By Orville Williams
“We deserve to return to office.” That was the resounding message from Prime Minister Gaston Browne yesterday, as his Antigua and Barbuda Labour Party (ABLP) launched its official manifesto ahead of the January 18 general elections.
The event, which took place at the John E St Luce Finance & Conference Centre on Factory Road, was attended by a slew of party executives and supporters, as well as government officials and private sector leaders.
The proceedings were opened by the party’s Chairman, EP Chet Greene, who called on the electorate to “do the right thing and return the ABLP to power”, before introducing PM Browne who spoke for more than an hour on the party’s vision for the next governance cycle.
One of the most topical issues in the country in recent months has been the negotiations over public sector wage increases and, specifically, the dragged-out nature of those talks.
The government had promised to raise the salaries of public workers before the end of 2022, but there has been no collective agreement reached as yet, with the unions still agitating for more than what’s being offered.
“Our team regrets that negotiations with the unions representing public servants were so protracted that the matter could not have been settled before the general elections … I’ll give a public undertaking that our negotiators will be in touch with the negotiators of the Teachers Union and the other unions to set a firm date this week for the recommencement of the negotiations,” Browne declared.
“The ABLP also wants to increase public servants’ pensions, and this is not a ploy to get your votes, this is a commitment,” the PM went on, highlighting the importance of these persons to the country’s development.
“The [party] registers in the manifesto that the contributions of pensioners within the public service are recognised and appreciated. These are the persons who supported the execution of government programmes, projects and policies throughout their working life, and in their years of retirement, every effort – certainly under my administration – will be made to ensure that their pensions are sufficient.
“Therefore, the ABLP government will increase pensions for public servants as soon as possible after the general elections, once the consensus is reached with their [union] representatives,” he said.
Among the other matters addressed during the PM’s speech were improvements in education, particularly with the expansion of the University of the West Indies (UWI) Five Islands campus, the sustained improvement of the nation’s healthcare infrastructure, the scaling up of the country’s tourism product with new partnerships and the construction of more resorts, and one of the most pressing – job creation.
“When you talk about jobs, we have already attracted the investments that will create the jobs and put all Antiguans and Barbudans to work,” Browne noted, adding that, “already, we have a shortage of skilled construction workers, because the economy continues to expand rapidly, and I’m pretty sure that any Antiguan or Barbudan who is out of work and is desirous of working can find a job throughout the course of this year.”
In a bid to drum up further support for his party’s election bid, Browne talked up the country’s economic growth ‘post-Covid’ and reiterated that, despite the struggles faced by some other nations to build back their economies, Antigua and Barbuda continues to make significant strides.
“While the global growth in 2021 was six percent, we enjoyed high economic growth of 7.43 percent. Even more remarkably, as growth in the world declined by 3.2 percent in 2022, our economy defied all the odds and is expected to grow by a whopping 8.3 percent as of the end of 2022.
“So, this means now that Antigua and Barbuda will enjoy post-crisis growth of 7.8 percent per annum – the highest in the entire Caribbean or the hemisphere for that matter…this could only have been achieved through sound, creative financial management, solid economic judgement and visionary leadership,” he claimed.
The PM also pledged to focus on building out Barbuda’s socio-economic infrastructure, describing the sister isle as “the ugly duckling in the relationship between Antigua and Barbuda for decades”.
The focus there, he said, will continue to be on tourism, considering the island’s rich potential for attracting big-spending investors.
Two of those investors, Robert De Niro and James Packer, were put on notice that plans to start construction on their multi-million-dollar project this year must go ahead without delay.
“They have already gotten approval of plans and I have signalled to them that if they don’t start this year, they’re going to hear from me and my administration, and you know we’re dead serious.
“I’m sure that this message is going to get back to my dear friend, Robert De Niro, so he either perform or get out of the way; it’s too beautiful a property to be left idle.
“A new ABLP government will also construct a business hub on Barbuda, with satellite offices to deliver the services offered by the Transport Board, Medical Benefits, [Board of] Education, Social Security, APUA and other agencies,” Browne added.
The PM applauded his administration for bringing Barbuda back from the brink of devastation five years ago, to it now being positioned as a luxury tourism destination, suggesting that the growth there is a true example of his party’s value, and reason for him and his colleagues to be re-elected.
“Such is the high quality of visionary thinking and stellar financial management that the ABLP team has given to our nation’s affairs.
“That is why we can stand in any fora and say that we have not only earned the trust of the people of Antigua and Barbuda, we have not only delivered for the people of Antigua and Barbuda, but we deserve to be returned to office,” Browne asserted.
The ABLP will face off against the opposition United Progressive Party (UPP), the Democratic National Alliance (DNA) and a handful of independent candidates in the January 18 poll.