Prime Minister Gaston Browne has told residents that despite the fact that the country is in an election cycle, characterized by partisan sentiments, they must ensure that they remain respectful of the country’s independence by dignifying the struggles of ancestors and giving thanks to God for 41 years of achievements
“Today, we have completed 41 years of political independence and we commemorate our nation’s struggle for freedom and its advancement, under the theme: Moving forward with Unity, Strength, and Stability,” Browne said in his Independence message.
PM Browne said for more than four decades, we have successfully advanced and improved the welfare of our people, creating a much higher standard of living than we inherited.
“We have created better quality and higher paying jobs, constructed roads where they did not exist and we have built highways that were previously beyond imagination. We have built more homes and given more people ownership in 41 years than existed in the previous three centuries. And, have educated more Antiguans and Barbudans to secondary and University levels in four decades than in 300 years of previous generations,” he said
These were extraordinary accomplishments, in an extraordinarily short space of time, he said, saying that this much of which, as a nation, we have cause to be proud.
The evidence of the country’s progress according to the prime minister can be seen in several developments over the years including two modern seaports and the most modern international airport in the Caribbean; the Sir Lester Bird Hospital which provides the best facilities for a range of ailments that our country has ever enjoyed and ore and better schools for all children, guaranteeing everyone the right to education and learning.
Furthermore, he said, in a country, perennially plagued by drought, over seven million gallons of potable water is being produced daily, using reversed osmosis technologies and delivered to most parts of the country in a continuing and progressive program;
“Electricity now reaches all sections of our nation, whereas 41 years ago, electricity was a scarce commodity, street lighting was sparse and electricity in homes was a luxury for the better-off; more housing and more homeownership for all income groups than at any other time in our nation’s history and instant interconnectivity to the world via high-speed internet for information, education, learning, entertainment, and social contact. We enjoy one of the highest wage levels in the Caribbean. Our people’s savings in the banks and credit unions are among the highest per capita in the Caribbean,” he added.
He said Barbuda now enjoys the highest level of investment in its history, with full employment; considerably improved infrastructure in education, health, and port facilities; better and more resilient housing; more reliable public utilities including, a renewable energy plant and telecommunications and Barbudans who were previously left behind, now enjoy the opportunity for greater empowerment.
Forty-one years of independence brought these successes, having been left with a neglected, backwater of colonialism where inequities and inequalities prevailed, according to Browne.
“It is the vision, commitment, drive and leadership competence that resulted in our accomplishments and fuelled our people’s burning ambition for advancement. And, we should all recall that, for 31 of those 41 years of improvement and progress, it was the Antigua and Barbuda Labour Party that successfully managed the affairs of our nation for the benefit of all our people.
Leadership mattered over the last 41 years, as leadership matters now. Our progress should have reached higher heights; more should have been achieved for our nation and for every person within it,” he said.
Browne did not fall short of criticizing the Opposition United Progressive Party in his independence message, saying that
“But we experienced 10 lost years; a lost decade under the former administration I need not recall the rapid decline of our economy between 2004 and 2014. Many of you suffered through it, particularly between 2009 and 2014, when the nation’s financial affairs were mistakenly entrusted into the hands of a well-known financial novice, Harold Lovell, culminating in the worst performance of any finance minister in the history of our country and possibly in the history of the world. You will all recall the high unemployment – the large number of people who lost their homes and their cars because they could not pay their loans and mortgages,” he added.
Saying, “you will all recall the stagnation of our economy, resulting in no growth and financial hardship, causing businesses to close and contracting the economy. You will all recall the high debt that was incurred and the descent into the harsh conditions of an IMF program, causing workers to be pushed into severance or early retirement. You will recall parents having to make a choice between paying to run their cars or paying their children’s school fees”.
Browne spent a considerable time rehashing what he said was the failure of the former administration.
“You will also remember, that even in these harsh conditions, taxes – including taxes on income, astronomical airport taxes and taxes on services – were imposed upon you, causing the depletion and exhaustion of your savings. Those awful 10 years, between 2004 and 2014, significantly reversed the decades of growth and development achieved over the previous 23 years.
Our progress was retarded. Our growth prospects were ruined, by the four years of economic contraction between 2009-2014.Our people’s betterment was derailed,” he said.
“The inept UPP government pauperized our country and bankrupted our economy.
Had our nation not suffered those ten years of economic mismanagement, financial maladministration, and just plain incompetence, on this 41st Anniversary of our independence, our finances would have been much stronger, our economy more resilient and our social welfare system more robust. That is why one of our pledges on this 41st Anniversary of our National Independence is not to make that mistake again. We paid dearly. We suffered much.
Never again should we be lured by empty and recycled promises. Never again should we be fooled by unsupported pledges to reduce taxes, without any compensatory revenue. Never again should we fall prey to the trap of downright lies and deceptions, of these desperados. Never again”.
The PM also used his message to highlight the achievement in education, making specific reference to the University of the West Indies Five Island Campus.
He said it took a new direction, a new leadership , and a clear vision with strong management to recover our nation from that decade of catastrophe, and to restore it to a path of economic advancement, higher employment, and social improvement.
“The outstanding record of reconstructing our finances, restoring jobs and rebuilding our economy, between 2014 and the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020, was plain for all to see.
Our nation’s economy experienced 5 years of unprecedented, high sustainable growth. Employment increased. Poverty reduced”.
Both foreign and local investment multiplied fuelling robust growth and development.
Tourism figures reached an all-time high. New housing schemes and schools were built and equipped, according to Browne, and a record number of scholarships were awarded to hundreds of nationals to secure a University education.
“We established the first-ever University of the West Indies Campus in our country. We empowered more individual Antiguans and Barbudans with ownership of homes, cars, and shares in public companies than at any other comparable period in history”.
Adding, “fully aware that we cannot have a sound economy with a dysfunctional financial system, in 2014 we immediately instituted measures to fix the disastrous banking crisis that was enabled by the UPP. Had we not acted swiftly, not only would the life savings of thousands of persons and their families have been completely lost, but the collapse of ABIB would have plunged the entire banking system into danger,”.
He said the government also implemented a financial rescue plan that stabilized the banking structure and bolstered the financial system. And, solid and sound financial and economic management, combined with a deep commitment to social welfare improvement, recovered our country and rebuilt it from the ashes of destruction inflicted by the UPP.
“The fact is that in 2014, this nation was on the brink of complete collapse. Unemployment was higher than it had been since the 1940’s. Productivity was at an all-time low. Unauthorized Debts incurred by the UPP were high and unpaid”.
“These unauthorized debts, which had no agreed credit terms, included debt for the supply of water provided by Sembcorp, which was threatening to cut-off supply to the entire country, and debt to APC for electricity. West Indies Oil Company, which had already given notice that it would cease supply of all petroleum products to the nation as a whole, was owed 81M at the time, with a further $8M in cheques, that were returned unpaid for insufficient funds”.
Here are more inserts from the prime minister’s independence address:
It is the UPP government that put people out of work and set a shameful record of economic and financial decline. Had the ABLP Government not acted swiftly to remedy all this, the scale of the catastrophe and hardship that would have befallen this nation is almost unimaginable. Everything would have ground to a devastating halt with no water, no electricity, no functioning shops, businesses, banks, schools or offices.
Our nation was within a fraction of that reality. To forget it would be folly. Remembering it would be wise and not repeating this mistake will be most wise. Never again, should we suffer from such incompetent management of our affairs.
My friends, today, despite the ravages of the COVID-19 pandemic on our economy, and the turmoil caused by the consequences of the Russian war against Ukraine, your money in the bank is safe; businesses are no longer in deep distress; the banking system is stable; average national income has returned to a high level; and our Government has established successful mechanisms to give relief to the vulnerable.
Yes, the world economy is in a crisis of high prices and high inflation, and, undeniably, those circumstances have affected our country just as they have impacted all others.
The impact of COVID-19 has lingered globally, adversely affecting logistics and the supply chain.
This has resulted in shortages and high prices, which, as part of the global community, we import.
This situation has been worsened by the Russian war in Ukraine that created more shortages of food and ingredients for food production, as well as higher prices for oil, gas, and production of electricity and water.
These were all circumstances not created in our country. No policy or action of the Government led to these conditions. All of them were due to external factors that we could not escape or avoid.
But, your government did not wring its hands in despair, nor was it paralyzed in fear.
Instead we expanded our social safety-net programs and, continue to subsidise the cost of petroleum products, thereby keeping the rate of inflation below those of other countries including developed countries.
Although fear did grip the entire world in the face of the galloping spread of the Coronavirus which, to date, has killed almost 7 million persons worldwide, and infected more than 630 million people; we courageously and successfully adopted and implemented a pragmatic policy of working and living with COVID.
Throughout the period of more than 2 years since March 2020 to now, we have limited the number of COVID-19 deaths in our society to 146 – that is 0.15 per cent of our population.
Very few countries in the world have matched that achievement.
Our people were kept secured; their lives were saved; and their future was assured by the competent, efficient, and caring policies that the ABLP government immediately implemented.
Even in the face of significantly reduced revenues, resulting from the worldwide lockdown, the ABLP government invested in safeguarding the welfare of our people.
For instance, for more than a year the government instituted the Dollar Barrell Initiative to allow families to import food, clothing, toiletries and personal hygiene products for a nominal fee of $10 per barrel in taxes.
We also stopped disconnections of electricity and water supply to aid families whose income had been adversely affected by the pandemic. Further, we discounted 25% on domestic electricity accounts for households.
Our investment in health facilities was significant. We expanded hospital facilities, constructing new accommodation and increasing the number of beds per patient.
We built the first infectious diseases clinic in our country to contain the disease and to save lives.
And, we invested heavily in life saving equipment, such as ventilators, and in drugs, medical personnel and specialized treatment, including stem cells therapy.
We scoured the World for vaccines to inoculate our people against the virus and to save their lives.
No effort was spared, and not a cent was withheld in our drive to protect our people from the reaping scythe of the deadly pandemic. Our nation emerged stronger, and better able to open up our economy before any other Caribbean country.
We led the way in the reopening of Caribbean economies. We were able to revive tourism and tourism facilities, returning people to work, facilitating their earnings, therby promoting economic growth. None of this happened by accident.
It required planning, foresight, strategic allocation of scarce resources and careful oversight in implementation.
Safeguarding our peoples’ lives from the most frightening disease the modern world has confronted, together with managing economic survival and growth, are the most awesome combination of tests any Government has ever faced.
The proof of the ABLP government’s successful stewardship, in the interest of every person and the entire nation, has been lived by all in our country.
It was not a task for the incompetent, the incapable or the inadequate. Similarly, neither is the task of navigating our ship of state through the current turbulent global economic sea.
The prevailing global challenges demand competent, strong and stable leadership to ensure the continued advancement of our country and its transformation into an economic powerhouse.
It is evident, that on this the 41st Anniversary of our nation’s independence, the UPP has no plan to safeguard and strengthen our growth and development. What they offer is a tissue of promises without the means to fulfil them; pledges for big spending without showing how the money is to be earned and character assassination of their political opponents.
Their threats to privatise, to their cronies, the peoples’ assets in productive enterprises such as WIOC, APUA, State Insurance, Caribbean Union Bank and other state owned entities by collapsing the National Assets Management Company which holds the shares in these entities, should be of serious concern to the workers of these entities.
And what they do not say is, just as they did during their disastrous period in government, they will increase taxes, impose income taxes, and hustle to the IMF to again indebt the country and tie it to commitments to dismiss civil servants, reduce wages and salaries and cut social welfare services.
After engaging previously in a failed IMF program, they are now champions of a new IMF program; we therefore do not have to speculate on the focus of their development plan.
We know it from experience.
Prior to 2004, they swore not to introduce any taxes. Yet they reintroduced income tax that the ABLP had abolished; they imposed ABST on services, even though they pledged not to do so; they raised property taxes; they raised airport taxes to astronomical levels, they dismissed public servants by forcing them into severance.Who can trust such charlatans?
Today, their declared policies threaten the ultimate disaster – a catastrophic economic hurricane that would ruin the livelihood of thousands of families.
Our forefathers, and we of this generation, did not work so hard to maintain our nation’s independence to see it mortgaged and destroyed by the UPP yet again.
What our country requires now is sound financial knowledge, successful management experience, and the capacity to achieve increased income and economic growth with more investment in education, health, and social welfare services.
That is how we will maintain and strengthen our independence. It is how we will command a place of respect and regard in the global community. And that is what this ABLP government has delivered and will elevate to the next higher level of accomplishment.
We shall do it by ensuring that men and women who invest their savings in their own business, or in a public company, can earn a reasonable return, such as they do now with WIOC, and with their own enterprises.
We shall encourage the production of wealth by spreading a share in its growth among those who have helped to create it.