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Finance minister, opposition leader in heated debate over economic policies

Updated September 24, 2018

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Opposition leader Shahbaz Sharif speaks in the National Assembly. — Screengrab
Opposition leader Shahbaz Sharif speaks in the National Assembly. — Screengrab

Leader of the Opposition Shahbaz Sharif and Finance Minister Asad Umar on Monday came head-to-head on the floor of the National Assembly in a cordial debate over each other's economic policies.

In a lengthy exchange marked by light banter as well as incisive criticism, the two defended their own party's decisions while calling into question the other's.

Sharif, who spoke first, began by criticising the government for "failing its supporters" by "displaying nepotism and turning back on its election promises".

"They [PTI] raised slogans of Naya Pakistan and promised to establish merit. They had claimed that they will bring forth the best team, whether it's their opening batsman or a spin bowler. Alas! Today we see personal friends, servants and imported advisers everywhere," Sharif said during his speech.

Sharif also targeted the PTI government's austerity drive, calling it "a way to fool the public".

Harking back to the economic policies introduced by the PML-N government that came to power in 2013, Sharif said that he was proud to have been part of an administration that set "milestones" by providing subsidised fertiliser and power to the agricultural sector and by establishing a forensic lab and starting the Safe City Project, both in Lahore.

Sharif then went on to highlight what he sees as the shortcomings of the mini-budget presented by Umar, saying that the slashed funds for the Public Sector Development Programme (PSDP) would adversely affect growth and development.

"The PML-N government, under the leadership of Nawaz Sharif, had increased the PSDP fund from Rs300 billion in 2013 to Rs800 billion in 2018."

"In this mini-budget, Mr Asad Umar wielded an axe over the [PSDP] and reduced it to Rs575 billion. The difference of Rs225 billion is a very big amount!" he said.

Sharif said that the alternative solutions offered by Umar to cover up the difference — which included partnerships between public and private companies — were not practical.

"This is not how it is done Mr Speaker!" Sharif insisted, adding that PSDP can only be funded by the government.

"The suggestion that you'll use other methods to fulfill the goals that must be met by PSDP makes no sense. PSDP funds have been slashed by 30 per cent, which means education, health, infrastructure, even CPEC has been slashed by one-third!"

Sharif said that he had difficulty believing the assurances given by the information minister and finance minister that CPEC will not be affected in any way, since the project was part of PSDP.

"I did not expect that a genius like Asad Umar would slash the PSDP like this," Sharif said, expressing hope that the government will reverse its decision on the policy it has adopted.

The opposition leader also criticised the incumbent government's decision to levy more taxes on gas, saying that they would burden the common man.

Finance minister responds

Responding to Sharif's criticism, Umar remarked wryly: "Going by what he [Shahbaz Sharif] has said, it seems to me that had the opposition leader been the finance minister [in the past government], we would not have been facing the troubles that we do today."

Defending the increase in gas prices, Umar pointed out that the poor only have to bear 10 per cent of the price hike as most of the burden has been transferred to the upper class.

"The PTI government had not even been sworn in when Ogra (Oil and Gas Regulatory Authority) recommended that gas prices be raised by 46 per cent due to a loss of Rs154 billion that had occurred in one year. Were we [the PTI government] the reason behind that loss?" he asked.

"All we could do [right now] was ensure that the burden of the price hike does not fall solely on the poor."

He also highlighted his government's decision to extend a Rs44bn subsidy on gas supplied to export industries in Faislabad, "where 500,000 labourers have been rendered jobless and machinery was being sold at the rates of scrap metal."

Speaking on the ballooning circular debt, he criticised the PML-N government of not capitalising on historically low crude oil prices during its tenure and asked how it had squandered a huge advantage.

Saying he did not doubt the opposition leader's concern, Umar said Sharif seemed to have been misled regarding the actual size of the circular debt as the past government utilised accounting jugglery to misrepresent the reality.

The finance minister said that circular debt had, contrary to the opposition's claims, actually reached Rs1,180 billion when the PTI government took over.

Moving on to tax increases, Umar explained his reasoning behind major decisions in his finance bill amendments.

He noted that the government, despite the oil price surge in the international market and contrary to Ogra's recommendations, had announced only an average 30 per cent increase in gas prices.

He again reminded the assembly that the brunt of that hike would be borne by those who consumed more units of gas than the average consumer does.

He pointed out that most consumers from lower-income class who had to use cylinders — as their houses were not connected to the grid — previously paid a 30 per cent tax on their consumption which the PTI government had reduced to 10 per cent.

"We have reduced the [financial] burden for the poor," he said.

Umar also said that the government had offered subsidies to farmers on both gas and fertiliser. He went on to remind the house that the previous government's decision to export a large amount of urea had led to a shortage of fertiliser at home and increased cost of production for farmers.

Speaking about increases in other taxes, Umar said that the government had raised taxes on 1,800 CC plus cars. Furthermore, he noted that regulatory duties were raised on imported luxury food items like cheese and chips, etc; expensive smartphones "bought by people like you [referring to the speaker] and me, not by poor people"; and other products that are not going to impact the purchasing power of lower-income people.

He then reminded the house that it had only been a month since the PTI came to power.

"Wait and see what happens," he said, promising a crackdown on tax evaders through the stronger implementation of existing policies rather than radical new measures.

"I am warning tax evaders: start paying up your due share of taxes. Do not think we are the same government that was in power for the last five years. We will show you how tax collection is done," he said.

Later, saying that he had repeatedly invited the opposition to put forward their grievances on the assembly floor so that a solution can be reached with consensus, Umar urged detractors to approach the "natural platforms" — the National Assembly and Senate's finance committees — to raise their issues.

As an example of his openness to receiving criticism positively, Umar revisited his decision to allow non-filers to purchase property and vehicles, noting that there were conflicting opinions on it and promising to incorporate criticisms and modify the policy accordingly.

"If a good proposal comes from you, we will be more than happy to accommodate it," he said.