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By Svetlana Marshall
Weighing in on the issue of racism, which among other things took center stage during the debate on the 2021 National Budget, Leader of the Opposition, Joseph Harmon, on Monday, said there is no time for cosmetology, as he challenged the country to frontally address the issue, which has divided the nation for decades.
From Day One of the Budget Debate on Monday, February 22, 2021, A Partnership for National Unity + Alliance For Change (APNU+AFC) Member of Parliament, Amanza Walton-Desir tackled the issues of racism and ethnic discrimination head-on as she pointed to the derogatory statements made by the country’s Vice President, Bharrat Jagdeo belittling the Opposition, and the hundreds of Afro-Guyanese, who have been victimised at the hands of the People’s Progressive Party/Civic (PPP/C) Administration, many of whom have been fired.
MP Walton-Desir and the other APNU+AFC Parliamentarians, who dared to have address the issue, have been accused by the PPP/C and the Liberty and Justice Party (LJP) of engaging in “divisive politics” and allegedly attempting to “cultivate racism” in the House.
But as the curtains came down on the Budgetary Debate on Monday, the Leader of the Opposition reminded the House of the sentiments expressed by former President Hugh Desmond Hoyte (1985-1992) during the Budget Debate in the National Assembly in 1993.
In his contributions to the House, Hoyte had said: “Undoubtedly, this is an important matter and we would be doing ourselves and our country a disservice if we were to pretend that an ethnic question did not exist in our country.”
Like Hoyte, Harmon believes that the issue of race cannot be simply swept under the carpet or ignored.
“As political leaders we ought not to dis-acknowledge the fact of ethnic discrimination, because it exists, but we ought to confront it and deal with it in an intelligent and constructive manner,” the Opposition Leader told the House during his virtual presentation.
He said whether politicians believe it or not, there is a growing perception that ethnic discrimination is rampant in Guyana, and as such, it ought to be addressed.
“The point Mr Speaker is not whether what they perceive is right or wrong; the reality is their perception, and it is our duty as political leader to minimise that perception, and try to get people to understand that the better way is to find a modus vivendi in which all of us can live in peace and harmony,” Harmon told the House.
However, he warned that this is not the “time for cosmetology.”
President Irfaan Ali, during his inaugural address to the Parliament in February, announced his intention to establish a “One Guyana Commission” to foster national unity, however, the Opposition Leader said while labels such as “oneness” and “we are one” are good, they have to be more than just labels.
“The political will to resolve this issue in the best interest of the country has to be demonstrated now,” the Opposition Leader said while noting that the “APNU+AFC is ready to act.” However, he said the attitude displayed by some of the Government Members of Parliament such as the Attorney General and Minister of Legal Affairs, Anil Nandlall, would only exacerbate the situation.
Noting that the APNU+AFC has always clearly demonstrated its position on the issue, the Opposition Leader reminded the House that among the first acts of the David Granger Administration was the establishment of a Department of Social Cohesion which functioned at the highest level of Government.
Social Cohesion, he posited, formed part of the programmes and policies instituted at the various ministries. This, he posited, is an “inescapable” fact and cannot be erased. However, he said instead of building on the foundation laid by the APNU+AFC regime, the PPP/C, upon taking office in 2020, embarked on dismantling campaign.
“I would be satisfied were there to be a genuine effort to give effect to our oneness unfortunately while this seems to be an aspiration of President Ali, we see no financial allocation in the budget to give effect to this oneness as a programme. In fact the regime dismantled the Department of Social Cohesion, replacing it with nothing,” Harmon told the House.
It was pointed out that in 2017, the Department of Social Cohesion received a budgetary allocation of $111.7M, in 2018, approximately $395.5M. In 2019, the department’s allocation jumped to $836M.
APNU+AFC, Harmon posited, not only “talked the talk” but “walked the walk” and President Ali, he said, should follow suit.
Further, the Opposition Leader said the Ethnic Relations Commission (ERC) under the APNU+AFC Administration was allowed to function independently.
“Under our watch, the ERC remained a robust apolitical independent institution, with full powers under the law to pursue anyone who sought to sow the seeds of division among our people. We never for one second considered interfering with the independence of the Ethnic Relations Commission (ERC),” he told the House, noting that the Commission must be allowed to function.