Letters & Opinion

A Surgical Budget — Removing the Rot; Implanting Good Governance

By Stephen Lester Prescott

Partisan politics aside, the majority of our citizens want the best for our country. It is this upright majority who will appreciate, immensely, the proposals for people’s development contained in this the first budget policy statement by Prime Minister and Minister for Finance, Hon. Philip J Pierre.

These proposals must be taken in the context of the current turbulence in the global economic environment due to the dire consequences of the Covid-19 pandemic, compounded by the issues of consumer supply and demand – particularly in the critical areas of oil and energy – brought on by the war between Russia and Ukraine.

Let us consider for a moment the following snapshot of the poor financial management this administration inherited from the UWP under Mr Allen Chastanet:

• For the financial year April 2020 – March 2021, the economy contracted by 24.4%, the largest decline in the Eastern Caribbean Monetary Union and the 6th in the world.

• At $3.9 billion, we now have the largest public debt in the Monetary Union, with debt service accounting for 31 percent of government revenue.

• Payments due to local suppliers stood at $154 million.

• Design/Finance Contracts stood at $184.5 million. These contracts were untendered contracts for road building, which are repayable within 5 years.

• Unpaid land acquisitions of $60 million.

• Monies owed to the University of the West Indies of $27 million.

• CDP Debt of $4.18 million and growing.

Consider too, that COVID-related borrowings from regional and international creditors amounted to $323 million, and as of July 31, 2021, $301 million had been drawn down, leaving $19 million available for future use.

Then, to quote Mr Pierre, “As the world recovers from the worst of the pandemic, economic activity has increased and so has the price of crude oil and related petroleum products. This price increase has worsened because of the Ukraine/Russia war, with oil prices reaching unprecedented levels.”

We must factor in the numerous scandals, financial and otherwise, (Soufriere Square project delay, WePay, DSH/Horserace Track white elephant, Pajoah, Range Development fiasco, Covid19-vaccines scam, St Jude Project financial black hole, and so on) that imposed a burden  – in time and money – on government between July 2016 and July 2021.

Every week some depressing information on the costly financial management conduct of the last administration comes to light. The latest came in the budget statement by way of a revelation that “a mechanical dryer purchased by WASCO at a cost of EC$662,447.87 hardly functioned, could not be repaired, and reportedly the vendor could not be located for recovery or recourse.” The Minister for Finance does not think that WASCO and its consumers received value for money in the millions spent on the John Compton Dam Desilting Project.

Another setback is the “long construction delays and massive cost overruns” – to the tune of EC$43.8 million – plaguing the Hewanorra Airport Redevelopment Project.

It is against this waste of the country’s scarce resources that the change of government and advent of the leadership of Philip J Pierre must be viewed. The Budget statement suggests that the country had been steadily pacing along the track to financial disaster.

Hardly anything of financial or economic viability was passed on to this government by its predecessor.

Yet, under “this mountain of debt commitment”, the SLP Administration is delivering on debt servicing, financing Covid-19 demands, strengthening healthcare delivery services, and giving much-needed support to the education sector in the form of payment of facilities fees for over 25,000 secondary school students; supplying over 12,000 electronic devices to students and paying CXC fees for students taking Mathematics and English.

Perhaps if the Allen Chastanet Administration had accomplished just what the SLP Administration has delivered or is delivering in nine months, the outcome of the July 26, 2021 general election would have been different. But who, other than the small circle of beneficiaries (family, friends and foreign associates) of the Allen Chastanet Administration, has any regrets.

So much work to do against not only the challenges posed by the consequences of UWP financial mismanagement, but also the present efforts by the failed former administration to create distractions from the people’s agenda. One of the forms of partisan pettiness is Mr. Chastanet’s mission as Leader of the Opposition, to set a mathematical formula for the order in which parliamentarians debate the important business in the House of Assembly. Central to his formula is who must have the last word. He sees any suggestion by the government side as an effort to silence him.

He must constantly be reminded of his early verbal proclamation as Prime Minister that the Saint Lucia Labour Party MPs had lost the right to speak in the House on account of the Party’s 6-11 loss at the polls in 2016. Already in trouble with the Speaker over attendance, he now wants to dictate the time and position he wants to speak during sittings on the budget.

Much to Mr. Chastanet’s discredit, the Philip J. Pierre Administration is not distracted and is moving ahead with its ‘putting people first” agenda. On top of its impressive programme of financial relief over the nine months of its existence, the SLP Administration presented a comprehensive package of proposals in the Budget Policy Statement to fulfill the objectives of its budget theme of “Empowering Our People – Transforming Our Economy”.

These include:

1. An amount of EC$10 million for the Youth Economy under the Department of Economic Development.

2. Upgrade of the Millennium Highway/West Coast Road, which is estimated to cost EC$76.01 million.

3. Proposed commencement work on a $35 million police station at Gros Islet (inclusive of furniture, fixtures, and fittings), via a Build, Operate, Lease, Transfer (BOLT) arrangement with NIPRO.

4. Building of the Halls of Justice.

5. Recommencement of work on the St. Jude Hospital Reconstruction Project.

6. $6.9 million to strengthen and expand digital transformation projects, DigiGov and GINet.

7. $18.77 million to strengthen public sector investment in tourism.

8. EC$1 million has been earmarked for the commencement of the Laborie Market and Square Project.

Mr. Pierre is qualified and experienced in the field of finance and management, not to mention his long productive stints as a minister in SLP Administrations from 1997. Such knowledge and background was reflected in the three hour-long Budget Policy Address, underlined by the factual base on which his proposals were formulated and call to action premised. One of the sub-themes is “good governance and anti-corruption-adopt a zero tolerance approach to corruption.” In pursuit of this goal, Mr Pierre reiterated the proposal to set up the office of the Special Prosecutor to be completed during the life of the Parliament.

Content was matched by form, making the Budget Statement well-structured and thorough, while re-emphasising a few times the people-oriented philosophy of the Saint Lucia Labour Party over its 70 years of struggle for “bread, freedom and justice” for all citizens of this country.

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