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Mr Speaker the Prime Minister’s budget address is usually a very exciting time for all the sectors of the Saint Lucian economic landscape. The business sector are anxious to know what plans are there for economic expansion so that their bottom line may improve. The young people look to the changes that will meaningfully impact their lives and everyone with batted breath await the tax measures that may be in the budget document.
Mr Speaker this was not the case this year. The public expected the budget to contain the same re-hashed promises of hotel construction, transformation of the South to the “Pearl of the Caribbean”, a new debt laden airport and the usual attacks on the opposition.
There are others who believed that if any benefits would accrue to friends, family and foreigners.
Others are fed-up with the governance of the country as they see a government where scandals abound-they await the next cover-up, the next round of spin only to protect a well-connected friend.
Mr Speaker the people of Saint Lucia have been searching everywhere to find the benefits and promises they voted for in 2016. That hope, that dream, that desire for a more secure future has been dampened by pettiness, vindictiveness and failed leadership. The glitter of ballroom events, numerous empty promises portrayed at sod-turning ceremonies, the parading of pictures and computerized renderings has done nothing to curb the rising crime rates or the increase cost of groceries at the supermarket or the rising fuel prices.
Mr Speaker the hopes and dreams and aspirations of the young people of Saint Lucia cannot be fulfilled by this government and it is time that the government faces the reality that they cannot deliver what the people expect from their government.
Every interest group is dissatisfied- the police still await the disappearance of IMAPACS, our nurses are uncertain of their future, our public servants and teachers await the completion of salary negotiations. The workers of the country are finding it more difficult to secure a decent quality of life.
The feeling of hopelessness, fear and insecurity aboards.
Mr Speaker this budget does not address the voices of genuine concern being expressed by the majority of Saint Lucians.
Mr Speaker the Prime Minister is living in an alternative reality. The Saint Lucia he speaks of is not the real Saint Lucia. It’s a Saint Lucia where health care is getting worse, cost of living is increasing and people have no confidence that the government is transparent in its dealings and will be fair and equitable. It’s a Saint Lucia where the people were promised a reduction in VAT with a view to its elimination. However they have only seen VAT reduced by 2.5% and fuel taxes increased by 60%.
The fisher folk of Saint Lucia know the effect of the $1.50 increase in taxation-now they face an uncertain future with the closure of the Fish and Marketing Co-operation.
A Saint Lucia Labour Party government will reduce the impact of the burdensome fuel tax on the fisher folk of Saint Lucia.
Mr Speaker the budget presentation of the Prime Minister was simply a repetition of the other two budgets presented. It contained the same promise of hotels, DSH, Port Development and changes in the financial architecture. Mr Speaker none of that has happened.
Mr Speaker the Prime Minister and his government are single minded in their desire to discredit the former government of the Saint Lucia Labour Party. Even when the facts are obvious the Prime Minister spins.
A review of the economy commissioned by the UWP states that there was improvement in fiscal performance over the years 2012-2016, the Prime Minister refuses to accept instead he prefers to perform economic treason by stating that the country experienced cumulative economic growth under the UWP. Mr Speaker economic growth is measured on an average basis or for a fixed time period. It is never added and stated in total- it’s the same way the Prime Minister added deficits in a previous statement. This is never done in any serious discussion of economies.
The Prime Minister insists in undermining and marginalizing the economic management of the last Saint Lucia Labour Party.
I ask what new measures has he implemented?
How many taxes did he reverse?
Did he not have enough fiscal space to borrow millions and a Debt to GDP ratio reduced by over 12%?
Did he have to lay-off public servants except when political cleansing was being practiced?
Did he not find the near completion of one of the largest hotels built in Saint Lucia?
Did he not find a regional economy that was improving and hence made it easier to borrow long-term on the Regional Security Market?
Did he not find improved investor confidence worldwide?
Did he not find a CIP programme that injected over $66M in the economy and would have performed better if it had not been tampered with?
Did the Prime Minister ever consider that the unemployment figures can be related to the migration of many Saint Lucians to neighbouring islands rebuilding after natural disasters?
Did he not find large projects ready to start but political pettiness caused these projects to be abandoned?
Did he not find a CDB financed and approved project that would reduce our carbon imprint by replacing all street light with energy saving devices?
Did he not find reduction in the unsustainable deficits in the fiscal accounts to surpluses in certain cases?
Mr Speaker this is only a small part of the platform that this government inherited and failed to build on.
Mr Speaker we await the six hotels promised in every budget delivered by the Prime Minister. It’s a habit of promising many hotels Mr Speaker- at some earlier times the Prime Minister promised six hotels in Micoud. In the three years there has not been one new hotel constructed, however the Prime Minister wants us to believe that six will commence in one year.
Mr Speaker we were promised 500-800 jobs on the DSH site and a promise to transform the south of the island. It was said that the project would attract four hundred horses and the “high rates of joblessness in Vieux Fort would be no longer”. Mr Speaker what has the DSH project delivered to the people of the South except the partitioning of a substantial part of their land that according to a framework agreement measures some one thousand acres.
Mr Speaker every year we hear of fiscal responsibility legislation that will ensure accountability. However, the government continues to award contracts of millions of dollars by direct awards while a Procurement Bill already passed in Parliament remains not assented by the Governor General.
Mr Speaker the Prime Minister says that the financial legislation proposed will control debt accumulation by government. However, he refuses to act when ministers of his Cabinet issue “to whom it may concern” letters seeking finance that will increase debt.
Mr Speaker the Prime Minister plans to merge the National Lottery with the Gaming Authority. I believe that is to allow his adventure into horse race gambling. Who will regulate the business of gambling in Saint Lucia if the operators are also regulators?
Mr Speaker all economic policy must be practiced in an atmosphere that fosters good governance, fairness and equity for all. The people must believe that the system is managed properly and there are adequate checks and balances that will ensure proper ethical practices.
Mr Speaker, the antidote for corruption is good governance. Conversely, when there is an absence of good governance corruption is alive and well. Good governance must transcend partisan politics. Good governance is about securing public safety, good public education, affordable health care and responsible debt management. Good governance is also about a Prime Minister exercising leadership by disciplining his ministers when their behavior is in contravention of the ministerial code of behavior.
Mr Speaker, this prime Minister continues to fail the people of St Lucia by refusing to act when he should in the face of accusations of corruption against a sitting member of his cabinet. This cabinet member has been publicly accused of offering bribes to a former Prime minister and cabinet member in the 2006-2011 UWP administration. More disturbing, the accused Minister has made no effort to protect his name. Mr. Speaker, there can only be two interpretations to the accused minister’s inaction: he either does not care about his public image, which is a worrying sign as a public officer, or he is guilty of the accusation of bribery. The significance of the accusation remains lost on the Prime Minister and so he has done anything about it. Not even the fact that the accusation was made by a former cabinet colleague seems to move the Prime Minister.
Mr Speaker, the Prime Minister’s indifference to matters concerning the behavior of his cabinet ministers is sending a clear signal to the population: he just does not care. And so, we have a situation where certain ministers have become embolden, and are now, more and more, engaged in activities that are unbecoming of any public official.
Mr Speaker this government has wasted precious time in parliament and beyond to blame the opposition, denials even with obvious evidence, making excuses. They have engaged highly paid tax funded spin doctors to deflect, blame, threaten and intimidate perceived political opponents. There can be no meaningful economic prosperity for all in that environment.
Mr. Speaker, let me say to this house and the people of St Lucia that the next SLP government under my leadership will strengthen the integrity in public office legislation. The strengthened legislation will ensure there are sanctions against public officials involved in corruption. Mr. Speaker this process will commence while we are in opposition, so that the people of St Lucia will see the determination of my party to stamp out corruption in government.
Mr Speaker, allow me to crave your indulgence for a moment, in an effort, to test how a blameless person would respond to allegations of wrong doing. If your signature were attached to a letter you did not sign, and you were then asked about the letter, would you defend its contents? I think not and you would dismiss the letter as a forgery and perhaps call in the police, in an attempt to protect your reputation and good name.
Mr Speaker, there is a letter in public circulation, which bears the signature of a government minister, in which the government of Saint Lucia has agreed to enter into a contractual agreement with PAJOAH’s Limited and Associates and has also agreed to honour debts of EC$162million dollars for projects undertaken by PAJOAH’s limited and Associates.
Mr Speaker, it would be irresponsible and reckless of any minister, including the Prime Minister, to commit to anyone, the payment of a loan by the government of St Lucia, which has not been tabled in this house for debate, let alone agreed. Yet, the minister in question has chosen to defend the contents of the letter, and he has accepted the signature on the letter as being his. He has not suggested forgery and nor has he been clear that the letter was not written by him.
Mr Speaker the Prime Minister is aware of the letter and has remained mute about it. By his silence he is demonstrating an indifference, at the very least, to any likely wrong doing on the part of his ministers. There is a notable awareness of the seriousness of the matter though within his government by the last UWP prime minister and member for Castries North. In his answer to questions from the press about the said letter, which was written on the official letter head of government from the Ministry of Economic Development, he agreed that if the letter were authentic then the minister should be disciplined because he would have been in breach of the ministerial code of conduct.
Mr. Speaker, I am calling on the Prime Minister, given the defence of the letter’s contents by the minister in question and the recognition by a senior member in his cabinet of the seriousness and damaging nature of letter, that he tells the house and the people of St Lucia what he intends to do about the situation?
In the spirit of transparency and good governance that, if, he, the Prime Minister, intends to commence an investigation into the matter that the police be included to address any likelihood of forgery.
Mr Speaker, the tourism industry remains the main economic driver for the country. Our economic success in tourism though, depends significantly on external factors beyond our control e.g. the state of the economies in our source markets.
Mr Speaker we note the increase in tourism arrivals and the Prime Minister’s claim that it is the result of his government policies. But what has been the government’s policy.
The dissolution of the St. Lucia Tourist Board. A proposed village tourism initiative. The formation of a Tourism Advisory Council (TAC).
None of these initiatives are new, except the Tourism Authority, which has not significantly changed tourism administration except for the dismissal of employees and officials perceived to be of a different political persuasion. Mr Speaker the increase in tourism arrivals is due to the improvement of the economies in our source markets, the USA in particular, and the opening of the Royalton Hotel with its own marketing arrangements.
Mr Speaker the Royalton Hotel increased the room stock by over four hundred rooms and the Harbor Club by one hundred rooms.
Mr Speaker, Royalton Hotel alone accounts for an increase of about 28072 in arrivals.
If the Royalton had not opened the growth would only be 2.5% for that year. The twenty-eight thousand additional arrivals is the direct result of the additional rooms. If we look at the 2015 reduction in arrivals we will notice that was the year we lost the Club Saint Lucia room stock.
Mr Speaker, I want to take you to the most recent figures for the month of February 2019 where arrivals decreased from all major source markets except the United Kingdom. The increase in UK arrivals was the direct result of the English cricket tour to the West Indies and matches played in Saint Lucia.
The Saint Lucia Labour Party is concerned with the distribution of the benefits from these tourism numbers. Are the vendors and taxi drivers enjoying increased benefits? Are the arrival numbers reflected in the small hotel sector? The government failed to continue development of the Nature Heritage Tourism Programme but instead chose what they call Village Tourism which after three years is still at the level of consultancy and proposed legislation. Another example of wasted opportunity Mr Speaker.
HEWANORRA INTERNATIONAL AIRPORT
Mr Speaker, let me briefly make the position of our party on HIA very clear. We support the improvement of the airport because it is necessary to meet the demands and standards of an international airport. Our disagreement with the government is with the financing arrangements of the improvements. We believe that a loan of US$175M is an unnecessary burden on the people of St Lucia when a debt- free alternative was available. Having cancelled the debt- free alternative this government has still not been able to finalize the US$175M loan. Given St Lucia’s limited fiscal space it is highly irresponsible to take on debt when it can be avoided and make it more difficult and expensive to secure funding for vital sectors like health and education.
Mr Speaker if we were to listen to the Prime Minister you will believe that the building of an airport was easy income generating activity for governments. If it were so, Mr. Speaker then why are there over six hundred airports that are constructed and managed by PPP arrangements. And while Mr Speaker, as we speak, hundreds of airports are being constructed using the PPP model. The government of Jamaica has announced the expansion of the Norman Manley International Airport using a PPP model. The Barbados government is seeking a PPP arrangement for its airport. But Saint Lucia has chosen the debt option because our Prime Minister can see opportunities where others can’t.
It is not that simple Mr Speaker and the Prime Minister must cease from making simplistic arithmetical calculations to explain complex financial transactions.
Airport construction is not that simple. To hear the Prime Minister justify imposing a tax burden on the future generation by simply multiplying arrivals by an airport tax is unrealistic and flies in the face of logic. This is serious Mr Speaker and the Prime Minister must take the business of the country more seriously.
Recent political economic history will show that most Caribbean islands have had to undergo IMF structural adjustment programmes or home grown austerity measures to stabilize their economies to avert economic ruin. These austerity measures have always reduced social, health and educational expenses causing hardship to large sections of the population particularly the lower income groups. In each individual case the constant factor has been unsustainable high public debt.
In Saint Lucia our public debt is over three billion dollars and according to the IMF 2018 report it is projected to reach 81.3% of GDP in 2023. The IMF declared that a fiscal adjustment of 2.7% of GDP was needed to attain the ECCU debt target of 60% of GDP by 2030. The IMF advised among other measures use of CIP revenue for building “a savings fund for natural disasters of 5% of GDP by 2021”. We await information from the Prime Minister on whether he will make these adjustments.
Mr Speaker any responsible Minister of Finance would instead of seeking ways of discrediting this message would look at the examples of other countries in the region and take measures to limit and avoid unnecessary borrowing.
The UWP government will have by the end of this financial year borrowed or refinanced nearly one billion dollars’ worth of loans since assuming power in 2016.
Mr Speaker by the end of 2018 the official stock of public debt increased by 4.1% to $3.3306 Billion. This year it is estimated that the public debt will increase by over $300M without inclusion of the SLASPA guaranteed debt of over $270M expected to increase to over $400M. Further the estimates do not reflect the $275M worth of borrowing approval by the Saint Lucia Parliament during the last fiscal year but only $197M reflected in the estimates.
Current trends Mr Speaker may see that national debt including guaranteed debt reaching nearly $4Billion by the end of the fiscal year 2019/2020.
Mr Speaker the Barbados economy which was once hailed as one of the best managed economies in the region is as we speak under painful restructuring as a result of a severe IMF programme partly because of high public debt. The Barbadian population is experiencing an increase in bus-fares, increase taxes on fuel, thousands of job losses in the public and civil service.
Mr Speaker the Saint Lucia Labour Party would not want our country to have to undergo any more painful restructuring because of reckless election borrowing from a government that has not implemented one viable economic project since its win in 2016.
Mr Speaker excessive debt is not only our responsibility but a burden for our children and generations yet to be born. It is our duty to be responsible. Saint Lucia is in danger of experiencing the same kind of debt crisis which has derailed the growth and development of other Caribbean islands with disastrous consequences for the quality of life of the people.
This crisis has to be averted and the Saint Lucia Labour Party when in government will design a creative, transparent set of private public sector partnerships, the avoidance of fiscal excesses, wastage, and corruption, and an imaginative growth programme that will improve the fiscal position of our country.
Mr Speaker the Prime Minister did not elaborate on the fiscal measures relating to the taxes on the tourism sector. The Saint Lucia Labour Party calls for some consultation and that consideration be given to the small hotel sector when the final computations are made. The measures must not be unduly beneficial to large properties that have the benefit of sophisticated accounting procedures.
Mr Speaker the re-introduction of property tax must take into consideration the hundreds of house owners who do not have the disposable income available to incur any more taxes.
Mr Speaker the Prime Minister has announced that a loan from the government of Taiwan will be used to repair roads. As is the case with this government the impression was given by the Prime Minister that all roads will be fixed, incidentally that was the same promise in last year’s budget.
What was shocking Mr Speaker is the announcement of a trip to Kuwait for negotiation for repair and reconstruction of the Castries to Gros-Islet Highway and the repair of surrounding Secondary roads? Mr Speaker you cannot find a more glaring example of how the Prime Minister has wasted opportunity in his blind desire to completely erase the legacy of the Saint Lucia Labour Party. What opportunities have the people of Saint Lucia lost by the stopping of the Gros-Islet Highway expansion.
The Project would be co-financed through approved loans from the Kuwait Fund for Arab Economic Development and OPEC fund for International Development (OFID) and would have been implemented by the Ministry of Infrastructure. The project included improvement of existing 90 km of secondary road, widening of the existing two lane road to a four lane dual carriageway, upgrading of seven junctions, pavement strengthening, construction of 9 overhead foot bridges, upgrading of drainage infrastructure and ancillary structures. Mr Speaker in June 2016 the tendered engineering drawings for the secondary roads were being evaluated.
The congestion and loss of productive time on that roadway is a direct result of the failure to continue the project.
Mr Speaker we look forward to what procurement policies will be used to choose the contractors for the proposed road works. Why has there not been a public tender for the construction of these roads. What will be the involvement of the Ministry of Economic Development in the process? Mr Speaker these are loan funds and there must be proper accounting and costing for these roads. If the Ministry of Infrastructure is indeed the project implementation unit there should be no undue influence from any other Ministry. Mr Speaker the process of choosing contractors must be open and transparent. Examples of recent road contacts have not been encouraging. The government must ensure that the public receives value for money.
Mr Speaker if there was ever an example of neglect and callousness it is in the government’s handling of the health sector. The people of Saint Lucia have suffered from inadequate health care, our health practitioners continue to work in less than adequate conditions. The government continues to play politics with the health of the nation.
Mr Speaker the government required nearly three years to form “a National Health Insurance Committee…..to present the best model and financing options to Cabinet” – and “to embark upon broad based consultations with stakeholders”. Mr Speaker that is where we are as far as National Health Insurance is concerned.
Mr Speaker the Prime Minister states that “it is easy to focus on the OKEU and St. Jude Hospital”-it’s not that easy Mr Prime Minister, it’s painful for the people of the south who are seeing their loved ones suffer at the George Odlum Stadium.
Mr Speaker the government remained deaf while the people of the south cried for health care. According to the estimates presented the government intends to spend $25M on the St. Jude Hospital Reconstruction project in the next financial year but the Prime Minister states that $30M US will be used.
Mr Speaker the Prime Minister in his own words stated that $10M US was available for use at St. Jude. However he stopped work, allowing the buildings to deteriorate only to admit that the hospital could have been completed much earlier. Why did it take the government thirty-six months to take a decision regarding the health care and welfare of the patients and staff of the St. Jude Hospital?
We have for over three years urged the government to continue work on St. Jude Hospital while they performed their political manoeuvres. The people in the south demonstrated, they wept but the government was uncaring.
Now the government is hastily conniving to appear as if something is happening-again the question must be asked- who are the contractors engaged and will the construction go to public tender.
Mr Speaker there was no mention of the proposed management structure of the OKEU Hospital ever after Ministers of Government have openly stated that a contract may have been already signed for the handing over of that gift to private hands.
Mr Speaker it is disregard for the people’s health when a government can completely abandon commissioning plans prepared from 2016 by the Saint Lucia Labour Party government-now the government with election time close by is promising to relocate patients at the Wellness Center, decommissioning Victoria Hospital and move services to different locations-what confusion Mr Speaker, it was the same Prime Minister who said to the country that the OKEU would serve as a tourist health facility run by private concerns to supplement income since the public purse could not afford its maintenance.
Mr Speaker the government has failed the public in the provision of health care-there can be no excuse even for this government excuses. They have simply run out of excuses.
The Saint Lucia Labour Party pledges to make affordable health care a priority so as to fulfil the United Nations declaration that health is a human right.
ARTS AND CULTURE
In March 2018, the 45 year old Folk Research Centre burned to the ground with loss of all its invaluable documents and audio-visual materials. To date, the Institution has not received a report from the Fire Service on the cause of the disastrous fire. The loss of this unique Saint Lucian institution sent shock waves throughout the world. The importance of safe-guarding, preserving and most importantly digitizing records was reemphasized by that fire.
An SLP government will give support to the Folk Research Center in their efforts to digitalize their records.
The Saint Lucia Labour Party pledges to work with the Folk Research Center to help rebuild its burnt out headquarters at Mount Pleasant.
The public remains concerned about the treatment of the St. Lucia National Trust established in 1975. Around the world, National Trust organisations safeguard the built heritage and environmental areas that need protection and maintenance. The St. Lucia National Trust should be helped, not hindered, in its essential work. The Trust will say to all governments and government agencies, at times, truths they do not want to hear. But the Trust must speak out on behalf of the nation when it sees that our patrimony is seriously threatened.
The Saint Lucia Labour Party in its return to office will immediately reinstate the subvention to the National Trust.
I congratulate our new generation of creative people whose talents have been on display during the celebrations of the 40th anniversary of Independence. The arts and culture do provide an avenue, an outlet, for harnessing the energy and real talents of our young people. New areas of film production with opportunities for actors, directors, designers, camera persons etc. should be given serious attention. Areas like fashion design must be encouraged. Already talented entrepreneurs are doing well with the bags and clothes and other accessories. The Arts & Crafts industry must also be encouraged and provided for. We can do so much better, in so many areas.
Creative Industries and Cultural industries will to be back on the front burner for further discussion and development when the Saint Lucia Labour Party is returned to government.
Mr Speaker I have no confidence in the budget presented by the Prime Minister. The promised change is nowhere to be found. This budget is yet another heap of empty promises. This budget is a par- ici-pa—la budget with no focus but only reveals the inept, empty and incompetent nature of the government of the UWP.
A Saint Lucia Labour Party government will offer to the people of Saint Lucia a new developmental focus within an enabling policy and programme environment that will ensure poverty reduction through the promotion and encouragement of a multiplicity of micro small and medium businesses. While ensuring the expansion of existing businesses.
The Saint Lucia Labour Party programme will include:
1. An integrated rural Development Programme to help stem some of the rural-urban drift that causes the increasing unemployment particularly among the youth.
2. A new entrepreneurial culture to enable the expansion of existing enterprises and creation of new ones.
3. A far reaching reform of the education, training and human development institutions in our country.
4. Improving business facilitation with the aim of making Saint Lucia the best place to do business in the Caribbean.
5. Establishment of at least one new major economic sector the Alternative Energy Sector.
6. The Saint Lucia Labour Party will be creative, effective communication, information sharing and community engagement that allows ownership and acceptance of the policies and processes by our people. Our agenda will be A PEOPLE first Agenda.
7. Creation of new and emerging economic activity to harness the talent and entrepreneurial aspirations of the youth.
8. The Creation of smart cities to facilitate commerce in a highly technological environment.
9. The Saint Lucia Labour Party is committed to pursuing a green economy as one of the pillars for inclusive economic growth, sustainable development and prosperity for all Saint Lucians. We will ensure a national understanding and commitment by sharing, explaining and embracing ideas and strategies that would promote the Green economy model.
10. The Saint Lucia Labour Party will make a concerted effort to develop an economy with special opportunities for the youth to develop and expand their entrepreneurial talents.
Mr Speaker our country must be for the many not the few, government policy must be aimed at improving lives not dividends or profits. We must recognize that the consequences of present government action can jeopardize the future generations. Mr Speaker I end with a quotation from Dwight D. Eisenhower “as we peer into society’s future we…..you and I and our government must avoid the impulse to live only for today, plundering for our own ease and convenience the precious resources for tomorrow.”