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
On June 6, 2016, the government of Saint Lucia inherited the near completion of two major hotel projects with the prospect of the creation of hundreds of jobs. Let us in contrast, take a moment to briefly look at some of the achievements of the last Saint Lucia Labour Party (SLP) government between the years 2011-2016.
- In every area of economic and social activity, tangible progress was made. We improved the road infrastructure across the country with the building and repairing of 23 bridges and had commenced construction of two more in Canaries and Tomazo;
- We undertook post-Thomas Reconstruction improvement works by building retaining walls to avoid further landslides in nine affected areas in the Barre des L’Isle area;
- We completed a flood risk assessment in Bexon/Marc and was on the verge of starting the intervention;
- We rehabilitated landslide areas in Guesneau;
- We completed the rehabilitation of over twenty-five major roads across the country.
We did all this without having to increase the gas tax by $1.50 per gallon. We made progress in many other aspects of road improvement, with improved drainage and always maintained the philosophy of seeking to rebuild with greater infrastructural resilience and wherever possible invited a combination of national and international competitive bidding for the procurement of most projects.
- We proudly created direct employment for 1,118 persons in the NICE project from which 4,847 vulnerable people benefitted directly. In the process, we were creating a more caring society;
- In education we refurbished, under the Beep programme, schools in Saltibus, Derniere Riviere, Dennery and Desruisseaux;
- We built new schools in Micoud; a two-storey building block in the Corinth School; new classroom block at Fond Assau; rehabilitated the Canaries school; renovated the Vieux Fort Infant School and the three-storey building at Clendon Mason School;
- Beyond the physical infrastructure of schools, we provided $500 bursary for students entering secondary school and $700 bursary for teachers to help purchase school supplies;
- And as a caring government, students who were victims of the Christmas Eve Trough received a cash donation for the replacement of their school supplies damaged during the trough.
- Mindful of the challenges some families were undergoing we launched a new school feeding programme;
- To bring our students into the new world of technology and learning we introduce the one laptop per student programme, which was foolishly abandoned only to be hurriedly brought back during COVID-19 lockdown when our children could not receive the normal classroom instruction.
In all sectors, our party performed well with the emphasis always on putting people first.
- We understand the plight of single mothers that is why we launched on Thursday, August 9, 2012, the Single Mother Empowerment programme with a budget allocation of $1.2 million;
- We also promoted and respected the rights of workers with the introduction of the Labour Code;
- Community access for free Wi-Fi was made available to introduce our people to the virtual world;
- We assisted our farmers with a farm labour support programme. We provided financial support for the differently able and made access to public places easier by improving our sidewalks for wheelchair access in Castries.
As a party, we recognize the vital importance of an operationally independent police force and that is why in a new labour government we will put structures in place to secure the independence of the police in day to day operational matters; and despite some recent discriminatory police activities against certain members of the public, we still believe that the majority of men and women in the service are hardworking, conscientious and loyal to their pledge.
We have always remained sympathetic to the working conditions of our policemen and women, hence the reason we built several new police stations, and encouraged them to continue educating themselves.
The police are not the property of the prime minister to be used for his selfish political agenda. The police belong to the nation, not the prime minister. That is why we reject your claim on the police; there serve the public safety of the people and not to intimidate them with misguided instructions during this unnecessary state of emergency.
We in a previous term built the Mental Wellness Center, George Odlum Stadium, Daren Sammy Cricket Ground, Bordelais Facility, Jon Odlum Secondary School, Gros Islet Secondary, Babonneau Secondary School, Dame Pearlette School, negotiated funds for Owen King European Union (OKEU) hospital. We make no apologies for putting our people first because without the people being first there can be no economy to grow.
Pre and post-COVID-19 our people were always first and will remain first. The government has been caught with its pants down and completely unprepared for the challenges of a post COVID era. To this day we have not established adequate protocols for the reopening of our borders and continue to be under an unnecessary ‘State of Emergency’ which is destroying the businesses of restaurants which rely on late evening footfall traffic. And if this was not enough punishment on hard-working Saint Lucians, they are about to impose punitive taxes on the self-employed like mechanics and charcoal makers attempting to make a living in the most challenging times.
The COVID-19 pandemic is serious and continues to impact large and small economies negatively. Human lives are being lost daily in the thousands as well as many livelihoods of those who have survived. Saint Lucia, like many other Caribbean countries, have been spared the worst of the health crisis, with no deaths and a relatively low level of infection rate. In that regard, we have been fortunate in the region.
I want again to express my thanks and appreciation to all health workers and first responders who are working diligently during these difficult times.
A Saint Lucia labour party government would have ensured that the required resources are available, particularly personal protective equipment, especially as we begin the reopening of our borders to countries which have had higher levels of infection rates. Our front-line staff in this COVID battle needed to be protected so that the rest of us can be looked after in the event of, God forbid, another outbreak.
This budget is unrealistic, unsustainable and contains proposals that are “a comfort to a fool”. The proposals in the budget are intended to accomplish all that was not done in four years, albeit, the budget should have dealt with the realities of our position post-COVID-the budget should be designed to ease the hardship on the single mothers, the unemployed, the small business owners, the vendors, the taxi drivers and minibus drivers.
IMF Rapid Credit Facility
The International Monetary Fund (IMF) made available to the government of Saint Lucia $76 million for income support, health-related initiatives and improving livelihoods. What is in the 2020/2021 budget that can realistically help or ease the suffering of the majority of Saint Lucians? An SLP government would have responded very differently from this government. We would not have re-purposed funds from the Climate Adaptation fund but instead, take advantage of the IMF interest fee loan to provide $15 million worth of assistance to Small and Medium Size Enterprises (SME’s).
An SLP government would make available $5 million of assistance to vendors and other micro-business so that they would be able to feed their families during this time of low economic activity. These vendors could be identified by their payments of vending fees to town and village councils.
An SLP government would understand the contribution made by healthcare workers, nurses, doctors, first responders with a bonus of $1.2 million as an expression of gratitude for their services.
An SLP government would support our creative industry and media workers who are unemployed because of the closure of hotels and other places of entertainment by giving a grant of $3 million.
An SLP government would prepare the country for the proposed re-opening of the borders by obtaining temperature testing equipment and rapid COVID testing apparatus, we propose an initial amount of $5 million.
- The small hotel and ancillary hotel sectors would receive a grant of $10 million to assist tour operators, dive and pleasure boat operators, as well as Airbnb owners to meet business commitments during this difficult time of zero income;
- The minibus sector would be assisted with fuel vouchers valued at $3 million;
- Fishers would also be issued with fuel vouchers valued at $3 million;
- Food vouchers would be distributed to the most vulnerable, disabled and needy on a non-partisan basis to a value of $3 million;
- To assist the unemployed and those who have lost their jobs due to COVID-19; the SLP would work with LUCELEC, WASCO and Flow; to cover an agreed percentage of utility bills to the value of $5 million.
An SLP government would expand the home care programme to assist the elderly and shut-in by employing more home care assistants to a value of $1 million.
- To generate employment and income generation government should invest $3 million in a non-partisan island-wide beautification programme;
- To supplement the income of farmers who can no longer sell to the hotels a grant of $3 million should be granted;
- To generate rural employment a farm labour support system should be introduced at $1.5 million.
The youth economy will provide skill training, finance and marketing for young people who have special interests in certain lines of economic activity such as sports, music, entertainment the creative industries and the orange economy.
To support the innovation of the youth economy – an immediate injection of $10 million. The youth economy is not tokenism. It will focus on encouraging young people to become entrepreneurs by embracing the various avenues they think they can convert into business. It will facilitate the growth of our music industry to help boost the growing attraction and popularity of our local artistes (e.g. Dennery Segment).
It will develop the technical and vocational skill set in Saint Lucia’s youth. The newly designed youth economy will encourage young people to capitalize on the opportunities in information technology and innovation. The production of animation, graphic designs, app development, computer programming, video and music production, computer maintenance, video game development, all these areas can be developed into business opportunities.
This initial injection would bring into sharp focus the digital economy for which the youth have an interest and aptitude. These proposals are financed only by the loan of $76 million from the IMF under its Rapid Credit Facility.
Foreign direct investment
The SLP government welcomes genuine investment but not investment that uses our National Insurance Corporation (NIC) funds and [direct] taxpayers money. Our government will provide an enabling environment for foreign direct investment- we will eliminate the bottlenecks and the lack of facilitation for foreign investments.
We pledge to have a transparent incentive regime and eliminate political interference in the awarding of incentives. Our country is losing opportunities because of the direct interference in the process by politicians and their agents. Moreover, local investors will be eligible to get the same incentives as foreign investors. Our system will be transparent fair and equitable.
In the budget address, the prime minister speaks to the devastation caused by COVID-19 but makes no concrete proposals or information as to how he will re-open the tourism industry. We are not surprised that the St Lucia Hotel and Tourism Association (SLHTA) recently complained of lack of consultation and the government continues to bundle with changing protocols for the opening of our borders.
Instead, the government is dreaming if increased revenue, increasing airlift capacity, increasing hotel room stock, increasing the sector’s contribution but has not figured out how they will at least return tourists to the country. Cruise ships will not be returning to our shores this year
It is estimated in some circles that world tourism may return to its pre-COVID levels in the year 2023 at the earliest, but in Saint Lucia, the government is telling our people that our industry will be expanding and will be a source of increased revenue.
Hewanorra International Airport (HIA)
The SLP government’s position on the HIA development has been vindicated albeit, COVID-19 pandemic, the government rationale for repayment of the loan was that it would be paid for visitor arrivals-now visitor arrivals are near zero and may not return to projected levels for a while – where will the revenue come from. However, we are burdened as a country with a $600 million loan.
We were the first political party to hold formal talks with the promoters of the legalization or decriminalization of cannabis. Our position was clear then, as it is now.
We advocated the expungement of records for cannabis-related criminal activity for small quantities of cannabis. Research into the use of cannabis for export and medicinal use. Education and public discussion on the eventual decriminalization of the use of cannabis. That discussion was held over two years ago and from 2016 my party began the discussion on cannabis.
We believe that it is time for a conclusion and closure on this issue while ensuring that the people who suffered prosecution – Rastafarians – benefit from any decision on cannabis use. This is not a time for politics but reconciliation, good sense and protection of health and livelihoods.
Apart from wasting time and resources on the St Jude hospital and delaying the opening of OKEU the government has failed to provide the people with any clear strategy on how all Saint Lucians will be provided with adequate and affordable health care. The budget speaks only to explore a “fixed charge fee structure which will be shared between employee and employers”. There is no mention of how the charge will be levied or at what rate.
An SLP government would ensure that particularly during this COVID-19 pandemic Universal Health Care (UHC) would be a priority.
The country expected a precise statement on affordable healthcare from the government, instead of squandering the resources of the country in a shameless and unrepentant show of preference for the infamous Family, Friend and Foreigners (FFF).
The Saint Lucia labour party will ensure that we use available resources to provide adequate affordable healthcare for all Saint Lucians.