By Robert A. Emmanuel
For the second time in less than 12 months, the government has given itself a pat on the back for its achievements through the delivery of the 2024 Throne Speech, yesterday, by Governor General Sir Rodney Williams.
The first Throne Speech was delivered in March this year following the general elections during which the government lost several seats in Parliament, thereby commanding a one-seat majority.
Also, this delivery will go down in history as the second time since December 2013 (with Governor General Dame Louise Lake-Tack) that a Throne Speech has been delivered in December.
Yesterday’s occasion was marked with the usual pomp and ceremony, first an inspection of the guard by Sir Rodney as members of both Houses of Parliament waiting to hear the government’s priorities for the new year.
Preceding the opening of the new parliamentary session and Budget Presentation, the Throne Speech is normally crafted by the staff in the Office of the Prime Minister and presented to the Governor General for delivery.
This year, the Throne Speech focused on foreign policy and domestic accomplishment and plans.
Topping the list for the government in 2024 was the SIDS conference in May where more than 5,000 individuals are expected to visit the island for the three-day affair, and the ongoing COP28 conference where small island states were able to secure more than US$400 million—a mere drop in the bucket to address the climate crisis which countries like Antigua and Barbuda have borne the brunt of.
Moving into domestic affairs, among the major talking points for the government were artificial intelligence (AI), Antigua Public Utilities Authority (APUA), Covid-19 response management, the plastic bags ban, roads, public housing, finance and tourism.
Artificial intelligence was surprisingly mentioned twice during the Sir Rodney’s speech, twice promising to bring a new legislation to address the potential benefits and abuses that AI has already brought to world.
“The potential good uses to which artificial intelligence can be put is incredulous; in health, in security, in fighting crime, in securing answers to many seemingly insoluble challenges, in agriculture, the use of artificial intelligence is sure to be transformative.
“With the assistance of the Caricom Secretariat and legislation created elsewhere to manage the uses of AI, my government intends to bring into being the appropriate laws to prevent abuse and to encourage innovative use of this new technology,” Sir Rodney read.
Second on the agenda was APUA, which has seen a major shift at the upper echelons of its ranks with the departure of its General Manager, Esworth Martin.
The government, particularly Prime Minister Gaston Browne, has repeatedly lambasted the country’s public utilities company for its failure to adequately supply water to the historically drought-stricken nation.
“New leadership and a new approach to water production at the APUA are sure to bring new energy and innovation to a challenged APUA Water Division,” Sir Rodney read.
Meanwhile, among some of the more surprising topics was the lauding of the plastic bag ban—introduced in 2017—and a return to the management of the Covid-19 response.
Both topics felt out of place for a 2023-2024 speech as the government chose to return to the August 2020 protests against mandatory vaccinations where police officers fired tear gas and rubber bullets at protesting residents.
Meanwhile, the plastic bag ban point seemed to be unnaturally inserted into the speech with no clear explanation as to what further actions would be taken on the issue outside of stating that “much has been achieved” and “there is more to come”.
Among the bevy of issues mentioned by the government, the administration seemingly acknowledged several shortcomings, though issues including the stalled talks on the Eastern Caribbean Cancer Centre, and the beleaguered Clarevue Psychiatric Hospital, were not mentioned.
Following the speech, the parliamentarians took the annual group photo, with newly appointed Senator and former United Progressive Party member, Dwayne George, taking an interestingly strategic position between St George MP Algernon Watts and St Mary’s South MP Kelvin Simon.
George was the former campaign manager for MP Simon leading up to the January 2023 general election.