The following is part of a public announcement by Prime Minister Stephenson King’s press secretary Darnley Lebourne, on 23 February, 2011: “Based on the amendment to the Finance Administration Act passed on 15 February 2011 the Minister of Finance will now be obligated to seek the approval of parliament before giving guarantees by the government of Saint Lucia. This will be done through the submission of a resolution containing full details of the party seeking the guarantee, the amount to be guaranteed, how the party intends to pay his or her mortgage and the object and reasons for giving the guarantee.”
On Tuesday this week the Prime Minister and Minister for Finance, Dr. Kenny Anthony sought approval to do some more of what had placed Saint Lucia in the unrelenting grip of depression: that is, more borrowing than the nation can afford. This time he sought to secure a loan of three million dollars from the National Insurance Corporation, to finance the government’s Cruise Sector Employment Program. Back in May, when this program was first announced, the prime minister had furnished little information about a hinted marriage with Carnival Cruise Lines.
In an exclusive interview with the STAR, a spokesperson from Carnival had soon after denied any knowledge of the program. Another institution, Springboard Training, was brought into the picture. The STAR has since sought further information, to no avail. Also on Tuesday the prime minister sought House approval to guarantee, on behalf of the UWI campus at Morne Fortune, a loan of $18,200,000 from the Caribbean Development Bank.On a point of order the MP for Castries Southeast, Guy Joseph stood up to request more information about the UWI project and the loan.
“Yes,” he said, addressing the finance minister, “the building is in Saint Lucia. I know you are saying we are not required to pay. But should the other party default, it’s the people who will be called upon to pay. That’s what loan guarantees are all about.”
He said he did not think justice had been done, at least where the House opposition is concerned. “I do not know how much information the government may have discussed within Cabinet. They may have all the information. But this side of the House has not had the privilege to receive more than is presented here.” He referred, without going into detail, to “the history of loan guarantees given in this Honourable House in this manner” and underscored the importance of MPs receiving all related information. The ghosts of Helenair, Rochamel and Frenwell floated around the chamber.
“The people of Saint Lucia are the ones called on to guarantee this loan,” he went on, “and I believe the prime minster and minister of finance should have provided this Honourable House with details about the nature of the project, other than that it’s a building. I am really clueless about this resolution.” He was barely off his feet when the MP for Castries South Robert Lewis switched on his own microphone. The red light appeared and he seemed ready to launch a retaliatory rocket, but then he changed his mind. Instead, he dropped limply into his chair, as if the wind had been knocked out of him.
“Mr. Speaker, you will notice that I have asked the member for Castries South, the minister of education, to resist the temptation to speak and I want to thank him for withdrawing!” The prime minister had taken over the floor. Would Lewis have furnished the “clueless opposition with the information requested by the MP for southeast Castries—as required by law?
“I am going to take the suggestion from the Member for Castries Southeast into consideration,” said the prime minister. “And since he is mystified, I am going to suggest a 3-man committee to monitor this project: the member for Castries South- east Guy Joseph as chairman; the member for Dennery South Edmund Estaphane and the member for Micoud South, Arsene James.
The prime minister said he would write to UWI indicating to them that the committee would dialogue and discuss with them and come back to the House with a report.“I trust the honourable member for Castries Southeast will accept the generosity of this side of the House,” said the prime minister, not nearly as gregarious as earlier he had been, every word dripping sarcasm.
After much indecipherable (from the press area) chatter on the government side, the majority voted “aye” on the guarantee. The STAR spoke later with the opposition MP Guy Joseph. Was there anything circulated in relation to the loan guarantee? “All we received was the resolution,” the MP said. “No further details of the loan to be guaranteed.”
He went on: “What usually happens is that when a bill is presented by an individual, he or she supplies all details about what the bill is about and why it was brought before parliament.”Joseph said he had found the PM particularly reticent on the subject. “What he has said is that the drawings are with UWI and the government is not involved, other than the fact that UWI said they would not undertake the project if the government did not guarantee the loan.”
Guy Joseph says the prime minister’s behavior was typical. “Let’s remember that famous episode, when three government senators questioned a loan guarantee for Helenair,” Joseph went on. “All three were fired. But I will not be silenced. The people have a right to know what they are guaranteeing. The Finance Act demands it. But this is typical of the prime minister, who seems to hold himself above the law.”
As for the committee, which was not voted on, the Castries Southeast MP said: “If the prime minister is serious about me heading a committee then that body should be the Public Accounts Committee. He has not tabled a public accounts meeting since returning to office. That’s disturbing, shameful and contemptuous of the people!”
Just before press time, the Castries Southeast MP informed the STAR that he planned to take the matter further, “to the courts if we must!” In Saint Lucia section 41 of the Finance (Administration) Act as it relates to government guarantees, requires ministers to fully disclose before parliament the name of the borrower, financial status, ability to repay, purpose of loan and so on, in advance of government guarantees.