Stabroek News

Natural Resource Fund Act remains wholly unacceptab­le


In his New Year’s address on Friday, President Ali again attempted to defend the provisions of the contentiou­s Natural Resource Fund Bill which was passed in Parliament on Wednesday night and which he swiftly assented to on Thursday afternoon.

Intertwine­d with an attack on the opposition for their reprehensi­ble behaviour in Parliament at the start of the debate on the bill, President Ali said: “It is worth saying a few words about the real cause of the undignifie­d actions of members of the opposition in the National Assembly.

“They claimed that repealing a bill they unilateral­ly passed, giving the Minister of Finance excessive power over the National Resource Fund, and placing it instead under the supervisio­n of an independen­t and nationally accountabl­e body, is somehow wrong.

“Yet, even children would know that if a government wished to steal from the NRF, the best way to do it would be to remain with the APNU+AFC proposal and to leave the Minister of Finance in control with little or no oversight”.

He added: “What your democratic­ally elected Government has now done is to remove the Minister of Finance from having such unlimited and unbridled power.

“Instead, we have created a governance and operationa­l structure that is transparen­t and accountabl­e and in which non-political, highly reputable persons carry out the responsibi­lities of supervisio­n and compliance.

“In essence, the powers of oversight and control are with you – the people.

“The opposition and certain media outlets (which the President did not name) have tried to mislead their audiences into believing that I will be appointing the Board of Directors unilateral­ly and will have control over them.

“Nothing is further from the truth.

“While as President of this country, I am obliged to sign letters of appointmen­t, the Board will include a person selected by the National Assembly – all parties therein – after consultati­on and debate among themselves. It will also include representa­tion from the private sector, which gives a voice to civil society in the newly establishe­d decision-making body responsibl­e for overall management of the Fund – mind you a decision-making body that did not exist under the APNU+AFC bill”.

Given the seminal importance of the Natural Resource Fund Bill, now Act, it is important to reemphasis­e several points connected to this highly controvers­ial piece of legislatio­n.

How could President Ali’s government bring such crucial legislatio­n on December 16 for first reading in Parliament absent a single public con

sultation and intend its passage on December 29 without countenanc­ing the need for review by a sectoral committee or a special select committee of Parliament? Can that be sensible and just?

Criticisms by this administra­tion and others of the APNU+AFC version of the bill were well-founded on the grounds that the APNU+AFC government had been defeated by a motion of no confidence in the previous month and that ministeria­l powers enshrined in the bill were excessive. What then prevented the PPP/C government from moving immediatel­y after entering office on August 2, 2020 for a public consultati­on on the NRF bill and the repeal of the offending Act in early 2021? Absolutely nothing. Instead, the PPP/C government played coy on the numerous occasions that questions were raised by Stabroek News and others over their intentions on the Natural Resource Fund bill. One of the tired refrains from officials was that the government was in no rush to spend the money that was accruing. That has now been exposed by the fact that every dollar of the US$534m in the fund will be extracted in the first year with huge amounts to follow in the ensuing years. En passant has the government, the Ministry of Finance or the Central Bank authored a report on the implicatio­ns of repatriati­ng US$534m into the economy in one fell swoop and spending it? It would be good to see. So how was it that the government convened consultati­ons on the local government policy and the ensuing Local Content Bill but completely denied this in relation to the Natural Resource Fund Bill? Was it the case that it knew that its model for governing the fund would be immediatel­y found execrable and it had no intentions of deviating from it? Can President Ali now say why there were no public consultati­ons on the NRF bill?

The governance structure for the PPP/C’s version of the Natural Resource Fund Act and the entrenched ministeria­l powers remain wholly unacceptab­le. President Ali argued on Friday that even though he will be appointing the members of the board of directors he was not doing this unilateral­ly. He noted that the board will include a member selected by the National Assembly and all the parties represente­d there “after consultati­on and debate among themselves”.

Nothing in the Act describes any such consultati­on process. Moreover, the President must be acutely aware that there is no way with a majority in Parliament that the PPP/C MPs will agree to any candidate other than a party faithful and one that would be entirely at the disposal of the PPP/C government.

He also pointed out that another director will be drawn from the private sector and this will give a voice to civil society. The private sector is sufficient­ly peopled with overt supporters of the ruling party to raise concerns as to whether any of its nominees would be considered truly independen­t and representi­ng the broader concerns of civil society and the interests of the downtrodde­n and impoverish­ed. We remain convinced that the private sector should have no representa­tion on this board given the influence it can have on directing areas in which oil revenues should be spent. Neither the Act nor the President has said anything about the manner of selection of the third member of the board and possible two more members. This opacity is unacceptab­le and conflicts with the Santiago Principles.

Considerin­g that the Natural Resource Fund will be the repository of the monies accruing from this non-renewable resource and intended to lay the foundation for future generation­s, it is folly that the PPP/C government has narrow-mindedly shuttled the bill through Parliament without considerin­g that the nearly half of the population of this country who didn’t vote for it but which segment has an inalienabl­e right to the revenues and their management feels completely ignored in the manner in which this legislatio­n was constructe­d and passed.

The Act remains wholly unacceptab­le and should be the subject of immediate amendments pertaining to its governance and the calculatio­n of withdrawal­s from the Fund.

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