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Prime Minister Gaston Browne’s New Years Message

The Honourable Gaston A. Browne
Prime Minister of Antigua and Barbuda
2019 New Year’s Day Speech

Fellow Citizens and Residents of Antigua and Barbuda, I wish you a happy, healthy and most prosperous new year.

As the sun sets on the old year and rises on the new, we in Antigua and Barbuda know well, that the people of the world are living in perilous times.

We have only to turn on the television to be assailed with images of war; of refugees; of the ravages of disaster; of economic decline; of widespread unemployment; of degrading poverty and of human suffering.

Our nation is fortunate that, through sound management of our economy over the last four and a half years, we have performed exceedingly better.

But those wolves are always at our door.

Their entry into our homeland is resisted only by your government’s determination to repel and repulse them, by erecting an economic and social edifice they cannot climb nor blow away.

Our government has a clear task – to keep Antigua and Barbuda safe and to continue to build an economy that provides to all; the opportunities to work, to own, and to prosper.

The task is difficult, but we are determined to be its equal and to conquer every obstacle that might be laid before us.

The record of accomplishment, so far, despite the myriad problems inherited, is evidence of our capacity to put the country’s interest and your welfare first.

We have grasped difficult and painful times and transformed them into something beneficial.

ECONOMIC GROWTH CONTINUES, SURPASSING GLOBAL AVERAGE
Against, all the odds, our nation’s economy has enjoyed superior hemispheric growth since our Government’s election to office in 2014.

The year 2018 is no different, and when the final figures are reckoned, we expect our economy would have grown by 5.3 per cent.

This is no easy feat. It’s a spectacular performance by our people.

The IMF has projected global growth at 3.9 per cent in 2018.

We are a full 1.4 per cent greater than that average, and 4.1 per cent higher than all of Latin America, including Mexico, Brazil, Argentina and Colombia.

The Caribbean area is projected to attain average growth of 1.2 per cent, 4.1 per cent behind Antigua and Barbuda.

Only Dominica, coming from a much lower base, and benefitting from an inflow of insurance pay-outs and other hurricane recovery funding, surpassed us in the CARICOM area.

What does this growth mean to you?

Simply put, it means the following things:
First, we have been able to make payments due on the huge loan burden that we inherited.

Had we not been able to do so, our country would have defaulted, and, quickly, we would have been back in the clutch of the IMF and an austerity programme, that would have occasioned a slashing of employment and a reduction on spending in health, education, housing and pensions.

Second, it means that we were able not only to maintain but, to increase employment for our people through new investment in a range of areas, including tourism and construction.

Third, we have been able to maintain spending on social programmes, sending more young people on scholarships for higher learning; improving the facilities of our hospital; expanding port facilities that will earn the nation greater income and provide more employment.

Economic growth brings many benefits, but its seeds have to be planted and its trees nurtured to produce the beneficial fruits a nation needs.

That task requires special managerial and financial skills.

And that is one of the benefits that our government delivered to the people of our nation.

Growth is not a ‘cure-all’; but the absence of growth is certainly a ‘kill-all’ – as our nation well knows from the suffering we endured, of a contracted economy under the previous administration.

PUBLIC SERVANTS PAY OUT OF $70 MILLION –WHILE DEBT TO GDP RATIO REDUCED

In 2018, our government paid public servants back-pay of over $50 million, as well as, an interim 5 percent pay increase in the sum of approximately $20million.

Public servants know that they waited helplessly and hopelessly during the term in office of the last administration.

Today, they are well aware of the improvement that the payments received from our government has made to the quality of their lives and the well-being of their families.

That our government has managed to create the fiscal space, despite eliminating personal income tax, to put over $70 million into the pockets of public servants this year; even as we satisfied pressing debt repayment obligations, demonstrates its capacity to manage the economy in your interest.

In this regard, I call the attention of the nation to the fact that the government of Venezuela has written-down the country’s Petro Caribe debt from $500M to $250 million.

It has reduced the gigantic and unsustainable debt burden inherited by our government from the previous administration.

This gesture, at a time of economic and financial trial in their own circumstances, is an act of concern by the people of Venezuela for the well-being of a neighbouring country, that others in this Hemisphere should emulate.

Effectively, our administration has reduced the nation’s debt to GDP ratio from a high of 140 percent (adjusted for un-booked debts) to 70 percent today.

Notwithstanding, this significant improvement, the nation’s debt service remains debilitatingly high.

That is why our government is pursuing a strategy of consistently high revenue growth and fiscal responsibility, to resolve this crippling debt service problem in the medium to long term.

Unlike other neighbouring states that are trying to crawl from under the rock of debt, our government has not laid-off hundreds of workers, nor have we arbitrarily reduced the interest payable under government bonds, in which people invest for their pensions.

ECONOMIC GROWTH STRATEGY TO REDUCE DEBT

Our strategy is to grow the economy robustly through more investment in the productive sector by local and foreign investors and by the government itself.

We will continue to seek debt write-offs and debt rescheduling, for we are determined to keep ourselves worthy of credit, both for development projects and at times of need.

We will do so responsibly and dependably, however long it may take.
Our government is resolved to maintain the great sense of confidence and optimism that now pervades the atmosphere of our country.

We must not be lured off course by the weak lamentations of failed politicians, whose own performance drove our country to the precipice of collapse.

We will not be overshadowed by their doubts and fears.
We will not be paralysed by their propaganda.

We will continue to dig into our heritage and remember that we are not descended from fearful ancestors.

Emboldened by their legacy, and encouraged by our own achievements in the face of enormous challenges, we intend to stride forward, lifting our nation to greater heights and leaving no one behind.

FOUR PILLARS FOR GROWTH AND DEVELOPMENT

Our intention is to make the year 2019, a landmark year for our country, in the journey to economic prosperity.

Transformation will not come overnight, but building on the firm foundations we have so far laid, the pillars of success will be erected.

Our objectives in this coming year can be encompassed on four basic pillars:

We will continue to increase the wealth of the nation, and by so doing spread the benefits through property ownership across the nation, including housing.

In partnership with investors, both local and foreign, we will build-up the infrastructure of our country in air, land and sea transport to place our country strategically in the global tourism and maritime industries.

We will encourage genuine partnerships with foreign investors, based on a fair rate of return on their investment and a fair rate of contribution to the national economy.

And, we will install and operationalise a modern, high-speed broadband facility, that will catapult our nation into today’s digital world; enhancing existing businesses, opening many new opportunities for internet-based industries, and vastly improving recreational use of internet services.

Our goal is to grow the economy in excess of six per cent, and to deliver tangible benefits to all.

None of these are pipe dreams or, delusions of grandeur.

They are practical goals, rooted in the reality of the foundations we have already laid.

For instance, WIOC will continue to renew and expand its operations with a further investment of $50 million.

This will upgrade the marine infrastructure and the construction of a new LPG storage facility, tripling the existing storage capacity.

Additionally, WIOC will start construction of a new business park at a cost of $40 million.

These activities will boost the economy, create new jobs and, simultaneously, increase the wealth of the nation.

It should always be remembered that WIOC is majority-owned by the people of Antigua and Barbuda.

It is our collective business from which we collectively benefit.

WIOC’s net profit after interest and tax is projected to be in the region of $25 million in 2018.

So, our nation gains from taxes and dividends that help to meet the expenses of our country, and by the enlargement of the communal wealth of the people.

Our government is strategically broadening the local ownership base of our economy by placing proprietorship of businesses, homes, motor vehicles, sailing and fishing vessels in the hands of individual citizens and by national participation in ownership.

In marine transportation, the construction of the nationally-owned $250 million cargo Port is in full swing.

Its continued construction in 2019 will continue to provide employment, and its completion in 2021 will result in both permanent and sustainable jobs.

The Port will firmly position our nation as a meaningful player in maritime transportation regionally.

Housing development will also move at a faster pace in 2019.

The People’s Republic of China has committed $90 million in grant aid, to construct approximately 250 residences at various locations, including the renewal of Booby Alley, in Point.

This is a welcome development that will transform a long-depressed area of our country; opening it to greater opportunities in the St John’s Harbour area, that it closely adjoins.

Three hundred new homes will become available from National Housing.
Additionally, CHAPA will construct approximately 100 low-income concrete homes.

These are land-mark events in the history of our nation.

At no previous time has housing been constructed in this magnitude and of this quality.

Critics and political opponents can cast as many barbs as they like; they can sneer and scoff.

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But, they cannot wish-away the obvious and evident reality, that our government – the government of all the people of Antigua and Barbuda – is delivering homes in a way and at a rate, unprecedented in our country’s history.

Those with eyes can see.

Those whose eyes are blinded by jealously and hatred; live in denial, paralysed and embittered by a darkness of their own creation.

While cowards flinch and traitors snare, we move ahead with clear sight, on a path lit brightly by the resolve to make our country better, our economy sturdier, and our people stronger.

PROSPECTS FOR BARBUDA COULD BE BRIGHT: INVESTMENT BEING MADE, POLITICAL WILL NEEDED

In Barbuda, we have made significant progress in recovering from the monumental devastation of Hurricane Irma.

The sheer scale of destruction, by itself, made rebuilding, a mountain too steep for anything but a tough and tortuous climb.

The cost of maintaining the inhabitants of Barbuda for many months, together with the fact that they had no insurance for rebuilding their personal holdings, made our government’s job even tougher.

Nonetheless, through the judicious use of funds from the national treasury, and with financial assistance from the European Union, the Peoples’ Republic of China, the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela, and India; many homes have been rebuilt and government premises and infrastructure have been restored.

The prospects for Barbuda could be very bright.

Circumstances favour the inhabitants of Barbuda as never before.
What is needed is the will of the Barbudan inhabitants to look beyond the partisan rhetoric and seize the opportunity for the development of the island and ultimately, the improvement of their lives.

Already, the plants of new investment are sprouting in Barbuda, including the PLH Discovery Bay project and the Paradise Found Resort.

Later in 2019, the expanded Dulcina project is expected to start.

All of these will bring permanent and sustainable employment and spin-off business opportunities for Barbudans.

Our government will itself, invest $14 million in solar voltaic power in 2019, to make Barbuda the first island to be powered exclusively by green energy.

This in itself will encourage attention from the media, scientists and others keen to spread the news globally, of an island and its inhabitants who have taken the first step into fighting the effects of climate change.

Government will also complete the new Barbuda runway in 2019, opening the island and its inhabitants to greater opportunities in tourism.

All that stands between the inhabitants of Barbuda and the growth and development of the island and themselves are those destructive elements, who would see Barbuda retrogress and decline, so that they may be kings of the dust they create.

Our government – the government of all Antiguans and Barbudans -will continue untiringly, to place Barbuda securely on the path of advancement.

DIVERSIFYING THE ECONOMY

My friends
We have endured many external challenges to our economy and they persist.
This is why we have to be continuously creative in diversifying our economy.

The offshore financial sector has been constrained by the actions of the European Union and the Organisation for Cooperation in Economic Development.

Ready to compete with our small economy in trade and in investment, they are unwilling to compete in tax regimes.

In the new year, our government will introduce new ways in which we might retain our international financial services, even as, we are compelled to comply with the dictates of others, in order to protect our domestic banking and financial system for our people.

As you are aware, our government has already begun this thinking in the areas of creating a medical Cannabis industry and introducing block chain crypto currency businesses to serve companies in the international community. In addition, we will introduce real estate investment trust (REIT), legislation, as we seek to further stimulate both local and foreign direct investments.

Small countries such as ours, limited in natural resources, but unlimited in creativity, must constantly innovate in order to hold a place in the world and to compete.

Essential to whatever we do is high-speed broadband, with wide enough bandwidth to facilitate all the modern industries that now operate globally on the Internet.

That is why in 2019, APUA will invest $80 million, to acquire its own sub-sea cable and to democratize access to the internet through the provision of more affordable, reliable and faster internet service to residents.

We can no longer rely on investment by foreign-owned telecommunication companies alone, to take our country to the highest level of high-speed internet technology.

Although they have made considerable profits here, which we do not begrudge them and to which they were entitled under the arrangements of their initial investment, they have not provided us with the technology we require at prices that are fair and affordable.

But, our country, our people, our economy cannot wait.
We must forge ahead.
In doing so, we are pushing no one out.

Instead, we are allowing APUA to set the pace in the race to better technology, lower rates and faster Internet.

It is a race in which the other existing providers are invited to join.

In keeping with this overall policy, our government has already passed legislation to ensure number portability.

And, we have introduced measures to ensure the equitable redistribution of the 850 spectrum among the telecom companies.

The Internet and high-speed broadband are the digital gateway to the world for new services from Antigua and Barbuda and for the enhancement of all existing businesses.
It is a door our Government will throw wide open, so that we too, particularly our young people, can benefit from a world market, connected seamlessly and instantly.

As an offshoot of APUA’s participation in this lucrative world, its profitability will be utilised, in part, to subsidize the operation and maintenance of two additional reverse osmosis plants in Bethesda and Fort James in 2019. The addition of these two new plants, will increase the reliability and sustainability of our water supply.

We will also continue to tackle electricity supply which we want to be both reliable and cheaper.

So, in 2019, our government will install about 8 megawatts of wind and solar power at Crabbs at a cost of $40 million.

EDUCATION AND HEALTH REMAIN TOP PRIORITIES
Education and health have been priorities of our government, and we have made significant strides in both areas for the benefit of all.

We intend to intensify our efforts.

Presently, there are sixteen hundred Antiguans and Barbudans on scholarships, costing $25 million annually.

This phenomenal figure for our small population demonstrates the Government’s firm commitment to building an economy served by a knowledgeable people.
To further provide our people, especially our younger generation, with the knowledge and training to compete anywhere in the world, and to contribute to the advancement of our country, a windfall tax of 10 percent of their net profit will be applied to banks, telecommunication firms, and insurance companies.
That money will be used to fund the proposed fourth landed campus of UWI at Five Islands, providing ‘at home,’ high-quality, higher education to generations of Antiguans and Barbudans.

As every parent knows, of all the things that young people can be given, none surpasses an education that equips them to climb the ladder of life.

Our government will also spend an additional $40 million to renew the school plant on Antigua.

This will include repairs to Ottos Comprehensive, Antigua Girls High and Pares Secondary.

These repairs complement the work in 2018 on the Irene B. Williams and St Mary Secondary schools, which were expanded and repaired.

My Dear countrymen and countrywomen,
You will all agree, I am sure, that the most significant asset of any individual is good health.

No amount of cash in the bank or, abundance of physical assets can substitute or compensate for ill health.

That is why my government has invested significant resources to improve health care nationally.

The Mount St John Medical Facility is now rated by the Pan American Health Organisation as the best hospital in the member states of the OECS.

In addition to continuously improving the quality of the hospital, two Poly clinics and community centres are now being constructed in Wilikies and Villa, funded by China Aid, at a cost of $25 million.

ROADS INFRASTRUCTURE

My friends

Let it be clear, our government is committed to building a network of roads and highways in our country, that serve both the social needs of every motorist, as well as, the commercial necessities, including tourism.

As I said to you in November, I personally share the irritation and inconvenience of the continuing work on Friar’s Hill Road particularly.

Solutions must be found, and I have insisted on them in your interest.

For the time being, I thank you for your forbearance and assure you that 2019 will bring accelerated work.

TOURISM INVESTMENT AND PROMOTION IN THE PEOPLES’ INTEREST

As we are all aware, tourism is the main driver of our economy.
It is no cliché to say that it is our business.
That is why we continue to invest in its promotion, its growth and its development.

In 2018 our efforts were rewarded by record cruise and overnight tourism arrivals, contributing to the significant 5.3 percent growth of our economy.
In 2019, tourism will again be at the centre of our economic growth.

The Royalton Hotel, Hodges Bay Hotel and Champions’ Place at Woods will each be operationalised, providing 1,500 new jobs.

Construction on several new accommodation properties will follow, including the Callaloo Quay project at Maurice Bay, the new Half Moon Bay Hotel and the Airport Marriot.

We anticipate national economic growth to exceed six per cent in 2019.

ROOTS OF COURAGE AND VALOUR WILL DRIVE US FORWARD

My fellow citizens and residents
Our people have never lacked courage in the face of extreme challenges.

After major hurricanes, we have picked ourselves up, rebuilt and gone forward.
That is our national character, exemplified by three teams of our nationals, who dared to take on the might of the Atlantic Ocean with all its perils and jeopardies.

Two of those teams have already showed the gigantic Atlantic that small though we are, our people are equal to the greatest of challenges.

Now, as this New Year is upon us, four of our young women have become the first black female team, to demonstrate the courage and determination to conquer the perils of the Atlantic.

It matters not where they place in this gruelling race.

What matters is their bravery, their boldness and their confidence to face adversity and say we will not be cowered; we are resolved to stare you in the eye and to fulfil our ambition.

Kevinia, Samara, Elvira and Cristel are showing the world the daring, the courage, resilience and strength of which our people are made.

Let us join them in demonstrating that we are a nation whose people are equal to any challenge;
whose people unite to cheer each other on;
and whose people, from any background, can work hard together,
pool their talents together
and realize their dreams together.

That is who we are.

Let us go forth together to make of 2019, a Happy and Prosperous New Year for one and all.

God Bless you,
and God Bless Antigua and Barbuda.

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