|The Courier N° 148 - Nov - Dec 1994 - Dossier: Education - Country Reports: Saint Lucia - St Vincent and The Grenadines (EC Courier, 1994, 104 p.)|
|St Vincent and the Grenadines: Pulling the kite back up in the air|
'We want genuine accountability'
Among the St Vincent and the Grenadines opposition parties there is a distinct feeling today that 'it is good to be back'. 'sack', that is, in Parliament where, after five years of absence, they have at last resumed following the 22 February 1994 election. Indeed, after Prime Minister James Mitchell's 15 0 landslide victory in 1989, the opposition has now succeeded in gaining three seats. Only shortly prior to the election, the main opposition parties, the SVG Labour Party (SVLP) led by Vincent Beache and the Movement for National Unity (MNU) of Ralph Gonsalves succeeded in overcoming some of their differences of opinion and in forging an alliance. After an unusually violent election campaign the two leaders were elected. together with Louis Straker, who stood as an independent member of the Alliance. The United People's Movement - from which the MNU had split in 1982 - failed to win a seat. Vincent Beache was Minister of Trade and Agriculture in the Government that was ousted in the 1984 election when P.M. Mitchell's New Democratic Party (NDP) took control. In this Courier interview, he highlights the different approach the opposition favours to ensure SVG's future, while stressing the need for increased accountability in government affairs.
· Mr Beache, as reader of the opposition, how does it feel to be back in Parliament 7 I am not suggesting that there was no opposition before, but it was not represented in Parliament
- You are quite right in fact. There was no formal opposition and as such, you can effectively say there was no opposition. We don't really have pressure groups here. We have only two newspapers and there are constraints on what they write because they depend quite heavily on government advertising. There is the Chamber of Commerce, of course, but they are not really a pressure group. There is also the Church Council and, I know this may not go down too well, but I don't think they have been doing as much as they could. So when there is no formal opposition in Parliament you more or less have no opposition at all.
To answer your question, it is good to be back. Being there, we are able to ask questions of the Government and at least try to get answers. I say try because it doesn't always work. As you may know, we walked out of the chamber recently because the Prime Minister refused to answer a series of questions that we had put down. There were 32 of them altogether, which was allowed under the standing orders, but when I was called to ask the first of them, the Prime Minister stood up on a point of order and said that he had never known more than three questions to be asked. He refused to answer them, although he said he might do so at the next sitting, and when they moved on to other business, we left the chamber in protest. It is different in other parts of the Caribbean. In St Lucia, for instance, they can ask as many questions as they like during the hour that is allotted to them. It is the same in Dominica. But here, they refuse to answer questions that might embarrass them. We even had a situation where civil servants were threatened with dismissal if they provided information. That is not allowed, of course, but the fear is there.
· So you feel there is a problem of accountability?
- Exactly. The rules of the House are very strict and they severely limit what you can ask. You cannot impute wrong things, even if you know them to be true. Let me give you an example. One of the questions that we asked was about the size of the national debt, both internal and external. This is a perfectly straightforward request, but we cannot get an answer. The Government will not publish any material about this. The same thing happened when we asked about certain funds that were being paid to overseas personnel. If we are to have genuine accountability we must be entitled to get answers to questions like this.
· You have expressed concern about what you have called 'erosion of the democratic process' What do you mean by this?
- Essentially, the Government is operating more by executive decree, rather than through the legislature. Of course, in small Parliaments like ours, it is not really possible to have a proper separation of powers. In practice, the executive is the legislature in the sense that because they are in the majority, they can put anything through the House. Even so, at least you can debate it there and the public can hear about it. But what the Government is doing is using subsidiary rather than substantive legislation in a lot of areas.
There is also the issue of the Deputy Prime Minister. This position is not provided for in our Constitution but in the last Parliament, the Prime Minister went ahead and appointed one. And there are difficulties over getting legal redress. We have brought a constitutional motion before the court arising from the last election. I can't say much about it because our appeal is pending, but the ruling of the judge at first instance about costs is a cause of concern to us. In a democracy, the judiciary should be independent.
· You obviously have reservations about the independence of courts in the region. You have spoken about the role of the Privy Council and said that you would not trust a higher court of appeal in the Caribbean. Could you elaborate on this?
- This is quite true. I would not support a West Indian Court of Appeal as the final court. We have seen what is happening in the Caribbean. Judges should be impartial but in this region we have had a lot of magistrates and judges who have been corrupt. This is a fact. I am not saying they are all like this, but who is to know who is or is not corrupt?
· This is a very grave accusation.
- Yes, but it is a fact which you can check out if you want. We have had some judges in Trinidad who even went to prison. We have seen it happening in other parts of the Caribbean. But what I think mostly happens is that the judiciary here tends to give the benefit of the doubt to governments rather than to what the law actually says and I think this is bad. As a matter of fact, I have known one judge in St Vincent who said that he can never rule against Government. So you see the difficulty.
· Is that why you support a continuing role for the Privy Council?
- Yes. ,When you go to the Privy Council, they look at the law and apply it strictly.
· Going back to politics, you have here a typical Westminster two party system. The opposition won three seats to the Government's 12, but what was the breakdown in terms of votes?
- I think the figures were something like 51 %for the NDP and 49% for us. It was certainly very close. On the mainland, for instance, leaving out the Grenadines, where the Prime Minister's party is very strong, we got just over 20 000 votes and they got 22 000. Because of the Westminster system, that translated into 10 seats for the NDP and only three for us. We believe that there is a need for electoral reform - some form of proportional representation or at least a combined system. indeed, we think that the whole constitution needs to be looked at.
· But isn't it the case that those who hold power have no interest in changing the system?
- Exactly, and that creates a dilemma. You might say that the party in power is not interested in reform but the opposition is. If the opposition then takes power and decides to do nothing, because the system now favours them, you are never going to get any changes. But if the process is to be upgraded and improved, then somebody has to do it.
· Did you have a genuinely common platform within the opposition at the last election, and are you planning to merge to form a single party with a single programme?
- What happened was that the two parties came together fairly late - not until after the election was called, in fact. It would have been difficult to present ourselves as one party with a single simbol because that would have meant preregistering.
· Why was the Alliance formed so late?
- Well, the two part had had discussions but they could not reach agreement initially. Then a group of prominent people - 'concemed citizens', as they called themselves - who felt there was a need for a change in government, brought the two together and we were able to work out a compromise. We had a common policy platform but the parties' own symbols were used in the constituencies where they actually stood. We made it clear at the outset, however, that we intend to merge the two parties so that we can stand under a single symbol as a united political force at the next election.
· From the point of view of economic development, in what key areas do you diverge from the view of the current Government? As a small island state, you don't appear to have a huge range of economic options. How distinctive can you be as an opposition?
- We diverge on the issue of foreign investiment. Unlike the present administration, we don't think we should just sit back until people who want to invest come to us. We believe that we should go out and try to get people to come and invest in St Vincent. We feel, for example, that there should be industrialisation by invitation.
· The Government would presumably respond that they have succeeded in bringing in two major investments.
- Nonsense. What investiments?? If you are talking about the Ottley Hall project, that do" nothing to improve the economy of St Vincent. The Government has guaranteed EC$ 155 million to an Italian company to do something that will only create 40 jobs. Overall, the project is costing over EC$ 200 million, so we are talking about something like EC$ 5 million per job. In the meantime, because of policies like this, the industries such as Wilson and Pico that we already had here have closed down. We have also spent $7 million of Canadian money, which was supposed to be a grant to establish a new industrial estate, but now there is only cattle grazing there. You can go there and see for yourself. The cattle are living in better accommodation than a lot of people. So these two major projects are not helping the economy of St Vincent and, in fact, I don't think they are going to succeed. I think it is a scam myself. We were against them from the beginning. We were not in Parliament at the time but we know how it works. The projects are guaranteed by the Government and if they fail, it is us who have to pay the bill.
In 1984 when the current Government first took power, manufacturing accounted for something like 1920% of GDP. I doubt if it is even 8% now although it is very difficult to get accurate figures here. Certainly, the last figure from the World Bank was only something like 10%. It is all well and good to have large scale projects but are they really helping the economy? I don't think so. Ten years ago, the World Bank reported that our unemployment rate was about 40%. Now it is thought to be 60% or perhaps even more, although you might see official figures of about 18%. During that time a lot of industries have closed down. The sugar factory has gone. We used to have five arrowroot factories - now we have only one. We had over 1300 acres of arrowroot fields and now it is down to something like 200 acres. These are some of the reasons for all the unemployment.
We feel that we must use agriculture as a basis for our development. We had a flourishing trade with Britain and we used to export quite a lot of produce - mangos, ginger and so on. All that is cut off now and our economy is based completely on bananas.
· Is it fair to blame the Government for all of this? Isn't it the case that farmers were keen on growing bananas because it was lucrative for them - easy money, in a sense?
- Bananas are not an easy crop. Once you get it going, and there is a weekly cash flow, it can be very good but you can lose money as well. Farmers moved out of other crops because the Government did nothing. It was the marketing corporation that used to be their mainstay. It bought the produce from the farmers and then went out and found the markets but that has now come to a standstill and the fault lies fair and square with the Government. There was also the loss of the Trinidad market. After the fall in the Trinidad dollar, they started to go more for their own produce.
So the changes weren't really because of the banana market. In fact there are certain areas which are not really suitable for bananas and where the returns are very poor: for instance, where the sugar cane used to be grown, close to the coast. But the farmers had no other option.
Our sugar sector is another example. Apart from supplying local needs, and saving on foreign exchange, sugar production is geared mainly towards the rum industry. We knew that this was one of the few commodities that we would have no problem selling in Europe. That is why, under our last administration, when I was Minister for Trade and Agriculture, we expanded the distillery. In fact that was in 1984 and we lost power shortly afterwards. The contract was completed by the present Government. But now we are having to import molasses and this is making the rum less competitive - because the Government wasn't interested in sugar. They felt sugar could be bought cheaply elsewhere but, of course, such things change. Today we can't even supply our own rum needs, far less export.
We would have diversified our agriculture. In fact we invited the Japanese and Taiwanese to investigate introducing high value products like shrimps and asparagus that can be airfreighted and still remain competitive - and it was going quite well. We introduced onions instead of having to import them, but that has now almost disappeared. We were going into rice with a view to producing enough to satisfy local demand, because we think that self-suffficiency is important.
So this is how we differ from the present Government. They feel that the private sector should do everything. I am not anti-private sector but, in a small country like ours, the Government must act as a catalyst. There isn't really a proper private sector here when you think about it - let's face it, they are all shopkeepers and for a very good reason. You buy things, and if you don't sell them today, you can sell them tomorrow. If, as a merchant, you import something that goes bad, the insurance will pay at the end of the day. You don't have union problems in the mercantile sector. But it is very different if you build a factory. The unions immediately move in. That is another reason why I think most of the entrepreneurs here are not prepared to go into manufacturing.
· There have been some complaints, even from successful enterprises like the ECGC, about the way things are being run at the moment
- I think the problem is that the Government isn't really giving the kind of leadership that is necessary to get an industry going. As for ECGC, that was another one of our initiatives of course. When I was Minister of Trade, I was the one who brought them here. I do know that they are regarded as one of the Caribbean success stories as far as manufacturing is concerned. I believe they have a good management team but I cannot say why they are complaining, I don't know the inside story.
· It seems to be a question of taxation. - Well, this is something that we have been pointing out. We have been losing companies who come in, get ten years' tax holiday, and then all of a sudden are forced to pay 45% corporate tax. This is crazy. What we would have done is to have a sliding scale. Say, after four tax-free years, you have to pay 10%, going up to 15% the following year, and so on. It is like jumping twenty feet off a roof instead of going down the stairs at a steady pace. The impact is bound to be less painful. I don't think we would lose anything by doing this. I don't think we have anything to lose, in fact. At the moment you have companies who stay for ten years paying no tax and then go off somewhere else and perhaps get another ten or fifteen years' tax holiday in their new location. It is wrong for industries to pay nothing but I accept we have to be pragmatic in finding the right balance. They obviously have their shareholders who want their dividends.
· If you look at the other major project currently under way, the tourism one on Union /eland, there seems to be a lot of popular concern over the potential threat to the environment
- Yes, I agree. It is strange that this Government should have proclaimed the 1990s to be the decade of the environment. When you look at what is happening, you see that we are still destroying it rather than doing anything to save it. I know that the people in Union Island are concerned because they are worried about the impact of the development on their swampland and their marine life. Prime Minister Mitchell, overriding the expert opinion of people like Jacques Cousteau, with whom he disagreed whether a reef - where an airport extension was going to be built - was dead or alive, just swept the ecological concerns under the carpet.
· What other developments do you see as vital for the future of the country?
- Well I know it is going to cost a lot of money but I think that we must try to get some type of international airport here. As Minister of Trade I fought for that but it fumed out to be a chicken and egg situation. When you went to the institutions to say that you wanted an airport to develop tourism, they replied that there wasn't sufficient hotel capacity. When you went to the hoteliers to see about increasing the number of beds, they replied that there wasn't sufficient infrastructure, particularly at the airport.
I feel that we have to start somewhere. When you look at what we spend on tourism in comparison to Antigua, Barbados or St Lucia, it is a drop in the ocean. If we are really serious about diversification of the economy as a whole, and not just of agriculture, then we have to look at all the possibilities including tourism. At the moment we are losing tourists because we do not have the infrastructure.
I think we also need to do more to develop small-scale industries. We would push within CARICOM, as indeed we did when were in power, for the rationalisation of the industrial base within our countries. We did it once in agriculture and although that worked quite well, it has now been scrapped. The vital thing is to create jobs. If we can't get more people employed, I fear that we could have violence here.
We already have a problem involving drugs: more and more people are fuming to marijuana growing and they might not do so if they had the opportunity of real jobs. Everyone is also well aware of the fact that the Grenadines are a major transshipment area for cocaine from Colombia and other parts of South America. Again, we need to offer proper jobs if we want to stamp this out.
You know that foreign companies get all the major contracts. I have no problem with this in principle - we need the expertise after all - but I don't see why, for example, when a company comes here from Trinidad, they should even bring their own drivers with them. That is crazy. By all means employ outside engineering firms, or whatever, but the contract should require them to employ local labour.
Another area where we disagree with the Government is over the question of the public works department. We believe that we should have one that is well-equipped. This saves money in the long run. We used to have a good public works system with all the heavy-duty equipment. When there was a contract, we leased the equipment to the contractors and of course, we still had it when they had left. Now, when you get a company in, you have to pay them to transport everything that is needed for the work to be done. This is an example of an area where we should be able to save money.
· Do you think the Government will learn how to live with an opposition again?
- Well, Mr Mitchell and, indeed, most of his MPs, ought to know how to live with an opposition. Just because they had five years without one doesn't mean that they should have become addicted to unopposed rule without any real accountability.
Interview by R.D.B.