Did someone say blast from the past? No, I’m not here referring to some remixed golden oldie. Rather, I write of the return of the hammered Ausbert d’Auvergne and his evidently resurrected National Development Movement, first press-launched at the Auberge Seraphine’s conference room back in 2004, with promises galore for a new and successful Saint Lucia. By 2006, however, the NDM had gone into hibernation, while its leader managed John Compton’s UWP election campaign.
Immediately following the return to office of the United Workers Party in 2006, d’Auvergne’s efforts were rewarded with a senate position and several of the government’s most important portfolios. However,less than a year after Sir John’s death in September 2007, d’Auvergne resigned under pressure from at least six government ministers who held that d’Auvergne was effectively the government’s most powerful figure, by virtue of his portfolios, and demand his removal or else. It did not help that the Kenny Anthony-led opposition had itself been campaigning for d’Auvergne’s removal, based on his record as a private citizen and as a disgraced public official.
Thursday’s launch was held on the top floor of the Tile World building in Bois d’Orange. The large conference room was neatly decorated in green (the NDM’s party colour) and its official symbol the hammer—a source of controversy now evidently sorted out—was the backdrop. At the head table sat four men and a woman.
The party chairman revealed his name, Naj Augustin, then immediately turned the microphone over to the by far largest man in the room, despite that he had evidently lost weight, doubtless in preparation for what lay ahead: Ausbert d’Auvergne.
He said: “This is our initial press conference just to reintroduce the organization which you will recall was first established in 2004. We did not contest the 2006 general elections and we subsequently went on to assist Sir John Compton with the organization and management of his campaign. We take this opportunity also to introduce the first four candidates who will be contesting the next general elections. This is not really the full launch of our candidates because that is planned for next week as some of our candidates are still coming in.”
Presumably he was using the royal “we.” He introduced Randal Mondesir as NDM’s Castries East candidate, Veronica Guard-Weekes for Castries North and Alfred Alcide for Anse La Raye/Canaries. No surprise that d’Auvergne had saved the Dennery North seat for himself. He would later explain that the NDM planned to contest only 14 of the 17 seats in contention. The party would stay clear of Vieux Fort South, Vieux Fort North and Laborie.
“We believe the outcome of these general elections will be determined by on the basis of issues,” said d’Auvergne. “These would principally be, in our opinion, economic issues. What is important is for an organization like ours to present our vision for national development and also to indicate how we think we can tackle the greatest concern in St Lucia today—jobs. We believe that this can only be done through the generation of rapid economic growth. And we also believe this will be based on the attraction of foreign investment and international capital. St Lucians are primarily concerned with how do they feed their families, how do they proceed to find the means to put food on the table in these challenging economic times.”
He said: “This election campaign is all about leadership. Which leader, which organization is best suited, most capable of taking St Lucia where it needs to go in these economic times.” Obviously he considered himself best qualified!
He cited “the 35,000 young persons out of work” and acknowledged that “the challenge now is to put them to work.” He would give a “general outline on how we think we can win this next election, defy the odds and make history.”
As he analyzed the scene: back in the sixties and early seventies, the general consensus was that approximately 45 percent of the electorate was what you call hardcore UWP supporters, another 45 percent hardcore Labour. Then there was “he floating vote of approximately ten percent. The objective then was to try to get that ten percent on your side.
“Over the years,” said d’Auvergne, “that hardcore support has eroded to the extent of approximately 20 percent for each traditional party . . . Therefore, that leaves approximately 60 percent in the middle willing to be persuaded, willing to vote on the basis of issues, willing to act in their own interest.”
There was also “the fact that approximately 60,000 young persons between 18 and 39 are voters this time around and we know they are not going to be bound by traditional patterns. Their concerns are about how they earn a living, healthcare . . . We will focus on issues.”
Randal Mondesir, is better known as ‘Lion I,’ the name associated with the recording ‘Confidence.’ He no longer sports his trademark locks. Now his head was shaved clean and he wore a suit. He said he was from the Trou Rouge community and saw the just returned from the cold NDM as “a formidable organization, with a fantastic leader who possesses a wealth of experience.”
He said he was also impressed by the slate of candidates, “most of whom have business backgrounds which would serve well in our efforts to rebuild this economy.”
Alfred Alcide, a lawyer, spoke of his association with the Canaries community. He said the NDM was “the only movement with what it’ll take to revive the economy of St Lucia.” The SLP had tried and failed, he said, as had the UWP.
It was no surprise to reporters in the room that d’Auvergne had saved for himself the “most disadvantaged constituency.” He had tried hard to convince Sir John to let him contest the Dennery North seat in 2006, to no avail. Sir John had chosen Marcus Nicholas instead.
Said d’Auvergne: “The constituency has been deprived of basic human needs, and by that I mean specifically water. Even to this day there is no safe reliable drinking supply in that constituency. That is a shame and an indictment on successive administrations. This is primarily a farming community, but the banana industry is all but dead. It is unlikely that it can be revived and yet there is no program in place to transform farming in that constituency.
“Young people are unemployed at a rate of 35 percent of young persons. People face daily the need to make hard choices between eating, healthcare and providing for their children. We are facing hard economic times throughout the country. My interest is to transform that community by bringing into it specific investments that can change the nature of the economic life.”
He claimed the strategy of the current United Workers Party government is to “focus the attention of the populace on community level projects.” He called on voters not to fall for political tricks and suggested the work in the community would stop after elections. He did not say how he had acquired such knowledge.
The economy had stagnated, he said. Although there are claims of economic growth nobody felt it in their pocket. People are enduring very hard times. Businesses of all sizes are suffering facing the prospect of laying off even their most loyal workers.
“That is the challenge we confront,” he said. “The people must understand the real issues. We salute all the work being done to improve the constituency circumstances of all people. That is excellent because all of these projects are necessary, the footpaths and the drains. But are they enough? Is that why we elect national government? All of these community projects should really be done by elected local government where the people determine the priorities and they are given an allocation to undertake those projects. The role of a national government is to address the economy, to attract investment, to create jobs, to create an over-all environment within which every individual can have an opportunity. But that has not happened and is unlikely to happen because we are yet to hear any pronouncement or strategy from either of the traditional parties as to how they are going to address the medium to long term issues of this country.”
He then invited questions on “any issue of relevance.” Sarah Peter of HTS wanted to know what made d’Auvergne and the NDM believe voting trends had changed. He said: “I believe people are more educated and enlightened and more exposed to what is happening internationally. They realize it is their right to demand answers from persons who seek to represent them. We have moved from a situation where people vote traditionally. People are more discerning. We see all over the world uprisings. People are not prepared to sit down and be repressed anymore. And it is all economic. The same trend has been going on in St Lucia. It is a person’s quest for personal advancement and development that is making them less accepting of what they may have taken for granted in the past.”
David Vitalis of the Mirror wanted to know how d’Auvergne planned to achieve “a massive change in the way St Lucians vote,” especially when his launching had come so late in the day. d’Auvergne repeated himself: he was counting on his faith in “the St Lucian interest in issues.”
I wanted to know about NDM’s master plan for reviving the economy when not even Obama could find one for America, where over six million are out of work with no relief in sight. Millions more out of work in the UK and unemployment figures on the rise in the region.
Before the NDM leader could answer, the newly minted chairman reminded the press that there were four other people at the head table waiting for their questions. At least d’Auvergne acknowledged my question had hit “the heart of the matter.” He said it was still possible to attract investment even in these difficult economic circumstances. He kept his secret formula to himself.
He said: “I will tell you categorically that since I have left the government of St Lucia I have brought to St Lucia substantial investment to the tune of hundreds of millions of dollars that have been turned away by this particular administration. There are persons that are prepared to invest in this country and there are investments taking place in other countries.”
Asked for specifics, d’Auvergne chose instead to address that some time in the future. He would say only that “it does not take a great deal of investment to transform St Lucia.” Much depended on the government’s efficiency.
“If it takes a government three years to implement a project that could have been started in three months, the cost to the country is significant. A lot of the hardships of this country could have been alleviated if the government was more efficient.”
Asked if one of the projects he was speaking about included the Daher Building, d’Auvergne said the particular project was “a great concern.”
When he “resigned from the government in May 2008 work on the project was scheduled to have started within 90 days. So it is of great concern to me that that project has not started substantially even today. The question of whether it was a good investment . . . I believe that at the time it was a good investment because the way the project as structured made it a good investment. It was structured in such a way that the ground floor of that building was commercial. The upper floors were office space. The intention was that this project would have paid for itself through rentals. I do not know what has happened to that concept but as long as that was the concept I think it was a good investment. I am concerned that a project that I know could have started within three months has taken over three years.” Obviously he did not believe the Mother of all Recessions had anything to do with the delay.
On the question of the Taiwanese aid not going into the Consolidated Fund, a pet Kenny Anthony topic, d’Auvergne seemed to tread cautiously: “We need to appreciate the support given by Taiwan to the people of St Lucia. There are few countries at this time prepared to give us grant financing. Times have changed, this is not like before. We had the Chinese and they chose a different approach to development. The Taiwanese are focusing their attention on financing community projects and we must appreciate their support.
“I will say, however, that foreign countries can only come into your country and operate in a particular way if they are allowed to operate in that way. So a lot of the criticism now levelled at the Taiwanese should not be levelled at the Taiwanese. We should be honest about it and accept that we are the ones, this administration is the one, allowing the Taiwanese to operate in a certain way. If we had set specific procedures and required that all monies go through the Consolidated Fund, then the Taiwanese would have no alternative but to comply. But it seems to be convenient for the Taiwanese to be allowed to disburse their funds in the way it is happening. An NDM administration would insist that all funds from foreign governments go through the Consolidated Fund. But again I say we are fortunate to have the generosity of the Taiwanese because grant funds are hard to come by.”
Commenting on the change of allegiance from China or Taiwan, d’Auvergne said the NDM was neither pro Taiwan or China. It was all about getting the best deal for St Lucia.
But d’Auvergne’s past did come back to haunt him. He was asked whether he was just another opportunist and likely to repeat his actions in
2006 if promised a substantial position by either of the main parties. David Vitalis talked about “flashing mirrors”—a phrase reminiscent of George Odlum.
“The NDM will contest the election as the NDM,” d’Auvergne parried. “We will not enter into any alliance or association with any other party. Just to refresh your memory. The NDM declared before the last election that we would not contest. Subsequently Sir John Compton invited us to manage the UWP campaign. There were no special promises. Subsequently Sir John Compton invited me to join his administration to help him in sectors that he knew I had an ability in. This time around there will be no accommodation prior to any election. The NDM will go through the election campaign.” And afterwards?
Vitalis was just warming up: He suggested that Ausbert d’Auvergne was a man perceived to be interested only in feathering his own nest, and consequently “making decisions at great cost to the country.”
d’Auvergne would have none of that: “I am one of the most scrutinized persons in St Lucia’s history. I am unaware of your foundation for making these statements. I am offering my services, and the population of St Lucia will decide whether to avail themselves of the services offered by the NDM.”
He was also asked about why he resigned from the government three years ago. “There was no falling out on my part,” he said. “I believe there was an inability for us to work together on issues of principle. It got to a point where I could not do what I was brought into the administration to do. I was unelected. I had been brought in by Sir John through the Senate to handle the development portfolio and it became impossible to do what I had been initially brought in to do.”
The chairman intervened with another appeal on behalf of the ignored other individuals at the head table. d’Auvergne had one final promise: the NDM would in time furnish a detailed manifesto featuring its secret plans for St Lucia’s economic recovery. I, for one, can hardly wait!