My fellow Saint Lucians, I am here tonight in large part because of a deliberate and orchestrated effort to deny me from speaking during the debates on the Estimates of Expenditure and the Appropriation Bill in the House of Assembly. I want to make it clear from the outset that no agreement was reached as to speaking order for the debate. Records of Hansard show that leaders of the Opposition have spoken at different times over the years. As recent as last year’s debate the Leader of the Opposition spoke last.
Furthermore, according to the Standing Orders for the debate to be closed prematurely the Speaker would need to ensure that no rules were being abused and the minority’s rights were not being infringed. There was no question that there were still Members, including myself, who indicated they wished to speak.
Despite efforts by the unholy alliance of the super majority to bully the Opposition, I remain faithful that the Almighty God guides me and is with me always as I represent the people of Micoud South and the thousands of Saint Lucians who deserve to be heard.
I respect our House of Parliament and remain committed to ensuring that it does not “descend into irrelevance” and is above reproach but just as importantly, it is not brought into disrepute. The exercise of our rights as parliamentarians to speak freely is fundamental to this institution. Indeed our institution must by its actions demonstrate to Saint Lucians and the world at large that ours is a democracy where differing opinions are encouraged; where in the words of the late Sir Dwight Venner, we can “argue without rancor” and where dissenting voices are not treated as prisoners of war. It is my fervent hope that all of us can find it within ourselves to respect this core principle.
From my own experience, a Budget Policy Statement, is a statement of intent. It is a document that outlines the rationale for the estimates of revenue and expenditure. But perhaps most importantly, it is a roadmap that provides direction, hope and confidence to all of us as Saint Lucians eager to see our country develop; eager to see our people become more prosperous, ambitious and fulfilled. The first Budget of any new administration should be a clear vision for the next five years.
Can any of us having listened to the Prime Minister’s presentation truly say that it has inspired any clear vision for our nation’s development?
The Prime Minister is always quick to tell all who are around him that his party has been given an overwhelming mandate. But as a learned author, William Pollard once wrote, “…the arrogance of success is to think that what you did yesterday will be sufficient for tomorrow”. In the last nine months our country, our people, have already realized we cannot trust “the putting people first” mantra. In fact when you look at the players and the people taking up positions in the SLP government, we all see the inner circle they are putting first. It was all a big lie.
Now we are faced with a policy statement that is imbued with those same lies, half-truths and misinformation.
The Prime Minister’s budget was:
· lacking in logic and coherence
· scattershot in its application
· lacking in real leadership and courage to do what is right
In fact I rate this presentation a triple C Minus: void of clarity, confidence and conviction.
No Plan for Country
We have long realized that Philip J Pierre’s SLP administration has no plan for this country. Before I delve into this shell of a policy statement let us be clear on the narrative. It is a narrative our people must never forget. It will become a benchmark to judge the performance of this current administration.
In 2016, my administration inherited a comatose economy; with high levels of unemployment, particularly among our youth. Our economic and social infrastructure needed to be modernized and at an unprecedented pace. We said that we would need three years to restructure and to reap the rewards of those actions. We didn’t complain. We accepted our circumstances, rolled up our sleeves and got to work. Three years on, in 2019, we did in fact see the benefits of our work. You can examine any measure, any indicator in the Economic and Social Review and it is clear that 2019 was a watershed year for:
– Tourism Arrivals
– Revenue Generated
– Debt to GDP and Per Capita GDP
– Levels of Unemployment
I challenge anyone, to review the facts and dispute what I have said!
Then came Covid -19 and Saint Lucia and the world at large took a hit. Again, we didn’t complain. We rolled up our sleeves and determined that we had to find a way to co-exist with this global pandemic. We had to find the balance between lives and livelihoods. We knew that this was the only way we could bring this country back onto a path of recovery, modernization and focus on building a new Saint Lucia. We went about systematically addressing those challenges with a three-pronged attack that was strategically directed at providing an effective public health response, channelling support and associated services to the most vulnerable population and implementing an economic recovery programme that was spearheaded by major capital infrastructure projects.
We delivered relief packages, set up a National Feeding Programme, provided Income Support, assisted with the payment of Electricity bills, provided education assistance and increased the number of persons on the vulnerable person list to receive government assistance. Our Economic Recovery Programme was a range of measures targeted specifically at stimulating the economy.
Well, we now see the results of our perseverance. We see the positive outcomes associated with being able to adapt and overcome. The information from the Economic and Social review is there for all to examine:
· Government revenues are close to pre-2019 levels
· Tax revenues are recovering in a significant way
· Growth in the Construction sector of 20%
· Growth in the tourism sector of almost 67%
· Overall GDP Growth of 12.2%
· And the debt to GDP declined by 2 percent
While our tourism sector has recovered well, it still has a long way to go to get to 2019 levels:
· Overall arrivals are now just 23% of 2019 levels
· Cruise arrivals are just 11.8 % of 2019 levels
· Stay over arrivals are just 47 % of 2019 levels
These figures are not coincidental. Knowing at the time that tourism would not have a full recovery we pushed construction. And it worked. While tourism has since grown by 66 percent, as planned, the 20 percent growth in construction made up for the shortfall. If we make a comparison to Barbados: In 2021 Barbados had 44,000 US arrivals, 144,000 overall arrivals, their GDP grew by 1.4 percent and the Barbados Government had recovered 80 percent of its revenue in comparison to 2019. In Saint Lucia we had 157,000 US arrivals; 199,000 total arrivals; our GDP grew by 12.2 percent and we recovered 98 percent of Government’s revenue.
Even more critically, can you imagine how much further down the road to recovery our country would have been had the SLP not stopped the many capital infrastructure projects that had been initiated by the UWP administration? Acts of vindictiveness and petty politics by the SLP continue to stymie our development efforts.
Yet this administration has the nerve, the arrogance to try to take credit for these impressive numbers. Let me be very clear to the people of Saint Lucia. This current ADMINISTRATION CANNOT LAY CLAIM TO ANY SUCCESSES. These successes are the direct result of the policies of the UWP government.
Barrage of Negativity
At no time did this present administration, when in opposition, endorse, give credence to, or actively support our national efforts. On the contrary, we were met with a barrage of negativity:
· CLOSE THE BORDERS, they said.
· PEOPLE DON’T EAT ROADS
· WE WILL TRIPLE THE SUPPORT TO THE VULNERABLE
· STOP THE BORROWING
They took advantage of people’s vulnerabilities and insecurities to implant fear and peddle half-truths. They put politics before people!
The challenge to the SLP Government now is to make use of the platform that has been handed to them. They seem to have adopted an approach of badly copying our programmes in an attempt to mask their lack of knowledge. The fact is the copy will never be as good as the original.
Take Covid is an example. This Government had the benefit of two years of experiences of best practices both within Saint Lucia and worldwide.
The UWP Government in 18 months of Covid Management, having to balance opening up the borders and reopening the economy with no vaccines, recorded 88 deaths and 5000 cases. The SLP came in, changed the name of the Command Centre, changed curfew to confinement, in an effort to copy what we were doing but it still resulted in a 400 percent increase in cases and 300 percent increase in deaths. Horrible statistics for our small island and more evidence that the copy will never be as good as the original.
It is also clear that this is an administration that does not understand our economy. When you pass on costs to our citizens and businesses at a time when the economy is still recovering, what is the expected outcome? When you raise gas prices, who do you think it will affect? Is it not the same people that you claim to put first! The Government has the capacity to absorb these rising costs but deliberately chose not to do so! As I mentioned, revenues are back to 2019 levels, CIP earned 100 million dollars. On the issue of rising prices, the Government keeps reminding us that inflation is not their fault. Unlike when we were in office and we did not have the revenue but we still gave the support; they have the financial resources available to cushion the impact. Measures such as reduction in import duties and the subsidizing of basic commodities can help.
The Government can deliver on their promised income support of $1500. They choose not to. They are not putting you first!
Some of us may recall in last year’s debate on the Appropriations Bill, the current Prime Minister then Leader of the Opposition boldly touted his “wish list” of interventions designed to ensure that “the people and their suffering come first”. He was savage in his criticism of our budget and associated plans.
We should never forget the cameo performance of “If I were Prime Minister” and the repurposing of the $76million IMF funding. Theatre at its best! Well guess what? You ARE the Prime Minister and have been Prime Minister for nine months now. So tell us about your budget:
· Where is the $5m to assist vendors and their families?
· Where is the $3m for creative industry and media workers?
· Where is the $10m grant for Tour Operators, Dive and Pleasure Boat operators?
· Where is the $3m Fuel Vouchers for both Minibus drivers and Fishers?
· Where is the $3m Beautification programme?
· Where is the $1.5m for farm labour support?
Mr Prime Minister, we know that you did not repurpose the loans. In fact you drew down on all of them and boasted that you did not incur any new borrowing. So why haven’t you negotiated at least $76million to cover all the things you said would ease the pain and suffering of the people. Has that pain miraculously gone away?
A Web of Lies
The reality is that this is a government caught in a web of lies and deceit of its own making. This is a government that has put up so many “flashing mirrors” that it has got lost and truly can’t find a way out. This is a government of contradictions. On the one hand we hear the Prime Minister touting various achievements while on the other hand we heard the member for Soufriere/Fond St Jacques lamenting that the Government Coffers were empty when you came into office. Both claims are blatantly incorrect.
We have to be honest, at this critical time with the rise of inflation and the impact on the supply chain that, we still don’t know what the Government’s plan is. There is no sense of urgency, no coherence or consistency.
For example, the decision on HIA, the government is continuing to mislead the people and now want to revert to a proposal that will cost this country HUNDREDS of millions of dollars.
In the PM’s own words, upon completion of the new airport arrivals are expected to reach one million. The estimated cost to build the facility is US180 million. If we revert to the PPP proposed by the SLP, they would collect US$60 per passenger for 30 years. That’s 1.8 billion dollars for a facility which costs 180 million.
In contrast our Government had already received concessional loan financing from the Taiwanese for the facility, with OECC, who has a track record of building airports, as the main contractor, overseeing all works, vetting and approving all expenditure, along with a special project unit at St Lucia Air and Seaports Authority.
We can all see that halting the road projects was a major miscalculation by the SLP administration. All the Direct Finance and Construct contracts we entered into for these projects were the same. They all reported to the Permanent Secretary in the Ministry of Infrastructure who reported to the same Infrastructure minister who serves the SLP now. It is an outright lie to say there were no plans for road projects or there was no consultation or supervision. It was also a half-truth to state that the Rodney Bay Road was being built at a cost of $15million for just one kilometre. The facts are that the project included four lanes, two roundabouts, a pedestrian overpass, and street lighting. The breaking of a fixed price contract is going to cost taxpayers millions of dollars. All this in the name of revenge?
The Government continues to be disingenuous and peddle false information on projects. Take the street lighting initiative. While in Opposition they complained that we were proceeding with the street lighting programme, which included not only lights but security cameras. Now, we learn they are continuing with the same PPP using the same company, after making all kinds of malicious allegations.
In the Budget, there were more lies about our sporting facilities, which don’t deserve repeating.
Saint Lucia, we remain very proud of monies we invested under the Taiwan grant programme from 2016 to 2021 in the upgrade of poorly maintained, under-equipped and inadequate sporting facilities. The SLP should be finishing this all-important project and move towards creating a youth and sports statutory body funded from monies from the Lottery and continue to develop internationally accepted sporting facilities throughout the length and breadth, which includes building swimming pools. The after school sporting programmes and building up of our sports clubs must continue. We all know when it comes to our young people we are competing with gangs and we have to create a more compelling option for our youth. You can’t tell them that you are serious about their development if you are not going to invest in it.
Education and Health
When it comes to Education, the Prime Minister is taking us backward by not continuing the e-book programme. This included software that allowed students to download their textbooks, provided direct internet links and pre-taped classes to be accessible 24/7 to the students. This programme would enable teachers to spend more time interacting with their students and less time on administration. Not to mention the fact that parents would no longer have to spend thousands of dollars on books.
Let’s look at the issue of Health care.
Since the mid-80s we have been speaking about Universal Health Care and the Prime Minister tried to revive it once again in his Budget, knowing fully well it is not going to work for so many reasons. We have been through all the pros and cons of UHC; our country is unable to afford it. Introducing National Health Insurance, like other countries in the world, creates a dedicated revenue stream for hospitals operations. Health Insurance also benefits the more vulnerable in our society in that they now have an insurance card in which they are guaranteed access to health care. We had a solid plan already in motion that would provide coverage of up to $75,000 per year for every citizen and government would bear the costs of the premiums for the vulnerable. So is it the intention of the Government to do this and simply rename it Universal Health Care? There is no clarity.
On the issue of St Jude, I once again call on the Government to continue our plans in the interest of the south. The old St Jude, a bunch of scattered poorly constructed buildings, had already cost 140 million and according to a 2016 report given to then Prime Minister Kenny Anthony, it was going to take another 100 million to complete and operationalize.
The new building which we had constructed is one single space that cost 100 million, with a cost of 40 million to operationalize the first floor. The building is 20 percent bigger than OKEU and is a smart building, the first of its kind for Saint Lucia, taking into consideration climate change, energy conservation and mold prevention. As HIA is tripled in size, new hotels are built and with a cruise ship berth in the south, it is essential that we have a modern health facility with room to expand. Another lie was that we would demolish the old buildings when in fact the plan was to repurpose them to serve as a medical university.
Saint Lucia, in the House of Assembly last week we heard nothing from our Tourism and Investment Minister. These all-important sectors seem not to be a priority for this SLP administration. Not surprising, since the Prime Minister admitted very early in his administration that he never understood the impact of tourism on Saint Lucia’s economy. He said that I was a mad man and I was the only leader who believed that tourism would return to pre-covid levels.
My fellow citizens, my concern now, is that with recent changes, i.e. changing village tourism to community tourism, alterations to the events company and their lack of understanding of how the industry works, combined with the current Global Economic situation, very soon the sector will begin to feel the impact of this incompetent and misguided leadership.
Crime and the Special Prosecutor
In terms of tackling the troubling issue of crime, we call on the Prime Minister to continue the plan well-documented in the medium-term development strategy. It is a proactive holistic approach, to tackle the core source of crime while also strengthening and modernizing the police force and our court system.
Saint Lucia, I have brought to your attention, numerous examples of the lies, half-truths and distortions of this government. What we are dealing with here is an intellectually dishonest and morally bankrupt Government that has the audacity to seek to tarnish the names and reputations of citizens.
The Prime Minister continues to make reference to the issue of corruption and the rule of law, with talk of a special prosecutor, who we assume will be attached to the Office of the Director of Public Prosecutions. In the meantime the prime minister with no proof calls out members of my administration and ignores evidence of blatant wrongdoing within his camp.
The United Workers Party has never been afraid of being investigated or being held accountable. That is why in 2017 our government complied with the recommendation of the Ramsahoye Commission by amending the Crown Proceedings Act to protect the funds of the State by removing the statute of limitations.
Now, we must all ask ourselves, who will hold the SLP Government accountable?
The fact is their government was left with a very successful blueprint for the development of Saint Lucia in the medium-term development strategy. They were also left with all the resources to address the current crisis. The United Workers Party left a proven track record.
But because of petty politics and one-upmanship the Government is tampering with these policies and copying badly; ensuring as I said earlier that the copy will never be as good as the original.
The recent decisions they have made: not to subsidize the cost of gas, allowing the prices to increase, the increase in bus fares, doing nothing about the electricity surcharge, not continuing construction projects, playing politics with HIA and St Jude, playing politics with investors, are having disastrous effects.
These choices are having a serious knockdown effect to the current state of our economy and to the more vulnerable on our society. While it is clearly in any Government’s purview to change policy, at least change it for the better, instead this heartless administration is raising havoc within households and the business community. Let’s consider, a person who is currently earning a salary of $1200, who is faced with an increase in bus fares of over $100 depending on their route. Their electricity bill has gone from $200 to $420. And now the added expense of cooking gas which has doubled in price; plus the rising cost of basic food items. How are they expected to survive with no change in the salaries? If this were a Government that truly puts people first and empathizes with people, then how can these policies by justified?
Saint Lucia, the day is going to come where all of us, civil society and individuals, are going to have to let our voices be heard.
The people of Ukraine are literally dying for their independence. It reminds us that we need to appreciate and treasure the freedoms and democracy we have and no longer remain silent.
The time will come where we will have to unite as freedom fighters to remind the Government that the people’s parliament will not be silenced. As the quote goes, the time is coming to overrule this administration’s pledge to mediocrity and corruption.
Our voices need to be heard before it’s too late.
May God bless you all and may God continue to bless our island home.