that, the Eastern Caribbean Central Bank said don’t do that – every single credible institution that had economists working with them. I ain’t talking about witch doctors or bush economists, every single one of them said don’t do that, you’re going to take your economy down a precipice. He boasted that he knows what he is doing and he will do it.
“In the absence of being able to print money, in the absence of being able to beg, in the absence of being able to tax, what did the government do? The government went on a borrowing binge. In 1995, the debt in the country was 372 million dollars, by the time we got to 2008, it was 1.7 billion dollars. Some of that money was genuine operations, some of that money was money-guaranteeing loans to a number of questionable characters that came to Grenada with empty briefcases and were given projects.
“The money that was borrowed was not put into any productive uses…you build a stadium, it crash like a roti during 2004…the result was we could not service the loans and by 2006, we had to go for a restructuring of the debt. I did not create that problem. Don’t start in 2009, that is deceitful, it is mischievous…don’t start in 2009 because this problem was not created in 2009. This problem was created starting in 1995 and that is why we are where we are. You created the hole and you must not blame anybody else.
Sen. Burke also asked the question whether Grenada is really out of the hole that was spoken of by Prime Minister Mitchell in the 2017 budget presentation in which he said, “we have dug ourselves out of a deep dark hole”.
“Are we really out of the hole…the people of St. Patrick where there is 56.7% poverty…the people in St. Patrick living below the poverty line at this point, they would want to know are we really out of the hole.
he people of St. Mark, 54.4% of them living under the poverty line, they would want to know, are we out of the hole. The people of St. Andrew 44.9% of them living under the poverty line, they would want to know, are we out of the hole. The 50% of the young people of this country, Mr. President who are looking for work, able to work, willing to work but cannot find work, do you think that they are convinced that we are out of the hole?”
Burke is currently preparing Congress to face-off with PM Mitchell in the upcoming general election widely expected to be held within the next seven months.