Antigua & Barbuda’s Prime Minister’s address to the Nation

ST. JOHN’S, Antigua – Prime Minister, Dr. the Hon. W. Baldwin Spencer MP, address to the Nation, September 19th:

My fellow Antiguans and Barbudans, good evening.

I welcome this opportunity to continue my conversation with you, to share some thoughts and to bring the nation up-to-date on a few matters.

Schools have recently restarted after the summer break. This has taken place smoothly and with very little disruptions. I commend the team at the Ministry of Education, school principals, teachers, administrative staff, ancillary staff and parents who made this possible.

I know many parents have been challenged in these difficult times, to find the funds needed to buy school supplies and to provide lunch money for their children.

It is because we are aware of these challenges that you face, why the Government has ensured that high quality education is provided to our people, from the primary level through Government High Schools, without the need to pay tuition fees.

At the same time, we introduced and have preserved the School Meals programme, the school bus system and provided financial assistance at the tertiary level, through the National Students Loan Fund.

Again this year, more than 40 young Antiguans and Barbudans have received scholarships to study medicine and other professions in Cuba, China and recently in Morocco.

As a country we continue to experience major challenges resulting from the ongoing global recession. The downturn in economic activity has continued and many business owners are finding it difficult to stay afloat. Many have been forced to make major business decision to cut costs and scale down their operations.

The Government continues to work with the business sector and with consumer groups to see how we can continue to offer assistance in any way possible.

The Government has been grappling with a sharp decline in revenues over the traditional slow season of the summer months. This had a negative impact on our ability to pay salaries on time to workers in the public sector at the end of August.

Despite that difficulty, our public servants exercised patience and continued to serve their country with great loyalty and commitment. On behalf of the Government, I thank all public sector workers for their patience, loyalty and understanding.

As we continue to weather the economic storm, you are no doubt aware that the International Monetary Fund has completed its first assessment of the country’s performance under the Standby Arrangement we have with them for a loan of US$122 million.

Antigua and Barbuda has met and passed all the performance criteria which we agreed with the IMF, ensuring in the process, that we will continue to receive assistance under the agreement.

As I speak to you, the Minister of Finance and the Economy, the Honourable Harold Lovell is returning from Paris, where he led the country’s finance team in discussions with the Paris Club Group of countries, which Antigua and Barbuda owes millions upon millions of dollars going back 30 years and more.

As Prime Minister and head of the Government of our beloved country, it is a source of great personal and national embarrassment that the former Antigua Labour Party Government borrowed millions of dollars from various Paris Club members and refused to service those loans for nearly 30 years.

As far as I am aware, this is the first time in those 30 or so years, that the Government of Antigua and Barbuda has made any effort to open dialogue with our international creditors as a group. The UPP Government has started the dialogue to acknowledge these loans in an atmosphere of honesty and transparency. We are now trying to work out suitable arrangements to pay these debts as a responsible and self-respecting nation and people.

These discussions with the Paris Club will also lead to Antigua and Barbuda being able to pursue bilateral arrangements with its member countries regarding a range of investment possibilities for our country.

The refusal of the former ALP Government to engage the Paris Club in the last 28 years of their Administration has made the current negotiations rather difficult. As a result of the irresponsible behaviour and approach of the previous Administration, Antigua and Barbuda has not been able to secure the best possible debt repayment terms from the Paris Club.

Minister Lovell will provide the nation with a further update on this matter as soon as the team returns to the country.

Despite the challenges, however, your Government, led by the United Progressive Party, continues to work to deliver tangible benefits to you the people.

Your Government, with the cooperation of the Government of the People’s Republic of China, has completed the first phase of the most massive street lighting programme ever undertaken in Antigua and Barbuda. More than 1,500 street lights are being tested to be officially turned on shortly across the length and breadth of the country. This is to increase road safety and improve the security of our people.

In addition to enhancing safety and security, the new street lights have improved pedestrian visibility, and should reduce motor vehicle accidents, promote economic development, add to the beauty of our surroundings and lighten the darkness, particularly in certain vulnerable areas of the country.

As our Government redoubles its efforts to ensure the safety and security of our people, I want to use this medium to once again officially congratulate the new Commissioner of Police, Commissioner Vere Brown on his recent promotion and appointment to that office.

Commissioner Brown has served his country faithfully for several years in the past and we welcome him as the new Commissioner of Police. We wish him every success in continuing the fight against crime and violence and the protection of life and property in Antigua and Barbuda.

I would like to also place on record the sincere appreciation of the Government and people of Antigua and Barbuda for the sterling contribution and service of the former Commissioner of Police Mr. Thomas Bennett.

In recent weeks also, there has been new leadership of the Antigua and Barbuda Electoral Commission, with former Ambassador Bruce Goodwin, being appointed interim Chairman.

Based on his knowledge and experience, the nation expects that the new Chairman, along with the other appointees, will ensure that the country has a modern electoral system of which we all can be proud. I wish him well in his assignment.

I also wish to use this medium to once again assure the nation that the decisions I have made as Prime Minister, in respect of several former Commissioners of ABEC, were not made out of malice or with any ulterior motives. My primary concern has always been the best interest of the nation and my only motive is to ensure that our country has an efficient electoral system.

I owe it to you, the people of Antigua and Barbuda, to ensure that we never return to a situation of grave uncertainty in the governance of our nation, because of gross failings on the part of those charged with administering the country’s electoral system.

I would like now to turn my attention to a matter that I know has been occupying the minds of the vast majority of Antiguans and Barbudans, and the wider Caribbean, both at home and abroad, for several months now. This has to do with the ruling which we are still expecting from the Eastern Caribbean Court of Appeal with regard to the election petitions. As you know, my own constituency of St. John’s Rural West, as well as the constituencies of St. John’s Rural North and St. George, are affected by the earlier decision of the High Court to void the results of last year’s election in those seats.

I want to assure the nation that the United Progressive Party will abide by whatever decision is handed down by the Appeal Court.

At the same time, however, the Party and the Government have availed ourselves of the most learned legal advice as to how to proceed in the aftermath of any ruling by the Court.

Let me assure all Antiguans and Barbudans that whatever the Decision of the court, there will be no disruption in the process of our governance of the country. At the same time, you can be assured that any actions that are required to be taken arising from the ruling of the court, will be taken in keeping with the laws and Constitution of our country, and in the best traditions of our democracy.

I am confident that no matter the ruling of the Court, the Government of the United Progressive Party will remain intact, to continue steering the ship of state to overcome the challenges that face our country.

As a result, there is no need for persons to be hesitant, anxious or uncertain about the future of our country and about the stability of our system of parliamentary democracy. Let us instead keep our energies focused on overcoming the current economic challenges and improving the lives of all our people.

It is with this focus of improving the lives of the people of Antigua and Barbuda in mind, that I will be traveling this week to the United Nations to take part in a series of activities pertaining to the review of the UN Millennium Development Goals.

As Prime Minister of Antigua and Barbuda, I will co-chair a UN roundtable session on the special needs of the most vulnerable groups in our societies. I am also scheduled to deliver to the United Nations, a policy statement on behalf of the Government and people of Antigua and Barbuda.

On the margins of the UN meetings, I will also, as Minister of Foreign Affairs of Antigua and Barbuda, participate in a meeting of CARICOM’s Council for Foreign and Community Relations.

Ministers of Foreign Affairs of the Rio Group of countries will use the opportunity of our presence in New York, to hold further discussions on the proposals for greater unity and economic cooperation among the countries of Latin America and the Caribbean, as a follow-up to our earlier meeting in Mexico.

In addition to several bilateral meetings to advance the interests of our country, I am also scheduled to meet with Antiguans and Barbudans in the Diaspora. At those meetings, I will update our residents and citizens overseas on developments in our country. I will also discuss with them, their continued support for our nation and their participation in the affairs of their country.

During my official engagements in New York, Minister Harold Lovell will be in charge of the Government.

As I have indicated, at this time in the history of our twin-island nation, challenges abound. However, we are on the right track and working together, there is no challenge that is too great for us to overcome.

This past week, as we officially launched the national celebrations for the 29th anniversary of our Independence, I reflected on the strength of the collective will and spirit of the people of Antigua and Barbuda.
The theme of the Independence celebrations this year is:”Antigua and Barbuda: One Family, Celebrating our Youth”.

Let us recall that Independence from Britain on November 1, 1981 was not simply a legislative act. It was a fundamental political statement, an economic proclamation and a collective resolve by the proud people of our country.

As a political statement, we declared to the world the fact that we had come of age as a mature society, ready to shoulder full responsibility for our own governance and self determination.

Independence in 1981 was also a potent signal that, consistent with our political maturity, we were ready to face the challenges of building and managing an economy that is sufficiently robust to sustain our population with a decent standard of living.

We will not fail in that economic mission.

Above all, the declaration of Independence was the embodiment and reflection of the collective will of the Antiguan and Barbudan people that, despite all the possible challenges that lay ahead of us, we were determined to overcome adversity with unity and national strength.

It is this same spirit of the positive anticipation of the future, and a renewed commitment to nation-building, that is now required to lift Antigua and Barbuda to new heights of individual and collective achievement.

Let us all continue to build fair our Antigua and Barbuda, each endeavouring, all achieving, ever striving, ever seeking, dwelling in love and unity.

May God bless you richly and may the Almighty continue to bless our proud and beautiful nation of Antigua and Barbuda.

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