He may not be the reigning prime minister but that doesn’t mean that opposition leader Stephenson King isn’t keeping an eye on the state of the island. King spoke out this week on the continued financial struggle that the country has been burdened with.
“The economy is under a lot of stress. In fact it has stagnated and the prospects for any growth certainly do not seem to be on the horizon. At least we are not receiving any indication from the prime minister or from the government itself as to the prospects moving forward. Since the presentation of the budget, nothing really has happened though. Business is bad, businesses are closing down, large corporations are retrenching and escalation of unemployment seems to be quite obvious though there are no official figures to my own knowledge coming out from the statistics department as to where we are now, although there is talk of 22%. But there is nothing truly official indicating where the unemployment situation is at this time.”
King believes that it is time for the government to prove their mettle to the citizens.
“There needs to be consensus. There needs to be dialogue. We cannot sit back and believe that it will be rescued sometime, regardless of whoever emerges in government. But the government of today must demonstrate leadership by its own actions and its own initiatives to show the people of St Lucia that they are concerned and that they are taking the right initiatives to remedy the situation.”
He also warned against being complacent because other islands are currently facing the same fate.
“We cannot comfort ourselves, we have to demonstrate that we are the leaders by being very innovative, by being very bold, by going out and exploring the opportunities that are out there on the international front to see how best we can assist St Lucia. Obviously we haven’t seen any foreign investment ever since the last say two or three years. So it means that a new strategy has to be developed in terms of either generating economic activity or attracting new business that can bolster the economic engine of the country.”
The Value Added Tax has been a fiery issue ever since it was introduced a year ago, and still remains a contentious topic among the middle and lower economic bracket. King does not deny the inevitability of the tax but contends that residents should have been eased into the situation in phases. He recognizes that many businesses took the opportunity to exploit the system through price gouging to bolster their profits. In his view there has to be a more effective way to collect money across the board without sending many into the depths of financial ruin.
“Look at the whole question of taxes in the country. See how best we can equitably distribute taxes among the population, because in some instances there are some people who have been overburdened with taxes. They are the ones, for example the public servants, who pay their taxes regularly. In other words the first deduction from their cheque is their PAYE. But yet still they are also called upon to pay VAT. Then you have those who don’t pay any PAYE and so we have to try and come up with some mechanism that will allow everybody to make a small contribution so as to create the kind of comfort and satisfaction that is necessary in the country.”
Of course, no one can forget the UWP’s July convention which saw the opposition leader lose the top spot in his party to Allen Chastanet. But as he tells it, despite being a unique set of circumstances, they are finding a way to navigate the murky waters.
“Well I’m a member of the party and we have an arrangement in place in terms of how we function. We have not had such a structure as we have now, where the leader of the party is out of parliament and the leader of the opposition is in parliament of course. We have not had that as such. Although during the time of Dr Vaughn Lewis it existed, in that Dr Lewis was out leading the party while Marius Wilson, and later on Arsene James and Marcus Nicholas were the leader of the opposition. The arrangement is still the same. There will be some grey areas in terms of respective roles but it is a situation I believe that can work. What is required now is really a harmonization of approaches to make sure that the message is synchronised going out there.”
But is King eyeing the ultimate prize again?
“Well of course!” he chuckled. “All politicians would always have aspirations of becoming prime minister but I believe that rests solely in the hands of the people. That’s where it rests. My ultimate objective now, and it has always been really, is to serve the people of my constituency. And that I will continue to do. Secondary is really that of leading the country. Notwithstanding, if that never happens, it will not deter me from continuing to represent the people who gave me the opportunity before and now.”