Sunday 13th January 2019
Fellow Saint Lucians,
I have chosen to address you at this time for a number of reasons. First and foremost, it’s a brand new year and traditionally, we look to every New Year with renewed hope and expectation.
I also wanted to say thank you to the many people who continue to believe and pray for my Government, who recognize the gravity of the problems we are grappling with and to offer you all assurances that we are beginning to turn the corner in our plans to put our country back where it belongs.
This New Year also finds us at the half-way point of our term in office and I thought it fitting to report to you on our governance: what we have been able to achieve and where we go from here. In effect, I wanted to tell you the state of the nation.
In June 2016 as we came into office, all economic indicators pointed to the fact that our country was on an unsustainable economic path.
My administration inherited the largest and fastest debt accumulation in five years at $3.1 billion. The highest recorded youth and overall unemployment rates and the weakest economy in the OECS.
Over the last thirty months our Government has been able to stabilize the economy. After several years of negative and low growth under the previous administration we have now recorded for the past two years over three percent growth; with a reduction in youth unemployment, from close to 45 percent to about 38 percent and an overall unemployment from 25 percent to just over 20 percent.
One of the major challenges my administration inherited was the limited space to borrow money given the high level of debt accumulated by the previous Labour Party Administration.
Although borrowing is necessary to undertake public sector capital investment projects, we have been determined not to increase the existing debt burden. Our Government did so by ensuring that as much as possible new borrowing comes with its own revenue stream.
We are very pleased that this year, we will see the commencement of major road works throughout the length and breadth of Saint Lucia and the redevelopment of the Hewanorra International Airport. Saint Lucians have waited far too long to see this project take off.
The funding for these projects were created by two new revenue sources, namely: the Airport Development Tax and an additional $1.50 on the existing fuel excise tax. I reiterate, this will not put undue pressure on the Government’s budget, as this new debt is supported by dedicated revenue streams.
There is no doubt that these two projects will trigger a wave of economic activity and their completion will assist in expanding our capacity to reach our growth potential. I am also very excited about the significant number of jobs that will be created in the process.
In keeping with our election promise to ease the economic squeeze on the people, we reduced Value Added Tax, froze property taxes, implemented an amnesty on hospital bills, reduced vehicle licensing fees, doubled spending on the school feeding programme and transportation subsidy.
Today the economy is beginning to blossom once more. Tourism, the lynchpin of our economy, which was trending downwards, has been resuscitated, recording in 2017 the highest number of arrivals ever – over one million one hundred and fourteen thousand (1,114,000).
This surge in tourism has resulted in Saint Lucia regaining its position as the leading tourism destination in the OECS.
Banana exports are at their highest in several years; there is a strong rebound in construction and the manufacturing sector is picking up again, all contributing to the lowest level of unemployment recorded since 2007, the year of Cricket World Cup. We anticipate that unemployment levels will continue to fall as investment plans continue to be implemented in 2019.
Security and Justice
At a time when crime is on the minds of most Saint Lucians, we have had to spend much of the last 30 months sourcing and providing some of the very basic needs for our police force that were not available when we came into office.
In today’s world:
if you do not have CCTV cameras;
if you don’t have a forensic lab;
if you don’t have a justice and court system that are working in tandem;
if you do not have a DPP’s office that is properly staffed;
if your policemen do not have proper communication systems and vehicles,
if you do not have proper court buildings, you cannot say you are serious about fighting crime.
As if those problems were not a heavy enough burden, there are the related sanctions placed on the police in 2012, including travel and overseas training. The Labour Party government’s irresponsible handling of the IMPACS investigation, has also contributed to the sharp decline in the morale of our police, who are doing their utmost in overwhelming circumstances.
From the onset of our administration we have taken steps to combat crime at all levels, including instituting social programmes that address crime at its root.
We first reopened the Forensic Lab that was closed for some years. As a result we were able to make significant headway in the investigation and prosecution of several rape cases on the island.
The Government is also now faced with another hurdle of tackling the current health and safety issues at the facility, which I am assured will be resolved in the coming weeks.
We appointed a Director of Public Prosecution and increased resources for the DPP’s office. The new Police Headquarters will also include six new courts, a state-of-the-art control centre and improved facilities for our police.
Strategically, we have taken decisions to strengthen our police force and justice system, however, we recognize we still have a long way to go in providing the basics that are vital to serious crime fighting. We have invested in CCTV cameras and police communications systems which will be operational within weeks.
We are putting all the necessary resources in place, but similarly we will be asking for accountability.
Social and Youth Engagement Programmes
One of the specific goals of our social services programmes has been the welfare of the poor, the marginalized and the disadvantaged.
In this respect, apart from doubling what we were spending on school feeding and transportation, we have increased and improved the elderly care-givers programme, increased the number of social workers, upgraded legislation dealing with the welfare of children, expanded our after school programmes and are seeking to engage more young people to join clubs and not gangs.
As our Government puts these measures in place we continue to appeal to all Saint Lucians: let us do our part as good citizens to discourage crime and support our police force.
Another critical issue for our country has been health care.
Thankfully, we have started the phased opening of the Owen King EU hospital, for which I must remind you there was no plan and inadequate funds set aside for its operation. We have commenced construction of a polyclinic in Dennery and increased operating hours at the Gros Islet polyclinic. Meanwhile, in Soufriere, we are finalizing plans for a new mini-hospital to serve the community.
Three health care facilities, namely Desruisseaux, Belle Vue and Mon Repos Wellness Centers, have also been upgraded to be safer, greener and more resilient to natural disasters. It is our hope that soon all of our health centers will be Smart Health Care Facilities.
The Government has taken steps to finally resolve the problem at Saint Jude Hospital, which was one of the many disasters left behind for our administration to handle.
I am pleased to report we have already commenced clearing works for the New Hospital wing and the Ministries of Health and Economic Development have finalized the design. Construction is set to start within the next few weeks.
Our nation owes a great debt of gratitude to the doctors, nurses and all the dedicated staff of Saint Jude, who continue to provide service to the people of the south under such difficult circumstances. I thank them, and the nation thanks them, for their personal sacrifice and I assure you that we will resolve this issue once and for all.
Our commitment to delivering affordable, quality health care is also advancing well; with a national health insurance scheme which will ensure that no Saint Lucian is left behind when it comes to accessing better health services. Too many families continue to suffer financial and emotional ruin because they don’t have these safety nets. I can report that we have secured financing through the World Bank for assistance in the implementation of health care insurance.
One of the other major challenges we face as a nation that impacts directly on our future development is in the field of education. We have to face the fact that our education system is in need of a massive overhaul if we are to prepare our people for the opportunities ahead and to be globally competitive.
The revolution has started with the Ministry of Education’s successful #EducateSaintLucia project. We have also introduced computer coding, robotics and digital literacy programmes in our schools. Under the EQUIP project we have invested $10 million in the expansion, rehabilitation and furnishing of several learning institutions to improve the quality, relevance and effectiveness of instruction in the education sector.
I want to assure Saint Lucians that our Government is determined to remain focused on the task ahead: which is to take Saint Lucia out of the state of stagnation and despair that we found it in June 2016 and give it once again purpose, vitality and direction.
We have too many challenges ahead to start doubting ourselves. Let this time, this New Year, be OUR TIME.
In recent months, this government has demonstrated for all to see, a kind of governance that has never been exhibited in Saint Lucia before, the kind that listens to the concerns of our people and bona fide organizations.
We have listened to the voices of genuine concern and tempered our advances accordingly. We have never been afraid to have tough and sensitive discussions and get input from the various sectors of society. In some cases this has meant reviewing some of our plans and allowing time for discussion, which is what good governance is about.
So if 2018 was a year of planning and adjustments, 2019 will be the year of implementation as a number of public and private sector projects get underway; translating into the biggest infusion of capital into our economy ever.
Investments and Developments
We made it clear from day one that the southern part of Saint Lucia, in general, and Vieux Fort, in particular, will be the focal point of much of our developmental efforts in this term.
The Desert Star Holdings “Pearl of the Caribbean” project has started with the race course and we are getting set to upgrade the Hewanorra International Airport to the tune of US$170 million.
The existing terminal will be transformed into a charter terminal and we will also build a Fixed Based Operation for private jets.
We have reached an agreement in principle with Carnival Cruise Lines for the construction of a cruise ship port in Vieux Fort.
With this in place, people will be able to get off their chartered flights and go straight onto the cruise ships, within minutes. This will give our island a strategic advantage in the region.
In 2019, the south will also experience a surge in job creation with the number of projects coming on stream. Apart from Vieux Fort, we think it is high time that developments in the south begin to impact the outlying districts like Soufriere, Laborie, Choiseul and Micoud, in a tangible way, hence we also need to upgrade our infrastructure.
The construction of the Grace water intake is part of our upgrading of the water system. We also know that for years the public of Saint Lucia has been paying a Government instituted levy for the desilting of the John Compton Dam and nothing was ever done. In May of last year our administration commenced phase one of this long awaited John Compton Dam Rehabilitation Project.
So between the John Compton Dam, Grace and Dennery, we will be spending approximately EC$168 million in 2019 in the water sector.
The focus on the south does not mean that the north will be neglected. One of our major projects up north will be the regeneration of the capital. Everyone knows that Castries was once a very vibrant capital city in the Caribbean with high levels of commercial activity on a daily basis.
Today, there are times, especially at night, when Castries looks like a ghost town.
Gone are the large department stores, fine restaurants and night clubs that once gave the city life. Gone too are the bright lights and window shopping that made Castries a bustling metropolis.
Every successful city has a strategic advantage or focus that allows it to be competitive on a global basis.
Castries was successful for many years because of its natural asset, the harbour, that earlier facilitated coaling, then bananas and now tourism. But Castries has not been able to keep up with the times and needs to be redeveloped. It has been 70 years since the great fire, following which a number of buildings were erected as temporary structures. But they have stayed with us for 70 years. Look at the main street in Castries, Bridge Street, with abandoned buildings including one that was destroyed by a fire more than 10 years ago.
Many of the main buildings in Castries are in poor physical shape. Some of them owned and occupied by Government have fallen into disrepair and are considered health hazards.
We have no choice but to replace those buildings that have outlived their usefulness and pose risks to health and safety. This regeneration of Castries is itself a means of spurring economic activity and providing employment for our people.
We also need to ensure more of the over 600,000 cruise ship visitors we receive annually, actually come off the ship; visit our city and our vendors.
While the expansion works at Pointe Seraphine has improved the class of vessels being accommodated, newer and bigger ships with the capacity for carrying as many as 6,000 passengers are coming into the sector and we must be ready to receive them. It was this same sort of vision by a UWP administration which resulted in the Pointe Seraphine complex being built in the 1980s. This is now proving inadequate and we have to reinvest in Pointe Seraphine and expand our investment to also improve the products, services and recreation opportunities in the Castries Market area.
Meanwhile, the hotel plant in the north is on the verge of expansion. A rebranding of the Rex Properties at Rodney Bay is underway and The Rex Saint Lucian is to undergo reconstruction. The Government has agreed to renew the lease on the property on the condition that the resort is built to be a 4 or 5-star product or higher, that has a significant European Plan (EP) component. We will not support a full all-inclusive hotel on that site because of the existing commercial entities in the area.
Sandals at Choc is being upgraded with a new pool and additional rooms are also being considered. It is our hope that the current dispute before the courts, which is preventing the 360 all-suite, EC$500 million dollar project, from going ahead, will be speedily resolved.
Some years ago, we attracted a Hyatt hotel to Saint Lucia but that story – one we know all too well – had a sad and sorry ending. Hyatt is a major international brand and we are now fortunate to have it showing an interest in this country once again.
Invest Saint Lucia has completed transactions with a Barbados-based firm to buy land at Choc for a 800-room Hyatt Hotel, which will be a mixture of the European Plan and all-inclusive. Construction is due to begin in the second half of 2019.
Elsewhere, Saint Lucia Distillers plans to undertake an upgrade of its plant and the development of a tourist attraction at a cost of $30 million.
We will also make an investment of 500 million dollars in our road rehabilitation. A recent audit determined at present approximately 52 percent of our road network is classified as good or fair, with the remaining 48 percent being classified as poor or very poor.
Hence, we have already begun the road improvement and maintenance program to address the quality of the road network in Saint Lucia through strategic maintenance of primary roads and 55 kilometres of secondary roads. This will generally improve the safety and capacity of our roads.
Sports Development and Youth Opportunities
The young people of this country are a priority for our administration. Hence the reason we are investing so heavily in upgrading our sporting facilities and creating a School of Excellence in Sports which are due to open this year.
Our administration is investing US$12 Million over the next 15 months to finance the design, development, construction and upgrade of several projects including the Soufriere Mini Stadium, the Dennery Sports Complex, the Gros Islet Football Ground, the Micoud North Sports Complex, the Micoud South Sports Complex and Gros Islet Secondary School. Our athletes must know we are in their corner cheering them on with not just words. The funds from the Saint Lucia National Lottery will be dedicated to funding youth development and sports.
We anticipate our young people will also take advantage of the opportunities from our injection into the Saint Lucia Development Bank (SLDB) for Housing and local Business Development. Initially we had promised a $10 million dollar injection however noting that the SLDB has attracted a significant number of persons wishing to own a home and improve their economic and social well-being, we doubled that amount to $20 Million. The bank can now provide support in the areas of home construction, home renovations, home extensions, and house & land purchase as well as support entrepreneurship in the areas of agriculture, fishing, village tourism and manufacturing.
The aim of this is to give our young people a chance to achieve their dreams. They have so much energy, creativity and so many innovative ideas; made even more achievable by the availability and access to technology and we will create that support system as they continue to be our inspiration.
As our country continues its upward trend, I want to appeal to all Saint Lucians that it is time that we put away the petty and silly squabbles that constantly seem to surface and which only serve to foment division. It is time that we come out of the mindset that everything that government does must be subject to a political interpretation, or be seen as opportunity to create mischief, confusion and division. Nation building is a serious matter.
We cannot solve the problems of our country in isolation. It’s a holistic adjustment that we must make in how we approach the business of our country. If we make these needed adjustments, it will amount to a significant change in the overall results.
The government recognizes that there are constraints to growth and we are doing our part to tackle these issues and be accountable. We have engaged the private and public sectors in an in-depth exercise of developing a medium term strategy, which encourages accountability.
If we are to think of the economy doubling and tripling in size, we have to look at the stark reality of what would prevent that from happening and address it.
As we begin the New Year and on the eve of what I am confident will be a defining moment in the economic and social development of Saint Lucia, I urge that we all come together and begin to build the new Saint Lucia that has become the battle cry for our government and the way forward into the future.
In a few weeks’ time we will be celebrating the 40th Anniversary of our Independence. This is a time for reflection but also a time for us to celebrate in grand style our achievements as a nation. I call on all Saint Lucians at home and abroad to participate in the numerous special activities we have planned. We have added some amazing showcases and events to highlight our nation’s 40th and I know it will captivate your attention and do justice to this occasion.
I am so excited about the year ahead and the promise it holds. I take this opportunity to thank the friendly Governments and International Organizations that continue to assist us in our developmental goals.
The people of this country have been very patient and I thank you all for your vote of confidence as I am truly honoured to be the leader of this great country of unmatched culture and beauty. More than ever I believe Saint Lucia, It’s Our Time.
In closing, I wish to urge all Saint Lucians: let us rededicate ourselves to the task of pushing our country forward. Let us remember Saint Lucia is a nation built on values that are worth protecting.
We cannot be our own enemies when the real enemies are poverty, deprivation, under-development and critically lost opportunities. The policies of this government are to provide affordable, quality health care, a globally competitive education, and public safety and security for all.
Our policies are designed to create opportunities for our people through employment and participation in economic activity. I urge you to join us in making these things happen.
I thank the Cabinet of Ministers for their immense efforts in working towards achieving our goals and of course my wife and family for their continued support.
I pray that this New Year will bring all of us good health, peace, happiness and comfort.
May God Bless you and May God Bless our island Saint Lucia.