State of the Nation Address
by the Honourable Gaston A. Browne, MP
Prime Minister and Minister of Finance and Corporate Governance of
Antigua and Barbuda
on 1st January 2016
Fellow Citizens and Residents of Antigua and Barbuda.
I wish you all a happy, productive and most prosperous, 2016.
On Christmas Eve Day, several of my Cabinet colleagues and I, gave a comprehensive review of my government’s stewardship of this nation’s affairs over the last year.
In the first public account of its kind, we reported to the people in a broadcast carried live by all but a couple entities of the electronic media.
Apart from welcoming questions from every journalist, we also accepted calls from members of the public without restriction.
My government intends to make an annual event of live, public, interactive reviews of our administration of the nation’s affairs.
We do so in conformity with our firm commitment to good, transparent, accountable and responsive governance.
Having so recently provided a wide-ranging description of our management in 2015, in this New Year’s Address, I propose only to deal with a few important matters of the last year and to provide insights to the prospects for 2016.
New Year starts better than in 10 years
I am proud to say, as a nation, we begin this New Year better than we started each of the previous ten.
During the last five years of the previous government, the economy rapidly declined with unparalleled business failure, foreclosures and job losses. Unemployment rose exponentially, poverty rates expanded, crime escalated, corruption was rampant, the financial system was unhealthy and the welfare of our people was sadly neglected.
In truth, our nation endured five years of misery and underdevelopment.
Our economic and social development was set back by 25 per cent and in excess of 10,000 citizens and residents were relegated to the breadline.
My government acted immediately and aggressively to avert an impending disaster that was so profound and so imminent, everyone without exception, experienced it.
Eighteen months later, we are well on the way to stabilizing our country.
We have turned it from the fear of despair to the prospect of hope; from pessimism to optimism.
Spencer/Lovell combination broke the Economy
Our most urgent task upon taking office was to pull back the economy from the precipice of disaster on which it was dangerously hanging.
The country was not just broken; it was broke.
My government inherited conditions of extremely high debt and delinquent loans from the Baldwin Spencer/Harold Lovell administration.
Spencer and Lovell were joined at the hip in their maladministration of the country’s financial affairs. While Spencer was in his slumber, his neophyte finance minister, Harold Lovell, appropriated unto himself the leadership responsibility of the nation and literally wrecked our country. He now holds the unenviably record of the worst performing finance minister of all time.
Under Lovell’s stewardship, the economic and financial systems were in virtual meltdown.
They had no answers to the problems of their own creation.
Had they stayed in office any longer, unemployment would have doubled; loans would have remained unpaid; creditors, including the IMF would have applied crippling sanctions upon this nation; more businesses would certainly have closed than those that had already done so; and more people would have lost their homes.
During our first six months in office, we had to raise approximately EC$70M to bring the IMF and Chinese Loans up to date. Had we not brought the Chinese loan up to date, the loan to finish the VC Bird International Airport would have been terminated and the Port Expansion Loan commitment cancelled.
WIOC was owed $89 million and it was threatening to cut off oil supplies to APUA that would have left the country with severe disruption of electricity.
SEMBCORP Water Antigua Ltd was owed $22 million and they too were about to cut off all water supplies. APUA owed Antigua Power Company in excess of $40 million for electricity, they too intended to cut off supply.
ABI Bank was already bankrupt and on the point of collapse that would have seen Antiguan and Barbudan deprived of at least 90 percent of their deposit value.
The Spencer/Lovell maladministration had no strategy in place to resolve the problem, they left the bank to hemorrhage for three years.
After three years They had not provided one red cent to resolve ABIB.
They were content to deprive depositors of their money and to allow the entire banking system in Antigua and Barbuda and the other OECS countries to collapse. My Government secured EC$300M in financial commitments to resolve ABI Bank thereby protecting all depositors.
In the case of Social Security, it was owed EC$543 million by the government, escalated to that huge sum by non-payments by the Spencer/Lovell regime.
The ABLP’s financial rescue
I will deal in some detail with the neglect of the Social Security Scheme and Medical Benefits later in this presentation.
But, I emphasize now that my government immediately launched a rescue programme, and it has been both transparent and accountable.
The appointment of an enhanced Audit Unit consisting of 9 of the best young accountants in Antigua and Barbuda will ensure the scrupulous review of government’s income and expenditure and account for every cent.
With regard to the ABI Bank resolution: through a creative mix of public and private sector investment, we have re-capitalized and stabilized the new bank thereby saving Antiguan and Barbudan depositors from losing their money.
We have also ensured that every ABI employee will receive their due severance and Thrift Fund payments.
Resolving ABI Bank also had the effect of removing the threat of destabilization of the banking sector in Antigua and Barbuda and the other OECS countries to which we are interlinked.
We cleared the arrears on the Chinese loans and made payments that allowed the funds for the completion of the VC Bird International Airport, in time for this winter’s tourist season. This winter season will be the among the strongest in decades.
We also negotiated Chinese assistance for the funds to dredge the St. John’s Harbour, allowing more Cruise Ships to call in Antigua.
I will speak to this with more particulars later in this statement.
Because of the botched approach to acquisition of the Half Moon Bay Hotel valued at US$23M and the failure of the Spencer/Lovell regime to find a real investor, the country ended-up owing the owners of the property some US$43 million. US$20 million in value was destroyed by the former administration.
My government has brought this issue to near closure in a way that benefits the people of this country.
We had firm offers from several individuals including renowned American Billionaire Tory Burch and a very wealthy Emirati investor, but opted to sell the lands of the Half-Moon Bay property for US$23 million to Replay Resorts who were more advanced in their preparatory work. That transaction was concluded days ago on December 28th.
The purchase of WIOC: a huge benefit for the people
On the debt to WIOC, and the government’s purchase of the operation, this is a major accomplishment of my government.
We repaid most of the debt of EC$89 million and acquired complete ownership of the company plus an additional 130 acres of land located at Friars Hill, without spending one cent of taxpayer’s money or incurring a dollar in debt.
We re-negotiated the US$81M purchase price agreed to by the former UPP administration down to US$30 million, bought the entire company and sold 49 per cent of the shares for approximately US$30 million, while holding on to the 130 acres of land separately.
The Spencer/Lovell regime could not raise the funds after eight years of futile effort and, in any event, would have yielded the majority of the ownership shares for a loan; and I emphasize, (not equity), a loan of US$24M in partial payment of the US$81 million purchase price.
Such is the financial incompetence, maladministration and lack of capacity in these two principal architects of our nation’s failure and decline.
Instead of giving away the majority ownership of WIOC for a loan of US$24 million, my government bought it for US$30 million and immediately recouped the taxpayer’s money by selling 49% for $30 million.
We raised an additional US$15M for expansion of its operation, including building new tanks. The groundbreaking ceremony will be held next Friday and the project will provide employment and skills training for at least 75 individuals.
Tax taxpayers of Antigua and Barbuda could now earn up to US$10 million a year from dividends, payable from increased profits of an expanded WIOC operation.
Maximizing the CIP for Antigua and Barbuda’s Growth and Development
On the Citizenship by Investment Programme (CIP), my government hit the ground running.
In 2015, we received EC$205 million in revenues.
That compares with EC$11 million under the Spencer/Lovell regime.
The figures speak for themselves.
It is those earnings that allowed us to pay down debt, increased employment and to continue the flow of water and electricity.
It is why I invested so much time, effort and travel to market our CIP and establish international confidence in it.
I announce now that, in the interest of transparency with regard to our passports; early this New Year, my government will appoint an external, experienced and independent auditor to audit all passports issued under the CIP and to citizens of Antigua and Barbuda in general.
Every passport and all revenues will be the subject of that independent, external auditor’s report that will be tabled in Parliament.
In addition, the audited report of the CIP operations will be tabled in Parliament early in the new year.
Economy growing, jobs preserved, new jobs created
My friends, in only 18 months, not only has my government stabilized the economic and financial systems; APUA’s cash flow deficit was reduced from seven million to a break even position today. The Authority has paid 47 consecutive monthly payments to Antigua Power Company (APC) and has reduced its indebtedness to APC by over $5 million. The Sembcorp debt has been reduced by EC$16M. The Port Authority has turned around its EC$4.5M losses to a break-even situation today, and the St John’s Development Corporation has returned a profit on its operations.
And, amid all this, our economy is growing again.
We expect growth in 2015 of at least 3.2 per cent, with even more growth in this New Year as development projects come on stream. This is real sustainable growth; not the UPP pseudo/artificial growth which was supported by half a billion annually in borrowings and overspending. Whereas revenues grew by approximately 18 percent, the increase in expenditure growth was curtailed to four percent, representing the best fiscal performance in decades.
Today, Antigua & Barbuda boasts the largest primary surplus within the OECS economic union.
Because of the steps we took, we preserved jobs, created 1500 -2000 new ones for young people, and averted an unemployment crisis.
People were able to return their businesses to good health, service their loans and their mortgages and to keep their possessions, including their cars and their homes.
Had my government not taken control of the economy, nothing short of calamity would have befallen the nation as a whole.
Government corrects UPP failures in health care
Amongst the worst failures inflicted on our people under the Spencer/Lovell regime was poor health care.
Imagine that the MRI and the CT Scan machines at the Mount St John Hospital had been left un-operational for years.
Also ignored were crucial laboratory equipment vital for diagnosing medical issues and applying correct solutions.
The result of this abandonment of the duty of care to our people, by the previous administration, is that suffering persons were not treated.
Many died needlessly.
In publicly reporting on this shameful state of affairs last Christmas Eve Day, the Minister of Health, the Honourable Molwyn Joseph described it as “morally reprehensible, bordering on criminal negligence”.
He is perfectly correct.
Within months of assuming office, my government invested EC$30 million to purchase state of the art diagnostic equipment including, an MRI machine and the latest model CT Scan.
Both will be fully operational by January 2016.
We have also purchased the laboratory equipment necessary to provide proper diagnosis and medical application.
But, I have not yet told fully, the disgraceful state of the health services and the wanton disregard for the suffering of our people.
Over fourteen hundred persons in Antigua and Barbuda had serious eye problems.
It costs generally EC$6,000 to remove a cataract.
The majority of people could not afford it.
Consequently, many of them were going blind or their eyesight was so seriously impaired that both their capacity to work or to enjoy basic pleasures such as watching television or reading a book were denied.
In this year alone, we arranged, with the help of Venezuela and China, for the removal of cataracts from the eyes of six hundred and eighty-eight persons.
We have given them back their sight and improved the quality of their lives.
Further, we have already contracted the services of an Ophthalmologist full-time at Mount St John’s.
This doctor is trained to remove cataracts and to treat retinal problems caused by diabetes and glaucoma.
The machinery for measuring and treating heart disease and kidney failures has also been installed and we now have the capacity for detecting and addressing stomach and colon cancer.
My government said that we would put “people at the epicentre”.
That was not an empty slogan.
We meant it, and we have done so.
And our fulfilment of that commitment is evident in our actions.
ABLP Government saves Social Security and MBS from catastrophe
My friends, the task of righting the wrongs of the previous administration in health care and social welfare for the people was monumental.
We inherited a Social Security Scheme and a Medical Benefits Scheme that were – like all other aspects of the government – not just broken but broke.
In the worst years of the previous administration’s mismanagement of the health sector, the shameless Damani Tabor, UPP propagandist, was the Investment Officer who advised the Medical Benefits Board on wrongful and money wasting investments including; 13.5 million that funded three bogus, corrupt, and defunct projects at Antigua & Barbuda Development Bank (ABDB) and a further 16M which was lost in the BAICO debacle.
Almost 30 Million in value was destroyed while Mt. St. John was lacking basic diagnostic equipment, leaving our people to languish and to literally die.
Let me emphasize that 13.5 million dollars was spent on three bogus UPP projects which never generated a cent in revenue. As a result, the ABDB is not only illiquid and loss making, but bankrupt, requiring an equity input of EC$24M to break even.
Yet, these people today have the unmitigated gall to try to criticise my government which has righted their grievous wrongs against the people of our nation.
When it is considered that 40,000 persons of our population of approximately 90,000 people are on prescription drugs, you begin to appreciate the burden that falls upon these two great institutions that serve the wellbeing of the people of our country.
I am pleased to report to the nation that no money was borrowed from the Social Security Scheme by my government.
In the history of the organisation, the present government is the first not to borrow money from the Scheme and paid all of its contributions.
We have paid approximately EC$30 million in 2015 and we have significantly reduced the government’s debt to it, by over EC$100M through an asset for debt swap. We will also ensure that the balance of this nonperforming loan is serviced in the near future.
When my government came to office in July 2014, pensioners were paid late; they were forced to line up from the night before, sleeping on cardboards, to try to get their money.
How disgraceful and downright shameful that our elderly people were put through such hardship!
I am happy to say that pensioners are owed nothing for this year.
And, more than that, even in the difficult economic conditions that we inherited from the previous government, after only six months in office we raised the minimum wage to give our people more income on which to live.
Such is this government’s deep and abiding commitment to the welfare of our people.
Crime figures lowest in nine years
My friends, you will recall the state of crime in our country up to July 2014.
Our women were terrified of walking the streets.
They were frightened even in their own homes.
Rapists stalked everywhere.
Murders became common place.
Jailbreaks had become frequent.
Today, we are among the Caribbean countries with the lowest rate of homicides – down to 5 in 2015, the lowest in 9 years.
Overall, the crime rate has dropped dramatically.
In 2015, we removed from the streets a record 31 firearms and semi-automatic weapons as well as 2,100 rounds of ammunition.
We also seized and destroyed the greatest volume of narcotics ever accomplished in one year.
The Police Commissioner, Wendel Robinson, the entire Police Force, ONDCP and the military deserve our commendation.
The presence of police providing protection for our people is evident.
The police are now better equipped with vehicles and communication, and they are better motivated.
This year alone 200 police officers were promoted, based purely on performance and merit.
Jailbreaks have become almost non-existent.
I applaud the present leadership of the Prison under Superintendent Albert Wade.
Fight against Crime Continues
We will continue to be tough on crime; the job is not yet over.
We will continue to improve the police force to give meaningful protection to homes and businesses, through more equipment, more training, more money for intelligence and surveillance and the strengthening of the canine division of the force.
There will be further and deeper collaboration between the Police and the Antigua and Barbuda Defence Force.
That collaboration has worked well over the last 18 months, and it will be enhanced in the future.
I am pleased to say now that crime, which was allowed to escalate out of control under the previous administration has been curbed; people are safer; businesses more secure.
An important contributor to the reduction in crime is the improvement in the economy.
People can find honest employment as the economy picks-up.
Antigua and Barbuda is a safer place than when my government walked through the door 18 months ago.
We will continue this pattern in 2016.
Government protecting country from terrorism and refugees
On homeland security, we have made substantial investments not only within our borders but also at their perimeters.
We know that we are not immune from terrorism, nor are we too far away or too small for refugees to seek sanctuary here.
But, we can afford neither terrorists nor refugees.
We have taken action to stop terrorism from reaching our shores; and equally we have acted to stop refugees from breaching our immigration rules.
In collaboration with other nations, we are involved in fortifying our borders to keep our country safe and to make our businesses and our jobs secure.
Restoring the country’s image
Before the 2014 general election the Spencer/Lovell regime boasted that they were repairing the country’s damaged image and improving its relations with the international community.
We now know that nothing could be further from the truth.
Key persons in the regime were involved in dubious activity that was being carefully watched.
For instance, our country was a hair’s breadth away from action against it by the United States government because of human trafficking and migrant smuggling under Spencer/Lovell rulership.
It was decisive and competent leadership last May, that averted a crisis and restored the strong bilateral relations.
Other activities – at least one of which is now public knowledge – were being investigated.
In reality, my government has improved relations with all our major partners – the US, Canada, the UK, China, Venezuela, and members of the European Union.
We operate on the basis that we might not always agree with the policies and positions of our partners, but that will not prohibit us from collaborating with them in our mutual interest or in standing-up with them in support of the values and principles we share.
In other words, we are operating with them all on a basis of mutual respect, trust and confidence.
Our relations with all these countries have been enhanced and our image is better for it. This has resulted in an enhanced investment and business climate with unprecedented investments.
Keeping water flowing: correcting the failures of Spencer/Lovell
Coming back to the domestic situation, I know that one of the pressing, irritating and troubling deprivations that this nation has faced is the supply of water.
It is yet another of the areas of neglect and maladministration that my government inherited from the previous administration.
Within my first week of assuming office – even before I could fully appoint a Cabinet – I had to tackle the problem of water supply with urgency.
The main water supplier – SEMBCORP Antigua Water Ltd – were determined to cut off supplies to the entire country because the Spencer/Lovell government owed in excess of EC$22 million and offered no payment plan.
This was the kind of callous administration that Baldwin Spencer and Harold Lovell headed.
They made no provision for providing the people of this country with water even as they were campaigning for a third term in office with lies and false promises.
Providing this nation with water became my first priority.
Without water the health of the entire nation, particularly our elderly and our young would have been seriously compromised by the possible spreading of disease and unsanitary conditions.
As I said before, we have reduced the debt to SEMBCORP from EC$22 million to ECS$6 million last month.
Further, we increased the water supply by 50% to 6 million gallons a day, and we have since brought another desalinisation plant into operation.
These plants will all be powered by solar energy in the near future, bringing down the costs of operation.
At this time, we are obtaining the maximum delivery of water from all available sources, but we are aware that it still falls short of national demand of 8,000,000 gallons per day in severe drought conditions.
Conscious that we have no control over rain fall, we have invested in another plant which will become operational in mid-January at English Harbour.
The Tenders Board is now finalising the award for another contract, to purchase yet another RO plant that will supply an additional 2million gallons of water daily. This plant should be installed by September 2016 and we expect to satisfy all of the country’s water needs, domestic and industrial, whether we have rain or not.
I remind you that the Spencer/Lovell administration did nothing about this urgent and life threatening problem after ten years in office. In fact, they exacerbated the problem by mothballing Tango electricity generation and desalination plant without investing in any new water replacement facility.
They left the people of this nation with the real and present danger of no water.
You will appreciate, therefore, the mammoth task my government faced to keep water flowing and to increase production during the worst drought last year, since 1871.
All of this was a consequence of maladministration, incompetence and corrupt practices.
Making APUA function for the good of the people
In 2014, along with other statutory bodies, APUA had a cash flow deficit of seven million dollars and could not meet its obligations – so depleted were its financial resources that it could not pay its suppliers for petrol, electricity and water.
Today, APUA’s performance has improved to the point where its debt to the Antigua Power Company has been reduced in just 18 months, it has not missed a payment to any of its suppliers for these services in 2015.
We have stabilised electricity supply and we have diversified from a dependence on fossil fuels alone.
Our movement to develop clean energy is real, as evidenced by the use of solar energy to power the day time requirements of the V C Bird International Airport.
Just think of what condition this country would have had to endure today if its crucial energy needs had not been addressed with urgency and resolve.
The success of the last year must be measured not only in the tangible things, but also in the relative – the calamitous situations, such as poor water supply, unreliable electricity and petrol delivery, that were avoided and improved through astute management and responsible governance.
The folly of Spencer/Lovell revealed: Tourism revitalized
I need not tell you that tourism is the life blood of our country.
Without tourism, unemployment would rise, crime would surge, businesses would collapse, mortgages and loans would not be serviced, homes would be repossessed, school fees would not be paid and hardship would be widespread.
No responsible government; no sensible administration should allow tourism to decline.
Yet, that is what the Spencer/Lovell government did.
Not only did they allow important elements of our tourism plant to deteriorate, their failure to promote our destination effectively, reflected callous disregard for the importance of this vital industry.
As we entered office, the Hotels Association predicted an 11 per cent decline in tourism in 2015 based on poor promotion and market presence.
Again urgent action was necessary to save jobs and to maintain national revenues from the tourist industry.
It was a Herculean task.
But, despite the first quarter decline, my government has ended 2015 with no fewer tourists than the country had in 2014.
By dint of hard and smart work, not only did we claw back the 25,000 stay over visitors we were predicted to lose, but the second half of the year was the strongest of any year since 2007.
In addition to the regular calls by our traditional partner airlines, we negotiated five new airlines.
JetBlue, Al Italia, Seabourne, Pan American World Airways Dominicana, and Inter-Caribbean airlines have been added to the airlines that now serve our country. Candor has also resumed flights to VC Bird International.
On the cruise ship front, we had 343 calls in 2015 of which 11 were new ships making inaugural calls. For the first time, Barbuda had about eight cruise ship calls as we seek to build a vibrant private sector in Barbuda.
All of this was possible because, while the Spencer/Lovell administration dithered and dallied, my government acted decisively and swiftly.
We pumped new money into promotion and we finished the state of the art V C Bird International Airport, whose completion was almost jeopardized by nonpayment of the Chinese loans.
We also dredged the St. John’s Harbour to allow for larger cruise ships.
While it is true that the dredging of the harbour was on the drawing board of the previous administration, they botched the job.
Amongst their failures was a contract they offered to sweep the Harbour for US$9million.
My government negotiated a new contract with a Dutch Firm, for the same job, for less than half the price at US$3.9million.
The timely completion of the dredging of the harbour, and increased and effective promotion, are what accounted for the increase in the number of cruise ships and the arrival of new ones.
In turn, we maintained jobs and earnings for our people, and increased government revenues.
Let the records reflect that the present berthing infrastructure would have been undermined if any capital dredging was undertaken.
We have also tackled the problem, left unattended by the previous administration, of hotels that have been allowed to fall into rack and ruin, depriving the country of valuable hotel rooms, employment and revenues.
The property at Rex Halycon Cove Hotel, which occupied prime beach front land at Dickenson Bay on a lease from the government, has been taken back for non-performance
Discussions are now in an advanced stage for the property to become part of the world famous “Beaches” brand.
The owners of the Royal Antigua Hotel have been also put on notice that they must satisfy their contractual obligations to invest in the complete refurbishment of the property and to restore it to its former glory, or the government will be forced to take action.
Such refurbishment had been promised to the Spencer/Lovell administration on the sale of the property.
But they never enforced it because the owner was a big campaign contributor to them in the 2009 general election.
Let me be clear.
These actions are not anti-foreign investment.
The strong efforts of my government to attract foreign investment and to provide investors with incentives and guarantees are positive evidence of our readiness to embrace genuine investors who will contribute to our people’s development.
Tourism is vital to this nation: vital to employment; vital to revenues.
Hotels to us are what oil is to Venezuela or Saudi Arabia or Norway.
Not one of us in Antigua and Barbuda can sit by idly when such a vital sector of our nation’s livelihood is put at risk.
That is why we have moved on Rex Halcyon and why we will move on the Royal Antigua Hotel if refurbishment does not start soon.
These are the assets of the people of Antigua and Barbuda and these assets must work for the nation’s benefit.
We have also been compelled to take action on Jolly Beach Hotel – again because of mismanagement, poor supervision and cronyism by members of its board and its associated companies.
It will be taken over by EC Asset Management Corporation and a reputable and experienced management and operating company will be appointed to upgrade and run the property.
The Housing Project
I wish to assure the people of this nation that I pledged to build 500 homes and it is my government’s firm intention to do so.
Already work is ongoing at three sites: Paynters, Cooks and Dredge Bay where three hundreds homes will be constructed.
Additional funds will be allocated this year to accelerate the pace of construction.
My government will deliver this pledge, as we have delivered many others so far, even in the midst, of the mess in which the Spencer/Lovell regime mired our country.
Innovations in 2016 for better governance and improved performance
My government campaigned on a platform of change and reform.
We were particularly concerned that rewards should be based on performance and productivity, and not on cronyism.
We were also concerned that officers of the public service, the diplomatic service and public corporations should not remain in posts or in locations for lengthy periods that might mask their accountability, responsiveness and creativity.
In this regard, from early in this year, my government will implement the following:
- We will rotate senior officers of the security services; chair persons and senior executives of statutory corporations; permanent secretaries; and diplomats – some of whom have been abroad for 10 years or more in one location.
- We will also open up permanent secretary positions to applicants from the private sector who have a track record in business and who can bring performance based criteria to the operations of the public service in order to better serve the public; and
- We will establish performance criteria in the public service and public corporations for promotions.
The people of Antigua and Barbuda pay the salaries and entitlements of all public servants and officers of public corporations.
They have a right to expect exemplary service and increased productivity.
I also announce now that, in keeping with my party’s manifesto pledge, and in pursuit of my government’s policy of inclusiveness, I will establish immediately after the Budget presentation a Prime Ministerial Advisory Committee on the Economy.
I have already invited and obtained commitments of renown US Billionaire Martin Franklin, businessman Aziz Hadeed, young businesswoman Diana Harney and hotelier Rob Barrett to serve.
The Committee will be made up of business people drawn from many sectors including the yachting industry, the cruise ship business, the banking and insurance sector, the commercial sector, the hotel industry and others.
I intend to meet this group on a rotating basis every three months to hear their ideas for advancing our nation’s economic wellbeing.
These business people are our largest employers; the biggest payers of taxes; and major participants in our economic growth.
I want to hear them and to work with them for Antigua and Barbuda’s betterment.
Expectations of the People: working to fulfill them
My government is aware that for some people, change has not come fast enough.
They want to see projects coming out of the ground and they want to see people busy at jobs with money in their pockets to spend.
So does my government.
Of course, we have achieved some of that already, and we will do much more this year.
But, first we had to get the fundamentals of the economy back in place.
We had to reduce the massive debt; we had to turn public corporations from excessive losses; we had to curb crime, provide water, fix the grave health delivery problems, get tourism back on its feet, and stabilize the financial system.
We faced big and difficult challenges and systematically we are overcoming them.
That work continues and already it is paying dividends.
Development Projects for 2016
Turning now to developments for 2016.
We expect to see several projects get off the ground that will bring employment and revenues.
- the construction of a Three-Star, 500 room Royalton Hotel at Five Islands by the Sunwing group in which government will have 20% ownership;
- the conversion of the Rex Halcyon Cove into the world famous Beaches brand;
- the development of high-end residential resorts on Maiden Island and Pelican Island by a private investor who has bought them for US$33 million and intends to spend US$100 million in development.
- Later in the year, Replay Resorts which has already purchased the lands at Half-Moon Bay for US$23 million, will begin the construction of the infrastructure of a five-star hotel.
- Current resort and residential tourism projects at Pearns Point, Harbour Island, Hodges Bay Club, Long Bay Beach Hotel, Morris Bay and Tamarind Heights.
- the expansion of the WIOC operations through the investment of EC$40 million to build more tanks to multiply its overseas sales and its profits.
- Additionally, work will begin on the construction of a new Sea Port to service both cargo and cruise ships, making Antigua a hub for maritime transportation in the wider Caribbean. The loan of US$97 million from China has already been secured on very concessional terms for which we are thankful.
On the Yida project, I am personally disappointed that it has not started in the way that was intended.
I have told the investors who bought the lands for a significant investment of US$80 million that I expect them to build on the considerable investment by starting the project early this year.
They have agreed do so by the construction of 50 three and four bedroom villas on the mainland.
All of these developments will create new jobs directly and indirectly.
Antigua and Barbuda will be abuzz with construction activity.
We will be well on our way to becoming the economic powerhouse of the region.
Improvements for Barbuda
With specific regard to Barbuda, the development of the Paradise Found resort project on Barbuda, as well as, the construction of a new runway will begin this year.
The stakeholders in Paradise Found have already paid US$1.5 million as a pre-payment of the lease and they will pay a further US$5M to start construction of the new airport runway.
My government has also purchased an aircraft that will fly between Barbuda and Antigua.
It will bring down the costs of travel between the two islands considerably and help to promote business development on Barbuda.
Employment that will be created on Barbuda by the Paradise Found project at an investment of US$250 million over 10 years will result in almost full employment for residents of Barbuda in the construction period, and up to 500 permanent jobs at completion.
Personal Income Tax
My fellow citizens and residents, my government campaigned on a platform to abolish personal income tax.
As a consequence of the dire financial circumstances we found, it was not possible to do so without depriving the worst off in our society of the support they needed.
However, I am pleased to announce that in the Budget that will be delivered in a few weeks’ time, the people of Antigua and Barbuda can expect a measure of relief from Personal Income Tax during this year.
More specifics will be given in the Budget presentation.
Be assured that it remains my government’s intention to abolish Personal Income Tax altogether.
My friends, there are several areas with which I have not dealt in this broadcast in the interest of time.
But, they will be addressed in full in the Budget presentation in a few weeks.
Among them are agriculture, manufacturing, education and our new e-government platform. There are some very exciting educational initiatives that have been undertaken including the establishment of the university college and the exponential increase in scholarships.
Many Government services have been digitized and will be available online early in the new year.
Suffice for now, it is clear for all to see that we have successfully climbed a tortuous mountain in 2015.
We now stand at its pinnacle and can see with some clarity the course that is set before us in 2016.
It will not all be easy, but it will be better.
It has many tangible benefits that I have already described.
Jobs, economic development, social improvement are all low-hanging fruits that we can now enjoy.
The important thing is, that we have overcome the worst of what we inherited from the previous administration’s mismanagement.
We will continue the work to improve and advance our nation.
We will respond to history’s call to rebuild our economy and restore our nation’s pride and dignity.
In all this, we will be guided by the spirit of resilience, fortitude and collaborative efforts that has sustained this nation through hurricanes and drought, and through bad and poor governance.
A new year has come, and with it all the elements of a brighter future.
Let us seize the opportunities that are now within our grasp.
Let us make Antigua and Barbuda an economic powerhouse for all our people.
God bless you.
And God bless our beloved Antigua and Barbuda.