(Excerpts of Dr. Friday’s presentation at the Town Hall Meeting in New York)
We have raised the issue of accountability, or lack thereof by this government many times. Our calls for accountability have been met with scorn and contempt by Dr. Gonsalves and his colleagues. In fact, Dr.Gonsalves actually said publicly that he has “no moral responsibility” to abide by the requirements of the Constitution regarding accountability. So, he has abandoned and denied his responsibility to the nation’s Constitution and to its people.
But, on the issue of accountability, we must all agree with what I have said repeatedly before that is, “In a modern democratic society, public funds cannot be spent in the dark. The law does not allow it.” Section 68 of the Constitution of St. Vincent and the Grenadines says, “All revenues or other moneys raised or received by Saint Vincent (not being revenues or other moneys that are payable, by or under any law for the time being in force in Saint Vincent, into some other fund established for a specific purpose) shall be paid into and form a Consolidated Fund.”
The Petro Caribe scheme is a case in point. It was started by Chavez in 2005. The government of St. Vincent and the Grenadines collected hundreds of millions of dollars and spent it without legal authority. It was only in 2016 the Petrocaribe (Special Fund) Act was introduced and passed in parliament to govern the money legally. It was made retroactive. Why is it so important that there be accountability? That we not just take the word of the Prime Minister and other members of cabinet?
A lack of accountability in public spending breeds corruption in high places; promotes economic inequality, the rich get richer and the poor get poorer; fosters economic stagnation and imposes unnecessary taxes and other costs on citizens. In short, a lack of public accountability works well for undemocratic ruling elite but harms the ordinary people in the country. We must, therefore, always insist on public accountability, for any government; whether it is ULP or any other.
I have acknowledged the problem and will put measures in place to fix it. Dr. Gonsalves, on the other hand, refuses to admit that they have done anything wrong, and therefore will continue to disregard the requirements and procedure of the constitution and other laws in relation to financial accountability.
In 2006 there were 97,432 stay over visitors; by 2016 the number had declined to 75,395. In other words, we had lost over 22,000 of such visitors! Instead of increasing the number of people in our hotels and guest houses, we lost over 22,000. Do you know how many jobs were lost as a result? Even in 2018, after a year of operation of AIA, the number of stay over visitors is down.
Despite this poor performance, the ULP government has imposed an $8 room per night tax on all hotels and guesthouses; apparently to raise money to fight effects of climate change. The longer you stay the more you pay. And remember, they have done this even though the ECCB figures show that the number of stay over visitors has declined a lot over the past ten years. Why tax an industry that has been in decline? Government only does this when it wants to discourage certain types of behavior, like drinking or smoking. Why would the government want to discourage tourism? Or don’t they see the connection?
The Government says it is going to build a 250-room hotel at Mt. Wynne with US$50 borrowed from Taiwan. That will add over EC$130m to the already high national debt (EC$1.6billion). It worries me that we are not able to attract private investment to build this hotel or to reopen the Buccament Bay Resort. The stay over tourist numbers will not increase appreciably nor will AIA attract international carriers until there is increased hotel capacity on the mainland! Buccament Bay was touted as such as investment, but it was done not as an investment but as a scheme to take investors’ money without giving what was promised. The ULP government facilitated that.
My friends, we cannot continue to operate in our country as if anything goes. We can and must do better. Some of the problems I have outlined here can be fixed merely by following the law and procedures established there under. Other problems require us as Vincentians to change our expectations of government, of political leaders and of one another. In short, we must raise our game! We must believe that we can do better, and act accordingly. We can’t keep doing the same thing that got us to where we are and expect conditions improve.
For too long and far too often, we accept that St. Vincent and the Grenadines cannot lead in the right areas; we seem to accept that we will not measure up to our Caribbean neighbour in economic growth. We lead in homicides, rape and economic decline. Let us turn that around so that St. Vincent and the Grenadines can be a shining light in the Caribbean and the World; an example, not to be ridiculed but to be emulated. I believe we can do it. It want you and the rest of our people to believe it too and as I said at the outset to work together to get it done.
Development and improvement are not automatic. They require conscious and persistent effort by all of us. You, our Diaspora, are playing a vital role to make things better in St. Vincent and the Grenadines. I urge you to do more. We need you. I don’t just mean that you must send home more money or barrels to your loved ones or favorite charities. That plays it part. But I am urging you to look for other ways to contribute to our development. Seek out investment opportunities yourselves or with other partners to create businesses in St. Vincent and the Grenadines. As we make SVG work for all Vincentians.