KINGSTOWN, St. Vincent – The ruling Unity Labour Party (ULP) will be consolidating its gains and preparing for a fourth term in office while the opposition New Democratic Party will increase its levels of activity in constituencies this year.
Both parties, in separate interviews, on Sunday told I-Witness News of their focus as the ULP moves into its 12th year in office, the length of time the NDP has also been in opposition — after three general elections.
Senator Julian Francis, general secretary of the ULP, did not elaborate on how the party plans to secure a fourth term, saying doing so will be “giving away your strategy”.
He said the ULP administration’s main focus in 2011 was “surviving and meeting the challenges that we have faced since the financial meltdown”.
The administration, he said, tried to preserve employment and take care of the nation’s lesser privileged.
Among the lessons learnt from that experience was how “to look after, in bad times, [and to] try to maintain the standard of living of our people,” he said, adding that the government has to do just that, “judging by what is happening internationally”.
Francis, who is also Minister of Works, said that his government hopes that the economic situation internationally would improve this year, when the Vincentian economy is forecast to grow 2 per cent, on the heels of economic decline from 2008 to 2010 — and possibly in 2011.
He said that there are sign of improvement internationally in America and Europe and that his government is hoping that as the year progresses that we will “see some improvement”.
Meanwhile, Opposition Leader and NDP president Arnhim Eustace told I-Witness News that his party would this year “have a critical focus on the national issues particularly in relation to what we do about the economy”.
Noting the years of economic decline, Eustace said, “something has to give. And how we handle the fiscal [situation] and how we handle our projects is critical to coming out of that morass that we are in. And that is where our focus is going to be”.
The former prime minister said that ULP ministers of government “seem to have little authority”.
He pointed to the debate on the Estimates in December, saying, “something as critical as that, in an era of poor economic performance, and you can’t even find three or four ministers to speak on the Estimates?
“I think they are making jokes, quite frankly. I don’t know whether they are prevented from or whether they don’t have anything to say. And I find that as a very, very poor performance from a government that has been managing the affairs of this country for ten years or more,” the former finance minister said.
But Francis was equally critical of the opposition’s handing of the Estimates, saying that opposition Members of Parliament (MPs) are the ones who should be responding to the figures presented by the government.
“Why all 21 of us (MPs) have to get up and talk about them,” Francis said, adding that the opposition should ask question and the government explain.
“… but instead, they took the route of a mini budget debate. They never debated the estimates, they took the opportunity to lambaste the government and to criticise the government…. The four heavy spending ministries spoke on the matter of the Estimates,” he said.
Asked what specifically an NDP administration would have done in these economic circumstances, Eustace said, “I am not saying that until I speak on the budget [on Tuesday].”
Eustace, however, said that it was not true that the NDP has not presented any written documents with plans for the country’s economy.
“We presented a five-year plan for the economy of St. Vincent and the Grenadines and that is a published document of 86-page and that was presented to the public, 10,000 copies,” Eustace said of the document “The key to economic development – unlocking prosperity for all” published ahead of the 2005 elections.
“I don’t know how people suddenly forget these things,’ he said.
With Eustace and ULP leader and Prime Minister Dr. Ralph Gonsalves this year turning 67 and 66 years old, respectively, and the next elections constitutionally due in 2015, leadership succession is a topic of discussion across the political divide here.
Eustace said told I-Witness News that he thinks that the ULP should be asked about their plans for leadership succession.
“That’s an issue [in the ULP],” he said.
Asked if it is not also an issue in the NDP, Eustace said he finds there is “a preponderance about that by people in St. Vincent and the Grenadines, promoted, largely, by the ULP itself.
“When we had the first aspect of this taking place, I gave up my position. I didn’t have to contest leadership at that time and I was returned unopposed,” he further stated.
He was speaking about when he offered the presidency of the NDP for election sometime after the party lost the 2001 general elections, although his term as NDP resident has not as yet expired.
“But that didn’t seem to mean anything to the public or the press. I am not going into any discussion about NDP leadership,” Eustace said, adding that that issue “will be a handled in accordance with [the NDP’s] constitution”.
Francis, however, said the ULP has “always had leadership succession on our table” and has internal discussions and strategies on that issue.
“Obviously, the opposition is more taken up with the subject matter because they have serious issues in their camp with regards to leadership succession,” he said.
Every elected MP from the NDP “believes that he has a right to be leader and to be the next political leader and president of the New Democratic Party and they have a serious issue with that,” Francis said.
On the issue of discussion of national issues, Francis felt that this country has “the highest level of democracy in the world” and noted the nation’s 11 radio stations and the many talk shows discussing national issues.
“There is no other country in the world that I know of that has this level of democratic debate on issues. Every single day, four radio stations belt it out. Everybody who has a cellphone and can speaks the English language gets on the radio and debate the issues,” he said.
He, however, told I-Witness News that while the government articulates its position, the opposition members “don’t see any sense in any of our programmes [and] any answer you give them is a lie.
“You go to Parliament, they ask you a question, you give them the answer and they say it is a lie,” Francis said.
“But the debate you should be listening to is the debate between the people and the government and the people, what they are saying about the opposition, what they are saying about the government. That’s the debate that is important,” Francis said.
He further stated that he listens everyday to many of the talk shows and he learns a lot from the public.
“They are the one who elect you when the five years turns around. … If you know what they are thinking … about your issues, you will formulate your issues to please the majority of the people. That is the secret of government and staying in government,” Francis said.
As far as national debate is concerned, Eustace said he likes “people to have their views but some of the language and the statements are being made really are not necessary.
“But I like the fact that people are free to express themselves. But sometimes, the way it is done really leaves much to be desired. And I am talking on both sides,” he told I-Witness News.
Owning de problems
The ULP in the campaign for the 2010 general elections called on its supporters to “own de campaign”. The ULP administration then called on citizens to “own de government”. Asked if it was then fair that the ULP administration own the problems in the country, Francis said that the government has done just that.
“We have owned every single problem we have. Black sigatoka, we owned it. The minister said we created the problem, public servants and the administration, and he is not taking full blame for it.
“Name an issue and I will tell you we have owned it. Once there is a problem and a mistake made by this government, we don’t shy away from it. We face it head on. We have not done anything wrong and said that we have done it right. Anything that we have done wrong, we have said that we have done it wrong and we will do our best to correct it,” Francis told I-Witness News.
“So we have asked the people to own the government, to own the policies of the government. Once they do that, then we are on the way to getting the fourth term on the way,” he said, adding that the NDP, during the first three months of 2011 tried to reverse the ULP’s third term victory.
“Now they have gone into silence now they are infighting and they are biting off each other’s neck. So we are concentrating now on consolidating in the third term and working on a fourth term. The majority of the people in St. Vincent and the Grenadines still want the Unity Labour Party to lead this country and we will,” Francis said.