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National Address by the Hon. Dr. Godwin Friday, President of the New Democrat Party and Leader of the Opposition, August 11, 2022

Fellow Vincentians. 

Greetings. 

I wish to speak with you about the state of affairs—political and economic — in our country and how we might address the challenges we face. 

Recently, the ULP held their convention. You may have seen or heard about it.  Ordinarily I would not comment on it. I mention it now only because the ULP, for the time being, holds the reins of government and, therefore, their current predicament has serious implications for the running of our country. 

We saw how Gonsalves and the ULP turned their Convention into a discussion about themselves. Rather than focusing on the issues that matter to you, the people– your jobs, your businesses, your standard of living– they spent their time talking about themselves, their personal ambitions and Gonsalves’ aborted succession plans.   

 

Notably, having spent years building up Saboto Caesar, it took Gonsalves one weekend to knock him down as apparently no longer being fit to be leader of the ULP. Having spent years declaring that he was part of the ULP family in whom he was well-pleased, it became abundantly clear that there is only one family that matters in the ULP – the Gonsalves family. 

 

That is a crisis that their Party and its long-suffering members will have to come to terms with. That display at the Convention proved beyond a shadow of doubt that the ULP is a house deeply divided, that is built, not on democratic values and practices, but on the whims and autocratic fancies of one man, Ralph Gonsalves.    

 

For the rest of us in the country, it proved that the ULP are unfit for office, as they have no plan, no programme, no hope beyond clinging desperately to power. 

 

There, Gonsalves urged his followers in the ULP to submit to his guidance, but it is clear where that guidance will lead. He will destroy his party and sacrifice the best interests of our country to get his own way and secure his chosen successor –his son Camillo–as Prime Minister. 

 

While the leadership of the ULP is hopelessly divided and they are caught up in their own confusion, we in the NDP are focused on the issues that matter to you. We know them because we talk with you about them.

My dear people, it is time for us to move forward as a country. No man is indispensable!  Of necessity, the baton of leadership must pass to new hands, or our country will fall further behind, and our people will pay a high price for it. 

 

I offer myself to serve you. In the last general election, you honoured me by making the NDP the party of choice for the majority of the people and me, its leader, the popular choice as political leader. In the profoundest sense of democracy, where majority rules, you voted for the NDP and for change. But, our political system has its shortcomings and at times gives a party the popular vote, yet not the government. 

Nevertheless, the proverbial writing is on the wall: change is necessary, and will come. It will come, not because I say so, but because you the people have decided that the time for it has come, for as one former ULP supporter recently conceded to me “One man can’t run the country forever”. 

 

Meeting People

I have been meeting our people all over the country:  in villages; in their homes; on the streets; and, when invited, in their places of worship. Wherever I go, the message is the same.  You say to me and my team that you want us to focus on the things that matter to you— focus on your needs and your concerns: your jobs; your livelihoods; your future.  In other words, focus now on bread-and-butter issues– because our current circumstances require it.  

 

Enough of the gutter politics! What may be entertainment for some, is profoundly serious for our country, and most of us are sick and tired of the selfishness, the arrogance, the bluster, and bombast in what now passes for leadership in the ULP and government. 

They sow the seeds of division and would set us against one another—in our homes (brother against brother), in our workplaces (colleague teacher against colleague), in social circles (friend against friend), in places of worship (elder against elder). 

Thankfully, we are better than that, and know that we can do better. 

Our present circumstances and examples from elsewhere in the world have shown us that political leaders who seek to divide the people—who seek to divide us irreparably— serve only themselves.  The people become merely the means to an end, that end being personal political power for its own sake!

Shutting up opposing voices, demonizing, and vilifying carriers of alternative views, whether in a political party or in the society at large, can never be right. We can’t continue that way. Such politics are not relevant to our time!  

Our people, especially the young people, understand that. They tell us that they are not happy with such politics.  Our people are better informed than ever and demand more from their political leaders. 

Let us all agree on that. Gutter politics and narcissistic self-reverence in the political leader have not served our people well and have led our nation down a slippery slope to dark place, where democracy is threatened, and our standard of living has declined.  If we, the inheritors of this beautiful country, don’t stand up against it, the situation can only get worse.  We have a duty to inform ourselves, defend our democratic values and work for progressive change.

 

Buccama Workers

The surest way to improve our standard of living is to grow our economy and provide employment for our people. That is why we support the efforts to revive the troubled Buccament Bay hotel project.  However, despite extravagant promises from the government about jobs, it appears that in the rebuilding work foreign workers– mainly from the Dominican Republic—hold most of the jobs. 

What happen to Vincentian workers; they don’t need jobs?  We have a serious unemployment problem in our country. Instead of talking about who will succeed him, Prime Minister Gonsalves should address this situation and assure our people that they will be given priority for available jobs at the project. 

Fix Home in the North

To many people in the north whose home were damaged by the volcano still don’t have a roof over their heads. Their homes have not been repaired thought the government has money to do it.  It is long overdue.  NEMO, BRAGSA fix the home and help the people to return to their normal lives. Forget about political partisanship. We are one people. Give help according to need. That is the only valid basis for assisting the affected people. 

 

 

Reinstate Unvaccinated Teachers, Public Servants 

And what of the teachers, public servants and police officers who were fired because of the government’s misguided vaccine mandate? 

 

I have called for the reinstatement of the fired teachers, public servants, and police officers. Prime Minister Gonsalves recently announced that teachers would have to re-apply to get their jobs back. So, there is no guarantee of getting their job back: they might pick and choose who to “rehire”.  Moreover, rehired workers would have to start over, with no guarantee of getting their benefits or long service awards. To tell teachers they must reapply for their jobs is disrespectful to them after they have served selflessly and will continue to devote their lives to the future of our children. 

The punitive measures against unvaccinated teachers and health care workers must stop. All over the world, governments, businesses, and other organizations have rejected covid-19 vaccine mandates and have earnestly begun the process of learning to live with the disease, which will be with us for a very long time to come, perhaps forever. 

The Gonsalves government has mishandled the COVID crisis from the beginning and continue to do so. They are out of touch with the concerns of the people because they have been isolated in a bubble far from the everyday concerns of the people. 

Note the recent embarrassing episode in which a memo from the Ministry of Health, signed by the Permanent Secretary, indicated that health workers would be required to take a COVID-19 vaccine booster shot every five months only for the Minister to say the following day that the memo was an error and no such decision had been taken by the government. Can you believe that?  Here, there is clearly a failure of governance.

 

Cost of Living 

The ULP’s self-absorption and failure of governance have real consequences for the people. The government has failed to address the biggest, most pressing issue facing our country today, the cost-of-living crisis.          

As the cost-of-living increases, our standard of living falls. 

Life has become more difficult and challenging for families, many of whom are now forgoing essentials and cutting back in every way they can. 

It is a sad reality that those who have the least are hardest hit.  Spending on necessities takes up a larger portion of their income. 

Increase in cost of living is not just a challenge for today, but or the future also. 

Rising prices, with stagnant wages, undermine our standard of living. They force persons to dip into limited savings, to postpone retirement (if possible) and put off making big life decisions like getting married, building a home, or mortgaging a family home to pay for a child’s education.  

For our businesses, particularly small enterprises, it hampers the ability to invest, inhibits hiring of new workers and halts growth.

The initial aftershock of the Covid pandemic has been exacerbated and magnified by the Russian war in Ukraine. The impact on food, fuel and food prices has been felt worldwide.  Average wheat prices increased by 165 per cent between May 2021 and May 2022. This has fed into a cycle of ever-increasing prices. Some cooking oils have increased by over 200% since the start of the year. International rice prices are at a 12-month high and expected to increase further. Oil prices are high.

 

These global trends impact us in SVG as local prices soar. I do grocery shopping frequently in Kingstown, doing my own errands or when Mrs Friday gives me her shopping list, purchasing from the vendors and in the supermarkets. So, I see this first-hand.  And I, too, have questioned the cashiers from time to time to verify that the price of one item or another was not an error, because it had increased so much.  

Over the past 8 months the prices of food, fuel and other goods have risen considerably.   Current prices at a rural shop on the mainland show that a pound of chicken back has increased from $1.75 to $2.50, leg quarts for $3.00 to $4.00, turkey from $3.50 to $5.00, a small margarine from $4.95 to $6.50, 1 litre of cooking oil from $10.95 to $16.00, a bag of penny loaf bread from $2.00 to $3.00.   

The cost of electricity has risen. The fuel surcharge was $0.28 per unit in March 2021 and increased to $0.72 in July this year. 

A recent survey reported in the Searchlight newspaper showed that nearly 82 per cent of respondents said that the hike in cooking oil, electricity and food prices have caused them to cut back on basic food items with many saying they are now paying $200 more for the same basket of goods bought before the Russian invasion of Ukraine a few months ago. 

 

Gasoline at the pump is now $18.16 per gallon; it was $8.50 in September 2020. Obviously, the high gas price makes things harder for all motorists and puts pressure on minibus operators, taxi drivers and fisherfolk who use fuel in their work daily. 

 

High cost of living is not some passing phenomenon that will be over in another month or two; it is expected to be with us for a quite a long time.  

The government has a duty to do everything it can to cushion the effects of rising costs on households and protect our communities.  

Further delay in taking mitigation measures will only cause more pain and suffering. 

Across the OECS and in the wider Caribbean, governments have cut fuel taxes, reduced import charges, controlled the prices of basic goods, increased direct supports to those most in need and helped with utility bills.

 

Wherever I go, I hear the cry from ordinary people: “I need help”. 

“Why is the government not doing more to help me with the high cost of living?”  “Do they even have a plan to deal with this problem?”

 

I know that every day,  making ends meet is becoming more difficult. I know of the struggle to pay light bills, to put food on the table, to buy shoes, clothes, and books to send your children back to school in September. 

A few days of road work might help a bit but can’t cover most of the bills. 

More relief is needed.  We in the NDP have a plan to immediately help to ease the effects of rising cost of living and ensure that we protect families. 

We urge the following:   

1)   Reduce VAT from 16% to 13% and ensure that the savings are passed on to ordinary consumers. This will help everyone across the board;

2)   Increase the number of zero-rated VAT items;

3)   Immediately repeal the Customs Service Charge increase (i.e., “the Big Tax on Everything”) to reduce import costs;

4)   Increase support for lower income families by expanding existing support payments and ensure this support is distributed based on need and not by political favour;

5)   Provide import duty concessions for the transportation industry, that is to say minivans, buses and taxis. 

6)   Restrict unlimited increase in Vinlec bills by putting a cap on the fuel surcharge.  

These measures are practical and realistic and can deliver benefit to everyone immediately. 

Government revenue from VAT receive a boost from the higher prices for goods and services. As prices go up, so does government’s revenue from VAT. We must put people first, not government revenues first. I said it early in the COVID crisis and say it again: put the money where the pain is. That is, with families who are being crushed by the increase in cost of living.

 

Conclusion

We know and have always known, that we are stronger when we stand together. We value community and look out for one another. 

Everyone has a role to play in getting us out of this difficult situation:  

     government must look to do everything it can to reduce costs and support those who need help;

     importers and retailers must continue to do everything they can to hold prices in the short term; and now more than ever we need to ensure that cost reductions are passed on to consumers.

                                                                         

With resolve and focused leadership, we can turn this time of challenge into a moment of opportunity that can be our springboard to a better tomorrow.  But this requires political leadership that focuses on real problems not on made up ones, and puts our people’s welfare at the top of the agenda.

  

Anyone who does not see that is out of touch and out of time. 

Let us not be distracted; we must remain laser-focused on dealing with the real and immediate problems confronting us—i.e., making ends meet, doing right by the teachers, public servants and police officers who were fired because of the government’s misguided vaccine mandate; prioritising our people for jobs from projects such as the Buccama hotel re-development; helping farmers and fisherfolk to become more productive and to be truly ready to benefit from initiatives in agriculture and the blue economy.  

 

I want us to have a better future. I want our young people to be able to stay here and have a good life, with good jobs, decent health care, safe communities and most importantly with abiding hope for a brighter future. 

 

We will talk again over the coming weeks as I continue to show how we intend to reach our goal of improving our political and economic conditionsin our country.

 

I believe in our people. I believe in our country.

I believe We can do better!  

Working together,r we will meet the present challenges. 

Working together, we will set the course for a brighter future for all. 

Stay strong my people.

 

And may God bless us all.  Click edit button to change this text. Lorem ipsum dolor sit amet, consectetur adipiscing elit. Ut elit tellus, luctus nec ullamcorper mattis, pulvinar dapibus leo.

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Public Relations Officer Lavern King