GEORGE TOWN, Cayman Islands – Premier and minister for sustainability and climate resiliency Wayne Panton put a strong focus on creating equal opportunities for Caymanians and building a sustainable future for the Cayman Islands in his contribution to the 2022-23 budget debate.
The two-year budget came into effect on 1 January 2022, and premier Panton addressed key areas for change in the years ahead including education, food security, the minimum wage and affordable housing, among others.
The premier, who was formerly the minister for the environment from 2013 to 2017, outlined funding for his newly created ministry of sustainability and climate resiliency and underscored his commitment to the environment, saying the Cayman Islands can be a model of sustainability for small island states through immediate action.
However, the central theme in the premier’s budget address was one of creating opportunities for Caymanians to flourish while also rectifying existing inequities.
Premier Panton said his Government is committed to tackling “socially corrosive issues like income inequality and wealth disparity” head-on and noted that “there are many wins for our people in this budget”.
He said, “The story of our country, of our people, is one that says we are too rich to be poor, too talented to be denied opportunities, too blessed to have daily stresses – the daily stresses we do, and too proud to be disheartened without pursuing solutions for a better socially and economically fairer Cayman.”
The premier noted that the Islands’ development has not benefitted all citizens, saying, “From the day we took office it has been our mission to protect our people while promoting economic resilience and diversification. The sad fact is economic growth alone is not the solution. It isn’t working for our people, not when a two-bedroom apartment costs upwards of $400,000 today. How many people making $3,000 a month can afford that?”
He continued, “Access to opportunities and being prepared to succeed must be the norm for Caymanians. Inequality threatens that norm. But the PACT government stands united and unified in our determination to break this cycle for our people.”
Before outlining his administration’s new policies and programmes, the premier stated, “Too many of our people are being left behind.”
A key feature in the upcoming budget is the government’s free school meals programme, which will provide free school meals first to all children in public primary schools and then be rolled out to public secondary schools as well.
Premier Panton said: “Our precious children, some of whom will become our future leaders, were not getting nutritious meals at home that they need to survive, sustain, and grow. Because their parents or guardians have a challenging time making ends meet. We identify this need sir, and this government – through the passion and commitment of the minister of education, stepped up to the plate and made a real investment in our future.”
The premier explained: “In 2022 we have budgeted to enhance food security for children through the school meals programme with a further increase in 2023. Minister of education decided no child should go hungry, so our free meal service began with the primary schools. We all now know how hard it is to concentrate on something important when our bellies are aching from hunger.”
Another significant allocation in the 2022-23 budget goes toward affordable homes. Premier Panton explained the need for and provision of these funds.
He said, “We know that students and their families must have decent housing and a place to lay their heads at night. For those families that need help, we have budgeted for housing repairs assistance and for initiatives administered by the national housing development trust and sister islands affordable housing trust for the construction of affordable housing options over the two-year budget.”
The premier also outlined first steps to deal with the emerging wealth disparity in the society by reviewing the minimum wage and redressing the legal requirements for advertising local job vacancies.
He said, “We are going to address inequality. That is why we have agreed to reconvene the minimum wage committee early [in the] new year and amend advertising requirements for work permits and increase the visibility of job vacancies that will not require login registration or any personal details.”
With the tourism industry currently being a hot-button topic for the Cayman Islands economy, premier Panton underscored his administration’s determination to have more Caymanians working in hospitality at all levels.
He said, “If today we can find Caymanians running some of the largest firms on the island or conducting brilliant work as we see in our Civil Service every day, then we can certainly find a Caymanian capable of bartending or working at the front desk. Many, if not all!”
The premier made a clear statement to the tourism sector, saying, “We will not support the wholesale granting of tourism-related work permits while thousands of Caymanians remain unemployed.”
While on the theme of employment, the premier noted that quality of life and supporting Caymanian families is a top priority for the government.
He said, “Priorities have changed. People desire greater work-life balance. A fair and just society means that we must support families. There’s no time that a family, or a child rather, requires greater support than as a newborn. Therefore, I will work closely with the minister for Labour during this administration to revisit maternity and paternity leave.”
Noting the need for a balance between social programmes and economic growth via inward investment, Premier Panton said: “We have to implement policies to assist and protect our middle class while continuing to encourage investment and a global outlook.”
Moving on to his core area of responsibility as minister for sustainability and climate resiliency, the premier said: “We are committed to making a meaningful and measurable difference by 2030.” He continued: “It won’t be easy, yet I am optimistic that working together with the private sector, non-governmental organisations and the various like-minded communities across our three islands we can become a modern model of sustainability as a small island developing state.”
The premier noted that supporting local agriculture is also a part of creating a sustainable future for the Islands.
He said: “If we have learned anything from the pandemic, the global supply chain is fragile. That is why the time to invest in our food security is now.”
Premier Panton explained: “Sustainability means reducing the distance between the farm and the fork. We encourage our farmers and local entrepreneurs to grow more products domestically. We’re also improving the quality of food available in our local restaurants and supermarkets. It is simply a win-win scenario.”
Turning his thoughts toward the National Energy Policy, he said: “We need to set targets for becoming carbon zero; for the electrification of transportation; and adopt a robust plan to make up for doing hardly anything to achieve our renewable energy targets under the current National Energy Policy.”
Finding a common premise for sustainability efforts and throughout the diverse areas of the national budget, premier Panton noted that there is strength in unity.
He said, “We must work together, as that is the way to build stronger communities and a stronger country.”
A video of the premier’s budget highlights may be viewed here.