Governor Eugene Holiday walks past members of the uniformed services before the start of the meeting to open the new parliamentary year.
~ At opening of 10th parliamentary year ~
PHILIPSBURG--The tenth parliamentary year opened on Tuesday with Governor Eugene Holiday issuing a call to Members of Parliament (MPs) and government to rise above individual interests and address the concerns of the country.
The governor’s message was delivered to a capacity audience in the House of Parliament, which included ministers, MPs, dignitaries and guests.
“As we embark on this 10th parliamentary year amid a cloud of political uncertainty, we – all of us – ought to ask ourselves one basic question: What can we do to secure a safe and prosperous future for our children and our grandchildren?” Holiday said in his address.
He said parliamentarians and ministers ought to remind themselves that people across the country look to them to work together to prioritise policies that matter most to them – matters that will improve their wellbeing and secure the wellbeing of their children and their children’s children.
“They look to you to support and take legislative decisions to strengthen our economy, to secure the functioning of our financial system, to improve the resilience of our infrastructure and to protect our environment. They look to you to focus on employment, housing, education, health and security policies.”
He said addressing these issues in a serious and sustainable way is particularly pressing given St. Maarten’s vulnerability to the effects of climate change as experienced with the impact of Hurricane Irma, taking into account the risks associated with the slowing global economy amid escalating trade disputes; and pressing in the face of the threat to the financial system by criminals engaged in money-laundering and terrorist-financing.
“It is against this backdrop, imperative that Parliament and government rise above the narrow confines of individual interests and domestic politics to the higher and broader concerns of our society within this globalised world.”
According to Holiday, Irma’s impact on St. Maarten’s economy and on its people, has dominated government’s policy agenda and will continue to do so. In 2017-2018, the economy contracted by a cumulative 12 per cent and in 2018 unemployment increased to 9.9 per cent. In 2018 government revenues declined due to the economic contraction, resulting in a budget deficit of NAf.105 million. For 2019 the deficit is budgeted to amount to NAf. 71 million.
Strengthening St. Maarten’s economic and financial resilience against external shocks has been and must therefore continue to be a key priority of government.
“Looking ahead, the outlook for 2019-2020 shows a gradual rebound in economic activity. The rebound is supported by the reconstruction activities of homes and businesses as well as by the coming online of hotel rooms to accommodate the increase in tourist demand.
“Looking ahead, our focus must be on growing the economy to above pre-Irma levels. Realising that objective calls for selfless rather than selfish actions and for cohesive rather than fractured responses. It calls for us to move with a sense of urgency and a sense of common purpose, grounded on a cohesive reconstruction, recovery and resilience agenda,” he noted.
The agenda should include rehabilitation of the airport terminal; facilitation of construction, renovation and upgrade of hotels; stimulation of small business recovery and development; rehabilitation of education facilities; repair of homes and strengthening of the country’s social systems; care for the environment; tackling the effects of climate change; implementation of sustainable waste management; strengthening disaster preparedness and management; and strengthening public finances and financial management.
He said during the past year government has, in its efforts to strengthen the country’s disaster preparedness and management capabilities, invested in building capacity through the upgrading of equipment, training and greater involvement of communities. Government has also, where necessary, sought to intensify collaboration with its neighbours in French St. Martin as well as with regional and international partners.
St. Maarten joined the Caribbean Catastrophe Risk Insurance Facility (CCRIF) in September 2018, to secure short-term liquidity if St. Maarten is hit by a hurricane or other natural disaster; and signed a memorandum of understanding with the Caribbean Disaster Emergency Management Agency (CDEMA) on behalf of the Kingdom of the Netherlands, ensuring cooperation on disaster risk management if assistance is required for the coordination of emergency response and relief efforts.
As a result, government is pursuing becoming an associate member of CDEMA and will be hosting its conference at the end of this year.
“To achieve its objectives, government has and deems it important to continue to work closely with the Netherlands and the World Bank-administered Trust Fund. Government has also and considers it imperative that we continue to build partnerships within the region. Government therefore looks forward to the [Caribbean Community – Ed.] CARICOM heads of governments meeting at the beginning of 2020, regarding the participation of St. Maarten as an associate member of CARICOM,” Holiday noted.
He stressed that an important precondition for the development and implementation of St. Maarten’s required reconstruction, recovery and resilience agenda is a strong organisation.
“Government has therefore executed its plans to establish the National Recovery Programme Bureau earlier this year. The programme bureau is charged with preparing, coordinating, implementing and evaluating projects financed through the Trust Fund for the recovery and reconstruction process.
“The programme bureau is financed through the Trust Fund and assists the ministries with the requirements of Trust Funds projects, including project management, financial management, procurement, as well as social and environmental safeguards. During the coming parliamentary year government expects the National Recovery Programme Bureau to roll out an increased number of projects funded by the World Bank.”
Holiday said the health of the population is linked to care for the environment.
“With regard to the care for the environment, waste management is a significant challenge on our island. Government has, in its efforts to address the waste management challenges, been working closely with the World Bank and the Netherlands. The objective is to improve the management of waste streams at the landfill and introduce recycling, including the removal of metals and other recyclable material from the island.”
Together with care for the environment it is imperative that measures are implemented to address and mitigate the effects of climate change.
“Government has taken critical steps in that regard, comprised of the reform of the legislative framework of [Ministry of Public Housing, Spatial Planning, Environment and Infrastructure – Ed.] VROMI through a new VROMI Ordinance. Under the new VROMI ordinance government has been working on updating and upgrading building code legislation and policies to mitigate the effects of recurring extraordinary hurricanes. To achieve this, government has already conducted an inventory and established stakeholders’ consultations.”
However, he said that building codes are not enough.
“They are to go hand-in-hand with an effective spatial development strategy to increase resilience throughout our community; this in particular given the use of the global Sustainable Development Goals to prepare the development planning legislation or the so-called zoning plan legislation.
“The Spatial Development Strategy provides the framework for the completion of 13 spatial development plans. Priority has been given to the draft plans for Middle Region and Dutch Quarter, which are being finalised to be submitted to Parliament for handling.”
In the area of tourism, he said St. Maarten is a member of the international community.
“It is therefore imperative for St. Maarten to maintain good international relations and comply with its international obligations. The income we earn from tourism, the food we eat, the clothes we wear and the goods we use to build our homes come in large part from overseas, paid for through the international banking and financial system.
“Our economy, our financial system is thus completely tied to the global economy. Anything that affects the integrity of the global economy, affects us. Based on the review of the Caribbean Financial Action Task Force, St. Maarten must implement a number of legislative changes urgently, to protect our local financial system from misuse by criminals and from forming a risk to the global financial system.”
He said government has prioritised the introduction of legislation to combat money-laundering and financing of terrorism based on international requirements as stipulated by the Financial Action Task Force. The adoption of these regulations in the laws is critical to secure the participation of the economy in international trade and business, and to safeguard the viability of the local economy.
“That is to safeguard our jobs and livelihoods as well as those of our children and their children. Government has as a result recently presented Parliament with an amendment of the Penal Code, an amendment of the Penal Procedure Code, and an amendment of the Civil Code, for your urgent handling – this to ensure compliance with the Financial Action Task Force stipulations and avoid St. Maarten being blacklisted by the Financial Action Task Force.”
He said the question before Parliament is a simple one: “Will you act before this tipping point becomes a breaking point for us and for the future of our children and grandchildren?”
He urged everyone to reflect on the basic question: “What can we do to secure a safe and prosperous future for our children and our grandchildren? And as you review and debate the business of our people in these complex and challenging times it is essential to note that the policy choices you make in this chamber will shape the lives and determine the opportunities of current and future generations of St. Maarteners.
“The people of St. Maarten therefore depend and look to their parliamentarians and government to work together for them and to represent their interests,” Holiday noted.