Friday, December 3, 2010

Tribute to Winston Murray

He was an institution of knowledge. Knowledge of our public accounts as well as Constitution. A man's whose facts were irrefutable.

We will miss Winston Murray.

His friend Christopher Ram could not put it better in his recent column.

Business Page joins in paying tribute to Winston Murray, economist, attorney-at-law and politician who offered this country a unique blend of experience, expertise, capacity for research, hard work and patience, all reinforced by unusual humility, integrity and respect for others. He was proud of his roots in the Essequibo island of Leguan, the place and community where he was born, but which our political system did not allow him meaningfully to represent; committed too to the PNCR which he served with distinction for several decades, but which rejected him when it most needed him; a firm believer in the virtues of a healthy, informed and honest debate, outside and inside a parliament in which he excelled over and above all others of his time, a parliament that is poorer for his passing; a patriot in the most noble sense of the word, putting country above self and personal considerations.

No word is sufficiently adequate or praise generous enough to describe Mr Murray the man, the servant of the public and this son of Guyana. The word ‘void’ at the national level cannot convey the space created by him during forty years of dedication, or the experience and expertise gained in vocations and professions ranging from the primary school teacher, the diplomat, public and political servant, economist and attorney-at-law. Inadequate too is the word ‘loss’ at the level of the party to which he committed his entire career, serving it steadfastly even as its appeal became tarnished by mis-steps and non-steps and its leadership pool haemorrhaged from dissatisfaction within the ranks.

Today’s tribute to Murray is one mainly in his own words, drawn from Hansard, the official record of the debates in the National Assembly. I go back only to 2007, the year in which Dr Ashni Singh, a technocratic Finance Minister presented his first national budget. I chose that year because Murray saw in Dr Singh the prospects and possibilities of a new culture and a combination of competence and integrity in the financial management of the country’s affairs.
Even when he soon came to question his initial opinion of and optimism about Dr Singh, his disappointment was expressed in the best tradition of parliamentary courtesies. So on February 9, 2007, on Dr Singh’s first budget presentation, this is what Murray had to say of him:

“I wish to congratulate the Honourable Minister of Finance, Dr Ashni Singh, on the occasion of his inaugural presentation of the National Budget. This Minister has shown a refreshing approach to openness, and in fact, prior to my coming here today, drew my attention to certain small discrepancies, which are really printer’s errors, and I thought that, even though small, the fact that he should call to mention them was not an insignificant occurrence, and I hope that that same spirit will be a hallmark of his tenure as Minister of Finance.”
On his reservations about sugar’s contribution to the economy and GuySuCo’s turnaround plan

“Sugar was supposed to be the flagship within the traditional sectors, but the present position shows that for the last years, the industry has been making significant losses and is projected to continue to do so until at least 2012, when it is projected to return to marginal profitability. This is the position notwithstanding the fact that Government has taken over significant debts from GuySuCo and notwithstanding the bragging of about $2 billion worth of cost reduction in 2009. This industry is being significantly subsidised by the Guyanese taxpayer. A massive investment to over US$160 million is expected to ramp up sugar production ultimately to 450,000 tonnes per annum. The issue is that at what cost of production and, therefore, how competitively?

“The state of the Skeldon factory and the availability of the 1.2 million tonnes of cane necessary to feed it are also causes for concern. We are assured in the turnaround plan that the canes will be available. The question is: How soon? Until then, the Skeldon factory will continue to operate below capacity, thereby negatively affecting the cost of production and possibly the technical functioning and efficiency of the factory.”

On budget size and oppressive taxes
“I could not leave the 2010 framework without reference to and comments on the statement that Guyana’s largest budget ever, requires the introduction of no new taxes. Given what I have said earlier about tax yield and tax burden, the issue is not ‘no new taxes,’ but rather doing something to lift the oppressive burden of taxation on the citizenry. That is what we have to do. And with that connection we call for the return of the VAT windfall to the people through a reduction. And we call for a reintroduction of a graduated progressive rate of income tax.”

On accountability, Clico, the Lotto Funds and integrity

“With respect to the Economic Services Committee, I have to highlight the unresponsiveness of the Minster of Finance to invitations to him to come to that Committee to update us on matters relating to C.L.I.C.O. There was a resolution passed in this National Assembly for this Committee to follow up on such matters. We have written him at least twice and he has not had the courtesy to even grant us the favour of an acknowledgement.

“Equally grave, if not more so, is the failure of the Minister of Finance himself, a highly trained professional, to observe some principles of financial governance. He continues to allow the Lotto Funds to be placed into a separate bank account instead of being put into the Consolidated Fund. He continued to allow the sale of public assets to be put into a separate bank account instead of finding its way into the Consolidated Fund. And now under the LCDS he is talking about putting money through G.R.I.F. (Guyana REDD Investment Fund), but nowhere in the scheme of things is there contemplation for bringing this money into the Consolidated Fund which is where it belongs to be supervised by this Parliament on behalf of the people of Guyana.”

On strengthening Caricom

“I believe we need a more dynamic and functionally relevant framework for the furtherance of the goals of CARICOM. For example, I believe that the Secretariat should have a strong project development arm that seeks to use available data, and make and support project proposals to strengthen regional capacity. It could also be involved, if only as an observer, in relevant discussions between and among Member States in the formulation or execution of projects. The institution cries out for being streamlined and possibly being restructured. It is no accident, I wish to observe, Sir, that the Heads of important international agencies are generally not permitted to serve more than two terms, normally a period of ten years.”

On limitations of politicians and the usefulness and role of experts

“Politicians see the electoral cycle as the framework of their operations, and so their eyes are set [on the year when elections will come]; and the measures that they will take will not necessarily address the longer term economic problems that the country faces, but are likely to be guided by the imperatives of an election victory… I say therefore to the Hon Minister of Finance and to the Government more generally that they should heed their own advice and agree to the setting up of a group of experts, who can independently analyse where we are, where we are likely to go and propose measures for dealing with what is likely to be a most difficult situation.”

On the airstrips at Leguan and Wakenaam

“It did not escape my attention, for example that in 2008, the sum of’ $108 million was earmarked for airstrips at Leguan and Wakenaam along with rehabilitation of the airstrip at Baramita. Obviously, the projects for the airstrips at Leguan and Wakenaam did not materialise, as they are therefore repeated for 2009… I think it is a sick joke to propose such a project when the citizens of Leguan are more concerned about proper and adequate number of beds at the cottage hospital; when they are more concerned about the availability of drugs and other medicines at the facility; when they are more concerned about the reliability and timeliness of the ferry service and about better drainage and irrigation facilities.”

On further evidence for corruption

After recounting several cases of the illegal purchase of drugs, impropriety in the regions and drawing attention to Guyana’s low ranking on the Transparency International Corruption Perception Index, he offered to the Speaker of the Assembly, “Sir, but perchance they want more evidence, I advise them go to the project site where projects are being implemented; and go to the villages across Guyana and talk to the people, and you will get all the evidence you need, to know that corruption is endemic in this country.”

On VAT and revenue-neutrality

“Throughout the Debate on the VAT Bill in 2005, all the major Government Speakers and the Ministers in particular, emphasized the revenue neutrality of the tax. We were assured that the solemn intention of the Government was to collect the same amount of money as would be foregone by the taxes that would be scrapped. A regime of Excise Taxes was also going to be introduced on so-called sin and luxury goods with the intention of maintaining the pre-VAT prices on those goods. Thus, the tax of these goods VAT plus Excise Taxes would result in pre-VAT levels of revenue being collected and that overall the collection of VAT plus Excise Taxes would be revenue neutral.”

On contract employees

“The Government has included a category in the Estimates known as ‘contract employees’ and we have again on numerous occasions requested that the information on ‘contract employees’ should be fully set out at the back of the Estimates. Do you know for the traditional Public Servants there are appendices O through S, which state the category in which each Public Servant falls, and in another Table gives you the salary scale applicable for those positions? And that is all we are asking for in the interest of transparency that these Contract Officers who many people see as replacing; that is why you do not want to put the authorized staff in the Estimates.
They are replacing the traditional Public Servants more and more but there is no transparency of their method of appointment or of levels of salary they are paid. We call upon you to explain to this National Assembly during this Debate, why it is not possible for you to include this as an appendix to the Estimates the framework in which contract employees are employed in the various agencies and the levels of their remuneration.”

On making belief and missing the truth

“In January 2010, the Hon. Minister of Finance brought a request for supplementary provision for, among other agencies, the Ministry of Housing and Water in the sum of $5.6 billion of which $4 billion was for housing development. I cannot avoid commenting on this because, to me, it represents a brazen act of illegality which should not go without being mentioned and pursued.
“We were making believe here that we were appropriating $5.6 billion to the Ministry of Housing and Water. It is clear that the Hon. Minister of Housing and Water, with prodding from and acquiescence of the Minister of Finance, missed the mark of truth in this Hon. House when in response to my question as to how much of the $4 billion had already been released he said ….”

And later when the question surfaced in the Committee of Supply and with the Housing Minister still reluctant to come clean, Mr Murray lamented, “I note that the Hon. Minister is not budging and is not answering any of these questions, could I ask whether he has become deaf all of a sudden because I want to know. This National Assembly needs to know. Is there a deliberate act on the part of the Minister to withhold information from the general public about his compliance with the Constitution, compliance with the law and about his observation of a proper budgetary process? Is that his intention?”

Sense of humour

On Irfaan Ali, Minister of Housing and Water: “Please I want it to be noted that I am not saying that Minister Ali is rubbish, I am saying that what he said is rubbish.”

“And I want to suggest that in naming this Budget under the title Staying the Course I would not like to stay on this course. That is the first point. I did not recommend it.”

“This year will be another year of trying to find a reasonable job, or of trying to get a visa to leave for ‘Region 11’ or of joining the ranks of the unemployed. This must be a sad state of affairs after seventeen years of P.P.P. /C. rule, but then, I suppose, it could be blamed on the twenty-eight years of the P.N.C.”

And after a scathing critique of the 2009 Estimates and Budget Speech, challenging the other side with the irresistibility of truth, the force of logic, the mastery of detail and the display of oratorical skills, he ended with the following words: “I therefore apologise for any inconvenience that may have been caused in the course of this presentation.”

A true gentleman is a rare being.

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