The following is an address by the leader of the opposition and Saint Lucia Labour Party (SLP), Philip J Pierre, presented at the New York Town Hall meeting, November 10, 2019 – Friends of Crown Heights, 671 Prospect Place, Brooklyn, New York.
By Philip J Pierre
How time flies. I cannot believe it is already 21 months since our last meeting. Many things have happened since then. I would have liked to tell you all is good in our country and that things have improved, but sadly that is not the case.
While all of you gathered here may not be members of or even supporters of the SLP, I do know that you care deeply about your homeland, its people and its future. And that is why I want to have a conversation with you; an open and frank conversation about how we can shape that future, how we can create the change needed in Saint Lucia and how we can make it the country you would want to be proud of.
You, in the diaspora, need to know that Saint Lucia, our country, is always ready to welcome you back; a place we hope you will readily consider investing in and one you will choose to return to for retirement, as well as one, where your loved ones, left at home, can prosper and have satisfactory livelihoods. We, also, aspire to develop a Saint Lucia where people born in the USA of Saint Lucian parents will feel that there are opportunities for them in the land of their forefathers.
Sadly, what we have today is a country whose future prosperity and good name, has been severely compromised and tarnished by questionable financial dealings, ineptitude, gross irresponsibility and vindictiveness. The promised solutions to crime and violence have not materialized.
Students and teachers are protesting about conditions at their schools and there is a growing feeling of frustration among the youth – doubting whether their future aspirations can be realized.
I am a born Saint Lucian, fully in tune with my roots. My ambition is not the desire for personal power and wealth, but to building our great country upon the values of integrity, hard work, meritocracy, inclusiveness, humility, truth, honesty, and love of country-values that my policeman father and teacher mother nurtured in me.
We want economic prosperity for all, an economy based on the pillars of economic growth, stability, poverty reduction, equity, job creation, good governance, and environmental responsibility.
We want Saint Lucia to be attractive to investors-local and foreign – in a fair competitive environment. But how can that happen, with a government awarding all its contracts directly, without any public tendering to allow for the test of value for money?
Direct awards rob businesses of the opportunity to offer their services to the island and deprive the country of getting the best value for money. I am sure that there are many of you, resident in the USA, who would relish the opportunity to tender on projects in Saint Lucia. Yet, nearly every major government project is being awarded to someone without tendering. This has become the norm rather than the exception. A situation that was never intended, when the public procurement rules were designed for honourable men and women to manage the affairs of the island.
It is widely believed and with justification, that these direct award contracts are being used as avenues for a few government figures and their collaborators to enrich themselves, friends, family and foreigners.
I do not wish to get into the details, but I can assure you that millions of dollars’ worth of projects including the proposed airport redevelopment have been awarded without tendering.
I do not believe that individuals should enter politics on the promise that they are there to serve when their real intent is to enrich themselves. I pledge to you, here and now, that as prime minister, I will adopt a zero-tolerance approach to corruption in government. It is my sincere desire to leave politics as the same man as I entered it, in the same house, with the same lifestyle, and the same motivation to be of service to my country and the wider Saint Lucian community.
I am sure that you will agree with me when I say that we must put the appropriate measures in place to eliminate corruption.
- Corruption in government is a scourge on the people of Saint Lucia;
- Corruption militates against optimum use of the country’s resources, it breeds discontent, it destroys public confidence in the governance of the country and supports moral decadence in our country.
An increasing debt scenario
Debt is increasing at an alarming rate in our country. As we speak, our country’s national debt is five billion dollars. Of this amount, the United Workers Party (UWP) government has already incurred more than $1.3 billion in the three and a half years since they were elected. I am sure that you are aware of the debilitating effect of high debt on our sister Caribbean countries, Barbados being the most recent example.
The high level of debt incurred in the last three and a half years has been largely on account of misguided policies and poor fiscal responsibility. Take for example the Hewanorra International Airport (HIA) redevelopment project.
The government is borrowing $600 million without any public tender for this project. Let me be clear, the SLP is not against the improvement of our international airport. We were at a very advanced stage working with the World Bank on a Private Public Partnership (PPP) arrangement for this project without placing any debt burden on the people. Instead, the government cancelled the PPP arrangement and is borrowing $600 million to finance the project.
Consider for a moment how $600 million used differently can transform the economy of Saint Lucia. It would create a greater multiplier effect with many sectors benefitting including housing, infrastructure, health, education, and improvements to the country’s climate resilience.
We must never forget that debt has to be repaid, and this avoidable debt of $600 million is now a burden placed on our children and grandchildren.
A government of the SLP would contain the level of borrowing by undertaking debt that is necessary and productive, and in so doing avoid compromising the future of the country and wellbeing of future generations of Saint Lucians.
Our priorities are wrong
I know we share the common knowledge that Saint Lucia is a small country with limited resources of land and people. We must, therefore, at all times seek to ensure our priorities as a government are such that the best use is made of our resources and employed wisely, to improve the quality of life for our people and to ensure that you in the diaspora see Saint Lucia as a welcoming place to do business or retire.
It’s for this reason that we are alarmed at the government’s callous attitude towards healthcare. The provision of quality healthcare will always be a challenge for any country, but never before in the history of our island has healthcare been so neglected and in such a pitiful state.
Meanwhile, the government is excited and boastful about the imminent opening of a horse racing track, and the completion of stables to house horses. The arrival of horses to the island is met with government press conferences, police escorts for horses, invitees from overseas, and children lured with free ice cream to view horses. This twisted type of thinking and misguided priorities are having people to believe that the government cares more about horses and stables than about people and hospitals.
With time running out before the next election, they appear busy to recommence construction at the St Jude hospital. Of course, the abandoned St Jude hospital buildings have deteriorated, which will increase the cost of the project.
In all of this, several questions remain unanswered:
- Who are the contractors?
- How were they chosen?
- Was the job tendered?
- What is the cost of the new construction and what will be housed there?
- What will be the fate of the existing buildings and the east wing in particular?
But above all of this, where is the justification for spending another $100 million on a project that could have been completed less than a year after taking office.
Let me remind you that while we did not complete St Jude we never stopped working on its construction and we were able to secure the finance for its completion from the Taiwanese government.
While St Jude remains housed in deplorable conditions at the George Odlum Stadium, the Owen King European Union (OKEU) hospital is still not fully functional.
The government derailed the commissioning of OKEU by dismissing the hospital Commissioning team, consisting of non-political actors headed by Dr Stephen King and allowed sensitive medical equipment to remain idle, while Victoria hospital is bursting at the seams with conditions worsening daily. I want you to join me in expressing sincere appreciation for the healthcare workers, doctors, and nurses for their services to the people of St Lucia, which have been provided under very trying circumstances.
The labour party continues to urge the current government to exercise urgency in completing the St Jude hospital and commissioning the OKEU hospital to bring to an end the horror stories associated with existing conditions at our health facilities.
Upon resuming office, we will immediately set to work on implementing a people-driven, people-oriented healthcare policy. It will be a policy, which will be inclusive, affordable, accessible and equitable, and will serve the healthcare interest of the people.
A different approach to business and investment
As a government in waiting, we pledge to be fiscally prudent in the management of the country. We understand the role of the private sector as the engine of growth and will encourage real direct foreign investment, not foreign businesses, which require the use of our National Insurance Corporation (NIC) pension funds or the country’s tax revenues to provide working capital to pay wages and other expenses while their profits are remitted overseas.
In this regard, we condemn the government’s approach to the Desert Star Holdings (DSH) project in the South of the island.
You may recall when I spoke to you in February 2018, I outlined the terms and conditions in the “agreement” that were objectionable and not in the best interest of our country. Sadly, two years later, we have not received any updates regarding the details of the agreement and the obligations placed on the government of Saint Lucia.
What we do know is a horse racetrack has been built but with a lack of clarity as to who is funding the project. Is it the investor or the Saint Lucian taxpayers? Even within the government, conflicting answers are being provided by the prime minister and officials from his office, concerning this question.
What I can report to you as fact is that, too facilitate the horse racing venture the government has used public funds:
- To build a new road at a cost of $13 million to replace the one condemned because it was in the way of the racetrack;
- The closure of the Beausejour Agricultural Station;
- The displacement of farmers who occupied the land now leased to DSH;
- The decommissioning of a $24 million meat processing plant, and;
- The borrowing of $11 million from the NIC to purchase lands to rebuild the meat processing plant (no construction has started).
There is no logical reason that can be provided for this level of public investment in a horse racing track. It is simply arrogant abuse of government authority with no regard for the public right to know precisely, what is the true arrangement between the government and a so-called foreign investor. The prime minister’s greatest comfort resides in the lack of public knowledge of what is going on.
We maintain that there must be full disclosure on the contents of the DSH agreement. This agreement is too wide in scope and duration (ninety-nine years) to be kept as a secret. I know those of you who want to return home, are anxious about being able to own a piece of the island of your birth.
With this DSH agreement, 1000 acres of land leased at $1.00 per acre have been denied to generations of Saint Lucians with no guarantee that our people will be the primary beneficiaries of what is to be done with those lands. There are alternatives for the development of our country that need not involve selling our patrimony.
An SLP government will create an environment that will encourage a viable profitable local business sector by ensuring transparency and fairness in the public procurement of goods and services. We believe that home-based Saint Lucians and nationals in the diaspora should share equally in the benefits of future incentive regimes which previously only benefited foreign investors.
In consultation with our youth, we will seek workable solutions to the challenge faced by young people seeking meaningful and sustainable employment.
The SLP believes that the youth are a significant demographic group and investing in them will bring significant social and economic benefits.
In this regard, we will create a dedicated budget to invest in and stimulate an inclusive youth-based economy that will cater for the special interests of young people in their chosen lines of economic activity such as sports, entertainment, creative industries, modeling, cultural activities, music, and information technology. Special incentives and finance will be provided to support the involvement of young people in the areas of their specialty.
You are aware of the effects of climate change and its disproportionately negative impact on small island states like ours. At home, we cannot forget the destruction of hurricane Tomas and, not too long ago, the Christmas Eve trough on Saint Lucia, and the devastation of category five hurricanes on Dominica and just this year in The Bahamas.
These experiences are reminders of the need to build a more resilient infrastructure in Saint Lucia. It is clear, that the developed countries are not minded giving the required level of support to meet this new challenge. This means that we must fund our mitigation efforts. Hence the reason why as a country we must be prudent and selective in our borrowing to secure the fiscal space to fund mitigation efforts to protect our land and people. We cannot continue to waste our scarce resources on ill-conceived projects undertaken without full public scrutiny.
Looking towards the future
We have new innovative plans, which will be discussed with various sectors to ensure broad participation and their eventual smooth implementation.
We pledge to strengthen our land acquisition laws so that future governments will not be at liberty to appropriate and acquire our lands for the benefit of a select few.
In our plans we will:
- Reform the education system of Saint Lucia to better respond to the needs of the labour market and for the new and emerging businesses;
- We shall upgrade our school facilities, improve the curriculum to prepare our people for vocations and entrepreneurship and the emerging opportunities in technology;
- We shall embark on a programme to encourage and facilitate the creation of one university graduate per household within a reasonable time;
- We will incentivize the construction of luxury hotels and ensure that small and locally owned properties benefit from special marketing efforts and the strategic use of airlift policy and incentives;
- We will expand our tourism outreach and strive to make Saint Lucia a center for eco-tourism and sustainable tourism development;
- An SLP government will encourage investments in the agricultural sector not only as a pillar of economic growth but as a strategic food security objective and for improving nutrition and the enhancement of rural livelihoods;
- As a government we will formulate a national land use policy to guide land use in Saint Lucia.
We are aware that several social issues are facing our country, and since people are at the center of our political philosophy, we will endeavor to ensure every worker can earn a livable wage, affordable housing and an opportunity to live a better life.
We will ensure that families are stronger, and both men and women share equal responsibility for the maintenance and upbringing of children. To reduce the level of gender inequality we shall create more opportunities for women to participate at all levels of political and economic leadership in the country.
My fellow Saint Lucians, while you are living in New York and other parts of the United States, I know you do care for your brothers and sisters at home, your level of remittances is a testimony to this.
I know you desire a caring, fair and progressive Saint Lucian society and one which can support the growth and development of all Saint Lucians. And, so, I ask you to be a witness to the truth about the less than satisfactory conditions at home, in every major sector, and to join the movement for change because our people deserve better.
We must embark upon a bold new vision for Saint Lucia. We need to battle against corruption, crime, low living standards, lack of employment opportunities – especially among the youth, a deteriorating education system, and sub-standard health service.
We need to use the talents of our retired persons more effectively and embrace the exciting and new opportunities in the blue and green economy.
Our country can do better. Saint Lucians have a proud history of achievement and can be the island of choice to live and work. I know many of you are dreaming of the day when you will return to settle in Saint Lucia. I urge you to keep abreast with the happenings in our country and let your voices be heard, standing up for what is right, and speaking up against wrongdoing and corruption at home regardless of who is found guilty.
The Saint Lucia Labour Party promises you a government of inclusiveness and a government that will put people first. We urge you to join us and encourage your friends and relatives to get involved in the movement for change.
I thank you. I am all yours. Let’s talk.