Friday 6 December, 2019

Baptiste blasts Govt on Virgin, golf course funding

The Saint Lucia Labour Party (SLP) expresses grave concern about the reckless decisions of the Allen Chastanet-led administration. These decisions are taking a heavy toll on the island’s economy, and if not addressed with due haste and immediacy, will lead to serious economic instability in Saint Lucia. The SLP is acutely aware that economic instability can adversely impact the livelihoods and living standards of Saint Lucians by driving up debt, devaluing our economic assets, drying up investment and descending into debilitating unemployment, economic recession, and even societal collapse.

The most recent decisions by the Allen Chastanet-led administration, carry the possibility of aggravating the already dire and difficult condition of the Saint Lucian economy. The casual dismissal of the critical contribution of Virgin Atlantic in continuing to service the UK-Saint Lucia tourist market (our second largest source market), and the irresponsible use of EC$30 million of our National Insurance Corporation (NIC) funds to facilitate the construction of a golf course by a so-called foreign billionaire; are reckless, dangerous and deleterious.

Virgin Atlantic Pull-out

Virgin Atlantic is an integral part of Saint Lucia’s Air Transport infrastructure, with daily flights from the United Kingdom. It helps in facilitating our country's integration into the global economy. It also facilitates commerce and connects families, friends and cultures across borders. Further, by facilitating tourism, the airline helps in generating economic growth and alleviating poverty – providing job opportunities, increasing revenues from taxes (including landing fees and Navigation and Communications charges) and encouraging the conservation of our natural capital assets. Virgin Atlantic’s daily flight into Hewanorra International Airport (HIA) adds value to Saint Lucia as a tourist destination.

Given that Virgin Atlantic Airways’ daily operation into Saint Lucia contributes to the island’s economic development. And given that the withdrawal of Virgin Atlantic Airways from Saint Lucia will result in reduced passenger numbers, which will impact negatively on revenues, hotel occupancy, demand for taxi service, and other direct spending in the local economy; the Allen Chastanet-led administration should establish a framework for a more structured dialogue with all stakeholders, in order to comprehend this potential loss in all of its ramifications and, to proffer appropriate solutions.

This announced Virgin Atlantic Airways pullout is even more serious when viewed from the lens of the Hewanorra International Airport (HIA) Redevelopment Project. Given the heavy borrowing (EC$500 million) to date for the redevelopment of the HIA, we cannot afford to be casual about this matter as it can precipitate a major financial and economic problem in Saint Lucia. This is why we have made it abundantly clear, that while airports are a major part of a country's infrastructure, and foster economic activities by encouraging international commerce and tourism, and generate employment; airlines are the ones that determine demand for air travel.

This high Debt to GDP ratio could have the following negative impacts (well documented) on our country:

• “Key investments in our future are at a risk. Higher interest costs could crowd out important public investments that can fuel economic growth — priority areas like education, and infrastructure. In addition, growing Government debt reduces the amount of private capital for investments, which hurts economic growth and wages. A nation saddled with debt will have less to invest in its own future;

• Less flexibility to respond to crises. On our current path, we are at greater risk of a fiscal crisis, and high amounts of debt leave us with much less flexibility to deal with unexpected events; it will be more difficult to work our way out;

• Protecting the essential safety net. Our unsustainable fiscal path threatens the safety net and the most vulnerable in our society – our elderly, our children, our youth, the sick, the poor, the disabled or differently-abled. If our government does not have sufficient resources, these essential programmes, and those who need them most, would be put in jeopardy.”

National Insurance Corporation

Speaking of safety net, how can we ignore the EC$30 million loan or so-called investment, politically and unethically extracted from our NIC funds, to facilitate the construction of a golf course, for a so-called Canadian billionaire! The SLP maintains that our NIC funds must be utilized for the benefit of those who have contributed to the fund as a means of income security upon reaching retirement age. The SLP also maintains that every opportunity must be utilized to extend the longevity of the fund, instead of being used as a source of financing for the Prime Minister’s highly speculative and economically unjustifiable pet projects.

In this regard, the SLP invites Saint Lucians to note the concerns contained in the Actuarial Review in the National Corporation 2016/2017 Annual Report, on page 75: “The NIC is relatively young, so the long-term benefits branch has not yet reached a state of maturity and the cost of pensions Expressed as a percentage of insurable earnings is still increasing. However, the maturing process of the scheme, as measured by the continuously increasing ratio of pensioners to contributors, will cause a significant increase in expenditure. Despite the anticipated increase in expenditure, the reserve in dollars is not expected to decrease during the next 20 years. The reserve of the long-term branch will increase in absolute value until 2034, and then is projected to decrease and to be exhausted in 2050.”

It continued on page 76, “The reserve ratio of the long-term benefit branch (reserve divided by annual expenditure), stands at 22.7 on the valuation date. It is projected to remain above 20 times the annual expenditure until 2020, but will continuously decrease thereafter and become nil in 2050, unless relevant measures are taken to reverse this projected trend. The results presented above suggest that the NIC should give consideration to a potential increase in the contribution rate. One possible consideration for contribution increase could be to increase the contribution rate each year until 2051 to a rate of 18.75 per cent of which 17.05 per cent would be devoted to the long-term branch. This is projected to extend the sustainability of the reserve for an additional 16 years.”

Conclusion

In view of the foregoing, the SLP strongly condemns the fiscal recklessness and irresponsibility of the Allen Chastanet Administration in handling the nation’s finances and imposing needless debt on the people of Saint Lucia. The SLP also condemns the current clandestine operations of Government, including administration of the Citizenship by Investment Programme (CIP).

The SLP therefore issues a serious call for sanity and for the Chastanet-led administration to turn away from its current extravagantly dangerous path, and reintroduce policies that will reduce volatility and encourage welfare-enhancing growth that will benefit the majority of Saint Lucians, and not just the few friends, families and favoured foreigners of the Government. The SLP believes that it is imperative to improve our macro-economic framework so that all Saint Lucians can enjoy the economic prosperity which they deserve.

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