I always put people first: Part 1

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Leader of the Saint Lucia Labour Party (SLP), Philip J Pierre

The following budget statement for the fiscal year 2020/2021, as  delivered by leader of the opposition Saint Lucia Labour Party (SLP) Philip J Pierre, forms part of this series – ‘I always put people first’ – Bread, Freedom and Justice. 

By Philip J Pierre

The prime minister’s 2020/21 budget address is a naked admission of a desperate government on the verge of electoral defeat. Over the last four years, the government of Saint Lucia has wasted the opportunity given to it, by squandering the resources of the country in a shameless and unrepentant show of preference for the infamous Family, Friend and Foreigners (FFF) while the vast majority of Saint Lucians have been made to suffer – and in many cases intentionally. It’s no wonder with the next general elections around the corner, the chief architect is now asking for prayerful forgiveness. 

The government of Saint Lucia has a fundamental problem that has characterized his term in office: it is not trustworthy.  The government has shown time after time that the prime minister and minister for finance cannot be trusted. The things he says are hardly in sync with what he does or what is true, and even when you think he is locked into what is signed, he does the unthinkable and reneges on it. Ask the Saint Lucia National Trust. A leopard never changes its spots. Whatever have been promised in this budget are nothing more than just promises in the hope of seducing voter support at the next general elections.

Let me say this to the government: the people of Saint Lucia will judge you by what you have done or more appropriately, not done over the last four years against what you have promised. You cannot undo the blight you have inflicted on the lives of Saint Lucians by the harmful economic and social policies of your government and still threatening to do with new taxes on the earnings of poor hard-working Saint Lucians engaged in the production of charcoal yes people making coals to sustain their families. The verdict is clear: the prime minister and his government have been an abysmal failure and the people of Saint Lucia know it. 

It is difficult not to recognize the manner this government flip flops from one day to the next. Government policies appear to be made on the fly with little thought given to the development of the people of Saint Lucia. They continually make promises they do not keep or cannot keep.

In their first year, they declared that it was the Year of Execution, which turned out to be more about destruction than construction. They destroyed the public-private partnership (PPP) arrangement for the redevelopment of the Hewanorra International Airport; they abandoned the improvement plans for the Gros Islet/Castries Highway and the administrative center project in Vieux Fort and cancelled the Caribbean Development Bank (CDB) funded project for the retrofitting of sodium street lights to LED solar energy (bulbs).

And as I reflect on the prime minister’s plea for forgiveness, I wondered whether if he was thinking of the NICE workers he unfairly made unemployed because they were deemed to be, in the government’s mind, labour party supporters. In that first year of execution, the school children of this country were not spared the mass destruction when they abandon the laptop programme, only to be reminded of the folly of their decision during the lockdown of the country brought about by COVID-19. 

The government’s second budget was presented under the theme “confidence”. Ironically, it was the same year the EU had Saint Lucia blacklisted and creditors were unwilling to roll-over government bonds as they became due forcing the government to call upon the funds of National Insurance Corporation (NIC) to avoid default.

Around the same time, the US State Department had begun questioning and raising concerns about our citizenship by investment (CIP) programme. By then the government had withdrawn its confidence in the country’s first lady governor-general, Dame Pearlette Louisy and replaced with an older, retired politician who had magically swung from red to yellow hours after the results of a general election were announced, thirty-something years ago. As if to indicate to the people of Saint Lucia where its confidence truly lied, the government of Saint Lucia gave millions of taxpayers dollars to a private profit-making operation, CHITTI, in which a government minister had a related party interest.

The level of misplaced confidence shown by the government in foreign investors with nothing more than ideas, became more glaring and damaging to the people of Saint Lucia, especially those of the south when the government leased 1,000 acres of land at 99¢ per year for ninety-nine years to a foreign friend of the prime minister. And then this foreign friend was allowed to sell our passports, the proceeds from which could be used to develop the said lands.

The government proclaimed the year 2019/2020 as the year of implementation. COVID-19 arrived in Saint Lucia in the last month of the financial 2019/2020 as a major health and economic crisis, but it had proven to be more; it had betrayed the government’s positive economic state of the economy as nothing else but fragile – the country was broke. It was only April, and the government was already asking public servants to defer 50 percent of their salaries for the next three months.

The year of implementation had brought little relief to the people of Saint Lucia. Instead, the country’s level of indebtedness had increased significantly. More government borrowing was being undertaken to finance non-Saint Lucian consultancies amounting to $13 million.

Since 2016, farmers were promised new markets in Martinique and France for their bananas. In the year of implementation not one hand of banana has made the journey to the new market, a reminder of the empty promises that this government continues to make in the hope of securing voter support. The evidence of empty promises on the eve of general elections is now well known and this government remains guilty of making empty promises.

In the year of implementation, horse racing plans were to be completed and ready for the influx of hundreds of horse racing enthusiasts arriving on their private jets, with hotels rooms overbooked as a result of what the prime minister called the sport of Kings. Of course, none of that happened. Except that the horses arrived and were taken to their new homes with police escort housed in stables adequately stocked with water, while our farmers and residents remained starved of much-needed water supply during a drought-induced water emergency. Even imported horses had been placed before the needs of our people.

This horse racing track, now a white elephant, has come at a great cost to the people of Saint Lucia. It destroyed a meat processing plant; given up 1,000 acres of land; hastily relocated the only waste disposal site in Vieux Fort and built a new road costing $13 million.

I want to reassure the people of Saint Lucia that a labour government will waste no time in investigating the arrangement surrounding the lease of that 1,000 acres of Saint Lucia lands. 

Just think for a moment how the people of Saint Lucia could put to use 1,000 acres of land? The land space in our island is not finite, we only have limited supply, thousands of young Saint Lucians home and abroad are wondering how and if they will ever be able to own a plot of land in the home of their birth or that of their descendants. The cost of land is increasing and our young people are truly worried. This area could be a planned development for housing, guest houses, and restaurants, commercial activity, developed and owned by the people of Saint Lucian and in particular those who live in the diasporabut instead developed a sense of fake hope in the Pearl of the Caribbean.

This government has from 2017 played with the minds of Saint Lucians with a fake promise that the new horse racing track with all its other supporting glitzy attractions would transform the lives of the people in the South of the island done all in the hope of trying to secure the constituencies in the South of the island. I am so encouraged by the awareness of the people of Saint Lucia that have been alert to the false and very often disrespectful promises being made to them. It is no surprise that the mantra across the country now is that Chastanet Must Go. And, so, he must together with those around this side of the house who for, whatever reasons have encouraged him in his recklessness and bling-bling promises. 

I want to remind the people of Saint Lucia the extent to which the prime minister had promised the activities that would happen concerning this now ill-fated horse racing track.

This prime minister 2017- 2018 budget speech:

“Phase One of the projects will be implemented later this year all in relation to the race track Domestic International Barns, Equestrian Lawn, Equine Clinic, Quarantine Barn, Fractional Ownership, Homestead Villa, Race Course Boulevard, Infield Park & Polo Field, Permanent Grandstand, Temporary Grandstand during the construction phase there will be an estimated 500 to 800 persons on site, with a management team of 10 to 20 persons.

“Once the racecourse is operational, persons will receive training and employment in the areas of horse husbandry, maintenance of facilities and management of the racecourse and training of the racehorses. On average in the horse racing industry, three-four jobs are created for every thoroughbred, such jobs being jockeys, trainers, barn managers, ground keepers, groomers, veterinarians, vet’s assistants and blacksmiths.

“It is estimated that we will have over 400 horses. The Desert Star Holdings (DSH) project will transform Vieux Fort from the ghost town that it has become under the labour party administration into a modern, progressive city full of opportunities for its citizens. No longer will high rates of joblessness plague Vieux Fort and no longer will the people of the South feel like abandon children. This project will also make use of underutilized lands in the South, particularly in Beausejour, and create several ancillary industries and linkages with existing businesses.

“ The opportunities this project present are endless and our government is grateful to the developer for expressing this level of confidence in our country and our government to make such a large scale investment here.  We welcome this development and look forward to the job opportunities it will provide to our young people, particularly those from the south.”

Does anyone recognize the fruition of those promised changes? It is promises like these that continue to solidify in the minds of Saint Lucians that the prime minister is not trusted worthy. And, now, he is desperate because the time of reckoning is imminent and is prepared to promise anything that may capture a vote. 

So the new thing is duty-free concessions on motor vehicles for public servants, yet he cannot assure them of job security –  while economic minister Guy Joseph, has accused them of low levels of productivity – a signal that the government should retrench workers in the public service.

Let’s not forget the other promises for the south that were made and never came to pass. They include Fairmont for Sabwisha Choiseul; the Ritz Carlton for Black Bay Vieux Fort; the Canneles Project and a cruise ship terminal; hotel park, and major Il Pirata site in Vieux Fort. These wild promises have sadly, in part, encouraged a certain disdain for politicians among the people of Saint Lucians.

I want to tell Saint Lucians that a labour government will out of respect be realistic. We will not promise what we know we cannot deliver; meanwhile, the government’s biggest promise – the elimination of VAT has remained elusive.

Sadly for our country, this government has little to show for its four years in office. It has been a wasted four years, characterized by vindictiveness, victimization, threats, false promises, name-calling, and ministers misrepresenting themselves with Pajoah type letters. This has been a government that has failed to put its people first and has squandered and betrayed the trust that the people of Saint Lucia placed in its hands-on June 6, 2016.

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