THERE were two important announcements by the government this past week that should give some encouragement to those who believe that despite our contentious party politics, our leaders can still reach for political compromise. First, The Finance Minister in his budget presentation announced the removal of the Value Added Tax (VAT) on education.
Second, Minister Harmon revealed that the government would soon release the contract with Exxon Mobil. As was expected, the opposition was quick to downplay the significance of these announcements by claiming that they were the products of opposition pressure rather than government foresight.
Well, they were both. In a democratic society, critiques and protests are critical to the process of oversight of government. We have not always executed that function in the most responsible manner and our governments have not always been as open as they should be to dissent. In this regard, credit should be given to those individuals and groups which maintained the pressure on the government to change course on these two issues.
The tax on education was seen as an added burden on the already poor and powerless in the society. While the government’s objective was to force delinquent owners of private schools to pay their fair share of taxes, the policy ultimately negatively affected those at the bottom of the ladder. Further, the very fact of taxing education in a society that once embraced free education from nursery to university suggests an insensitivity to the emotional attachment of the poor to education as a source of social mobility.
That the government has now rescinded the tax is a victory for all Guyana. But above and beyond that, it shows a government that is willing to listen to the pleas of the people and to act in accordance with those wishes. After all, democratic governance is about allowing those who are affected by a decision to be able to affect its outcome. In this regard, the government must be commended. Not too often have we seen governments in Guyana and the wider Caribbean alter a policy after protests from the citizenry. This is a most uplifting development. As Minister Jordan noted, this change will cost the government $342 million. But the government has decided that the security of citizens far outstrips potential loss of revenues.
The same sentiment must be attributed to the decision to release the contract with Exxon Mobil. It should be remembered that it was the WPA, a junior partner in the coalition, which first called for the release of the contract. The party noted in part that “There is no justifiable reason for not publishing this contract. Seeking public comment on it is our democratic obligation.
And engaging the widest possible sharing of views can only help the coalition government to make wiser decisions. Further, as we as a government continue to request from the public their unwavering trust in us, and the decisions we make, we should not give them or our opponents’ reason to suggest that we should not be trusted.”
It was clear that the WPA privileged democratic commitment over secrecy. They were joined by Transparency International, other civil society organisations and the opposition PPP. The government had argued that it could not release the contract due to contractual agreements. It is therefore to its credit that the government has evolved to the point of full disclosure.
The statement by Minister Harmon must be pleasing to supporters and detractors of the government. Speaking to reporters, he offered this explanation for the government’s changed position: “We listen to the people and we are not deaf to the concerns that are being expressed by various sections of our communities. We believe that it is important that we take the public into our confidence with respect to not only this contract, but other contracts which might affect our dealings with other companies in relation to the national resources and the national patrimony of Guyana.”
In the final analysis, government must be of the people and for the people. And a mature leadership is one that is not afraid to admit errors and correct them. We hope that in the future, prior consultation would prevail. But for now, commendation for the government is in order.