The speech that Prime Minister Ralph Gonsalves delivered to St. Vincent and the Grenadines on the 44th anniversary of independence from Britain shows the government “is in the campaign mode,” says opposition MP St. Clair Leacock.
“There are some things that a prime minister has to be careful in how he says them. Because it is obvious that the major takeaway from [his] presentation is that the government is in the campaign mode,” Leacock, who is a vice president of the opposition New Democratic Party (NDP) said shortly after Gonsalves’ speech on Friday.
“And they’re trying to grasp support and votes here, there and everywhere,” the Central Kingstown MP said on NICE Radio.
In his independence address to the nation, Gonsalves announced that as of Jan. 1, 2024, the income tax threshold will be moved from EC$22,000 to EC$25,000 annually, beginning Jan. 1, 2024.
He also announced a 5% non-taxable addition to the salaries of nurses for the first half of next year.
“And it is dangerous when you decide that the nurses have a legitimate claim, which in fact they do. And that we’re going to give them a top up. Everybody could take some do-well… But teachers can make the same argument, ‘What about me?’ and the policemen will make the same argument. ’What about me?'” Leacock said.
Gonsalves also announced a 50% waiver in the repayment of loans to farmers by the state-owned Farmers Support Company, which he said would benefit 1,185 farmers.
The prime minister also announced that his government will look into waiving debts owned by vendors to the Kingstown Town Board as well as new measures to tackle crime, as the country has recorded 43 homicides, surpassing the record of 42 set last year.
General elections are constitutionally due in February 2026 and Gonsalves, 78, and his ULP will be seeking an unprecedented sixth consecutive five-year term in office.
Leacock said it is “a very good time for Vincentians and the Vincentian electorate to take advantage of the political atmosphere.
“I mean by that clearly, all political parties are listening — government and opposition. And perhaps even more so one can come to a conclusion that the government is listening.
“And if I’m correct in that point of departure, then it’s a time for you to make your demands upon the government of the day. Yes, a number of things have been offered. And I will go into some details on some of them. But I’m sure you can ask and will receive much more from the political parties that are at your doors now, looking for your attention. “
He noted that Gonsalves cited the projections by the International Monetary Fund that the Vincentian economy will grow 6.2% in 2023 and 5% in 2024.
“That is, in summary, to say that we are in fact enjoying our best times ever under the Unity Labour Party because they have been in government for the last 22 plus years and they have never achieved a 5% growth in the economy,” Leacock said.
“So you can begin by asking yourself a question: ‘if this is the best of the best ,well God forbid if things get worse. Because the suggestion is that work and opportunity is all around us.”
He said the prime minister highlighted that the construction sector is busy and Leacock said he thinks this is “a fair claim”.
“And busy it must be with a $600 million port project, all those hotel investments, Sandals and the others, that are coming on stream and so our artisans are perhaps having great opportunity to find employment for themselves.”
But Leacock said this construction boom has its challenges in that while construction is an important contributor to the nation’s gross domestic product, is, for the main part, in SVG, “a non-tradable sector.
“That is, we do not export, for the most part, construction activities,” he said, explaining that the country does not export construction-related commodities, and in turn earn foreign exchange.
“In fact, the reverse may well be true that in order for us to have this construction boom as he defines it, we have to find foreign exchange to pay for all of the things that must come in to facilitate the construction sector,” Leacock said, mentioning cement, steel and lumber.
“We must have hard currency to pay for that. So if we’re not earning foreign exchange, either through tourism, or through agriculture, it’s a fair question to ask, ‘How are we paying for those things?’
“I don’t want to be on the negative side. But I want us to have a real grasp of where we are.”
He said that Gonsalves, in his speech did not speak to the country’s core strength — agriculture — and finding new markets for agriculture produce or expanding agro-processing.
“It is more of the same. And the question therefore has to be asked if you are a young person, what future is in store for me, outside of the construction sector, where they may say the construction sector is bringing hotels, where we then also have to ask the question, are we going to find a lot more of our young people in the services, hotels sector, and at the middle, or at the high end? That’s managerial positions, accountant positions, chef positions, food and beverage management, and all the various aspects that go with it,” Leacock said.
“All of these things are what our young people have to open their eyes and ears and ask and see and ask questions of. One did not hear those kinds of conversation.”
He said the prime minister’s speech “did not have his usual bravado and he reduced the extent to which you will cuss left, right and centre and in particular, the opposition either by name or by insinuation”.
Leacock said the prime minister took “a broadside swipe” at the NDP advocacy for citizens by investment (CBI).
“And that is a road that has to be very carefully managed and navigated. And I’m not going to expand on that this morning. But the jury will be out for that. And Vincentian will have to decide on that sufficient to say that between the time of 2001 in the [then Opposition Leader, Arnhim] Eustace years and today,” Leacock said.
“When that subject was being debated, whether we should have citizenship by investment programme, we have lost on or around $5 billion… So we could ask, where would St. Vincent have been now had we had that injection of $5 billion had we adopted our programme.”
Gonsalves had repeatedly said that he and his ULP administration are opposed, on principle, to CBI and has likened it to selling passports.
Recently, Gonsalves has pointed to the clampdown by European nations on such programmes, saying that it shows his foresight and wisdom of opposing such programmes, even as he has also criticised developed countries for their approach to CBI programmes in poorer countries, saying it amounted to bullying.
“We can also ask, how much worse off we would have been if those passports had been issued, as he’d been contending.”
He said someone had made the point on radio the previous day that nationals of other Caribbean countries are not walking the streets off Kingstown looking for work.
“But to be sure, in those capitals Port of Spain, Bridgetown, Castries, Basseterre Tortola, you will find large population centres of Vincentians going out there to look for work; not to add, clearly, the North American diaspora — Toronto, Brooklyn, Bronx, Long Island, Queens and other countries; London and other places,” Leacock said.
“So that is not explained yet to our people. And in any event, even if there is a criticism of that as a scheme the citizenship by investment scheme has thus far since St. Kitts brought it into being, lasted as long as the banana industry lasted — just above 50 years,” he said.
“So there’s a time and place for everything … I don’t want to concentrate on that conversation this morning.”