The Opposition and the media took some heat on Saturday, as Prime Minister Dr Keith Rowley blasted both for keeping the argument over tax exemptions for ministers’ vehicles alive.
Rowley defended his ministers’ right to purchase vehicles using such exemptions, saying it was part of the agreed terms and conditions of their job arrangements.
In fact, the Prime Minister said he too had used the facility to purchase a new vehicle.
Rowley gave the response during the weekly COVID-19 update, as he addressed the recent controversy in which Energy Minister Stuart Young and Health Minister Terrence Deyalsingh were criticised for purchasing luxury vehicles using the exemptions.
Addressing public concern over the timing of the purchases, given that so many in the society were currently facing hardship due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Rowley said, “The one thing I want to be able to say to the country when I leave this job is that I did not run a Cabinet of corrupt people who sought to steal Government money for their benefit.
“It really galls me when persons who can’t say that, coming to take an issue with an exemption that is part of your terms and what you do with the money you earn.”
The issue returned to the public domain recently after it was revealed Young had used a $556,571.06 tax break on the purchase of a Mercedes Benz GLE 450 while Deyalsingh got $390,166.63 in exemptions on a Toyota Land Cruiser Prado purchase.
The PM added, “I could tell the country now that I bought a vehicle because I drive myself and as part of the terms of engagement for a job I do 24 hours a day, I accept the terms of engagement.
“And if it displeases some people, I am sorry. But I don’t think it is fair for somebody to tell me what to do with what I earned, when you have no interest in talking to those who have stolen public money and you have no interest in that.”
Rowley said he has not seen any editorials questioning the Opposition about their spending and those “who are before the court for stealing public money.”
He said he has seen pictures of one former member of the Opposition providing food for needy people.
“Probably with the very same money they have to answer for in the courthouse. That does not make the news, but I see the press interested in a comment from a Member of Parliament about ministers’ cars, including my own, bought with my own money,” Rowley said.
The Prime Minister said the same MP, who was re-elected to serve, was named 113 times in a court matter.
“Last year October, this matter came up and it was the subject of an editorial. It came up driven largely by members of the Opposition and I did say at the time, that if the abuse that we had seen then is what is taking place, I would ask the Cabinet to consider whether there should be some capping on the exemption,” the PM said.
Rowley said that he did, in fact, look at capping the exemptions last year and sought legal advice.
“The legal advice was that these were people’s terms of engagement and you have no authority to interfere with it,” he said.
He said that there were different levels of tax exemptions and while some public servants were entitled to one, others received two and three breaks “depending on your terms of engagement.”
He recalled that under the People’s Partnership, one former minister used taxpayers’ money to purchase a Mercedes Benz under the Ministry of Housing and another under the Ministry of Food Production who purchased a Porsche Cayenne. Another he said, crashed a Toyota Prado.
“And I am sure you forgot the two Range Rovers with the same chassis number. I don’t see any editorial with that so you picking and choosing what is the issue,” he said of the media.
In a Guardian Media report Back in 2016, Rowley had said his Cabinet made a decision that none of its members would access any loan to buy a luxury vehicle which falls in the new increased tax bracket.
At that time Finance Minister Colm Imbert had imposed a 50 per cent increase in taxes on luxury vehicles with engines over 1999cc in a series of sweeping tax measures.
Rowley said if it was the policy of the country, then it applied to all.
At the time he said fuel costs were increasing the whole country should be concerned about how fuel consumption.