February 17th, 2022
Honorable Asot Michael
Member of Parliament for St Peter’s
Honorable Sir. Gerald Watt, Speaker of the House of Representatives
Honorable Members of the House of Representatives
Country men and women of Antigua and Barbuda
I thank the good Lord for the great joy and honor of being able to serve the people of the St Peter’s constituency in particular and the people of Antigua and Barbuda in general.
It is very difficult to stand and speak freely on anything in this Parliament, let alone the Budget Statement, because whether you agree or disagree, as I have learnt in recent years, you will be attacked and vilified in the most brutal manner.
Nonetheless Mr Speaker, this where the people expect to hear the voices of their elected representatives on national development issues of concern to them. And so, I must speak.
Let me first of all commend the Prime Minister and Minister of Finance and his teams in Cabinet and in the Public Service for the 2022 Budget Statement under the theme “Setting the Stage for Economic Rejuvenation”.
This statement detailing the plans for spending the funds of the state in this financial year offers hope that better days are coming for the citizens of this blessed land challenged to survive and struggling to thrive in difficult, unforgiving economic circumstances.
The 2022 fiscal strategy prescriptions are presented with an optimistic future outlook and in the context of claims that the performance of this government exemplifies the high ideals of good governance.
For example, Mr. Speaker, we heard much from the Prime Minister about:
“Swift and responsible action by government, which put the health and well-being of all our people first… good, effective governance (that) puts our people at the front and centre of our policies and programmes”.
According to the Budget Statement:
“Our people’s well-being comes first, second, last and always… government continues to promote and protect the best interest of our people. And we do so by deed, not by words. We do so by evident action, not by making empty promises”.
The Prime Minister said that in handling the affairs of Antigua and Barbuda in 2021:
“Solid leadership and sound direction paid off. There is no substitute for them, no matter how loud may be the noise emanating from the banging of empty drums. This, is creative and beneficial leadership that comes from financial expertise, experience and a successful track record in finance and investment”.
It is against this background of what the Prime Minister considers to be the visionary and creative thinking that this government brings to the economic advancement of every Antiguan and Barbudan…
It is against this background of what is presented in the 2022 Budget Statement as leadership that has advanced our country and improved the lives of our people… that I address once again in this Honourable House the pressing infrastructure, health care, sporting, education and other vital interests of the people of:
- Vernons & Vernons estate
- Gunthorpes & Sugar Factory
- Mount Joy
- Fitches Creek
- Jumby Bay
These residential areas comprise the St Peters constituency that I have been privileged to represent in this Parliament as a member of the Antigua & Barbuda Labour Party since 2004.
This constituency has voted for the Antigua & Barbuda Labour Party in every single election since we received the right to vote seventy-one years ago.
St Peters voted for the Labour Party candidate Donald Sheppard as parliamentary representative in 1951, 1956, 1960 and 1965
St Peters voted for the Labour Party candidate Joseph Myers as parliamentary representative in 1971, 1976, 1980, 1984 and 1989
St Peters voted for the Labour Party candidate Longford Jeremy as parliamentary representative in 1994 and 1999
And, Mr. Speaker,
St Peters voted for Labour Party candidate yours truly as parliamentary representative in 2004, 2009, 2014 and 2018
Parliamentary Representative, Mr. Speaker, Parliamentary Representative.
It means a citizen who is chosen by the majority of electors in a particular electoral district or constituency to be the representative of that constituency in Parliament – the highest decision-making body on national affairs.
In representing the views and interests of constituents, the Parliamentary Presentative is required to participate in the debate and enactment of laws for the good and just governance of Antigua and Barbuda; and to advocate for equal economic opportunities and adequate state resources for development and maintenance of education, health and community building facilities, roads and public utilities.
Parliamentary representatives like myself who do not hold any Cabinet portfolios and are usually referred to as backbenchers, also have an important oversight responsibility to help ensure government is accountable to Parliament for efficient, economical, transparent stewardship of state resources
We have a crisis of parliamentary representation in this country… A crisis in which the resources of state needed to finance development across all constituencies equitably are used by ruling party politicians to punish or reward according to the requirements of their political agenda to control the public will… A crisis in which opposing and/or victimized parliamentary representatives are rendered voiceless and their constituencies suffer for want of government attention to their development needs and interests.
The constituency I represent sits on the horns of that crisis, which hopefully we will find the courage to address and resolve in this 2022 Budget Debate.
This Budget Year is looking more and more like an election year, which means that the people will have an opportunity within the next twelve months to re-elect or change their representatives as they see fit.
Free and fair elections are a critical part of this parliamentary democracy, which allows citizens to determine who will be the recipient of the transfer their power to run the affairs of government of the people, by the people for the people.
So let the campaign begin. Let it not be about worsening the crisis of parliamentary representation; and let it not be about clever ways to abuse incumbency and corrupt the public will. Let it only be about the people’s vote of conscience choice of a government to secure the best Antigua and Barbuda for all the sons and daughters of Antigua and Barbuda.
I faithfully promised the good people of St Peter that I would dedicate my efforts to the progressive development of the constituency and the education, health, economic empowerment, prosperity and safety of all constituents
It was my hope that honest, faithful representation of the interests of the constituency would help to ensure a fair share of state resources to continuously improve the socio-economic infrastructure of St Peter.
The legitimate expectation of the constituents of St Peter is that government, especially one that prides itself on putting people “at the front and center of its policies and programs”, would provide adequate state funding to:
- Create jobs that would be challenging and rewarding and allow our young people to reach their full potential.
- Develop our housing stock,
- Expand and refurbish our road network
- ensure a reliable supply of water and electricity
- improve health care, education and community development programs.
- Support the elderly, the disabled, the unemployed and most vulnerable among us.
Truth be told, Mr. Speaker, through the years, government has fallen well short of meeting these expectations.
Today, my detractors and those who seek to use representation of the people of St Peter for their own selfish purposes are asking what has Asot Michael done for St Peter? Where is the constituency institution or building standing in his name? Really?
My legacy lives not in any physical structure, but in the hearts of all those whose lives have been improved by the assistance I have been able to provide throughout the constituency in the absence of government support, including but not limited to:
- Full scholarships to secondary school, college and university
- Primary and secondary school supplies
- Laptops, tablets and IT connectivity
- Financial assistance for medical attention locally and overseas
- Financial assistance for home construction and repair
- Sponsorship of sports teams and events
- Sponsorship of artistes and musicians
- Cash grants for small business development
- Cash grants for the payment of utility bills
- Livelihood income support for the vulnerable
- Annual care and goodwill packages for all households
It is a great honor and privilege to be there for the causes that need assistance in St Peter above and beyond what is reasonably expected of parliamentary representatives in democracies around the world. But I am only human and only one man… there is only so much I can do which will never replace what government is duty bound to do with the resources of the state.
My vision has always been about economic transformation capable of generating the opportunities that will allow constituents to do better for themselves, their families and their loved ones. In this regard, we wanted to build a house of many rooms. The foundation would be the St Peter’s Trust Foundation, a non-political, non-profit organization through which we would transform this beautiful town of Parham.
The plan was two-fold. We wanted to restore Parham to its former glory in the eyes of all Antiguans and Barbudans while creating lasting employment and other economic opportunities for the people of St Peter’s.
The Honorable Prime Minister is fully aware of the study that was done under the Lester Bird administration by the OAS for the complete refurbishment and modernization of Parham – the first town in Antigua and Barbuda
The study provided a comprehensive plan to develop the waterfront, marinas, duty free shopping facilities, arts and crafts, historical buildings like the market, the post office, the police station and the St Peters Anglican Church – an Antiguan landmark.
We have been sitting on this national responsibility to develop a first-class tourist attraction and international business community for too long. It is time to get the job done, not just for the people of St Peters but for all of Antigua.
We spend hundreds of millions of dollars every year on public sector investment projects. The amount budgeted for this financial year is 181 million. More than 25 years later, government is still unable to find 10 million dollars to start this project and expedite its completion with grants and concessionary funding from friendly governments and multi-lateral aid institutions.
In this constituency, we help ourselves as much as we can, but even in the abundance of government development assistance, we are on our own.
We got a Cabinet Decision to use 3 acres of land in Parham for a multi-purpose recreation and educational center for both the youth and the elderly in the constituency. It would have provided for:
- A 150-unit Computer Clinic to replace the computer facility that was burnt to the ground in the 2009 election,
- A modern Library
- Night Classes to teach a range of subjects
- A Day-Care Centre
- A Senior Citizens Recreational Centre
The estimated cost was 2.4 million dollars
We also had a Cabinet Decision to use 2 acres of land in Pares for a similar facility. Both of them would be privately funded and required only the use of state lands
The land in Parham was surveyed for transfer to the St Peter’s trust. But after relieving me of ministerial duties in 2017, the Prime Minister then decided that I need to prepare a feasibility study and business plan to justify the need for 3 acres instead of just 1 acre.
The Pares Clinic and the government subsidized Day Care Centre in Parham have been shut down for a number of years. The constituency is in desperate need of the facilities.
Yet Government has put a hold the lands for the multi-purpose education and recreation centers in Parham and Pares. So, the projects cannot proceed.
From 2004 to 2014, I watched the overall neglect and abandonment of the constituency by the UPP as political punishment for voting preference in a parliamentary democracy.
In the 2011 Budget debate, 11 years ago, I complained in this Honorable House:
- That St Peters, had become the most run down, ramshackle and decrepit constituency in Antigua and Barbuda.
- That With no public assistance, the public infrastructure is in total disrepair and vital community services like health care, education and sports continue to be neglected.
- That Not one red cent of the tax dollars paid by the constituents of St Peter is put back in the area for their benefit.
- That The football field in Pares was not yet in use; the Parham basketball court had graduated into the category of forest where farmers tie their hungry goats; the MP spends $1,700 to cut the field every month because the Ministry of Sports refuses to cut it…
- That the Ministry of Sports is also refusing to replace the lights on the basketball and football fields; the 800-thousand-dollar fence around the Parham football has fallen down and those responsible for fixing it are totally unconcerned.
- That CBH would not even clean and disinfect the gutters throughout the constituency.
- That there was no basic equipment in the health clinics and the Day Care Centre was not getting any assistance from Government
- That in 2004, the constituents of St Peter were the first to be sent home from public works and CBH… They survived by the grace of God.
- I complained that such crass victimization of a community of people all because of the political preference of the majority of its voters, is uncivilized and has no place in our democracy; and that we have a Christian duty to stop it immediately.
That was then and that is also now… even worse now
In 2014 The Antigua and Barbuda Labour Party took over the reins of government. Nothing changed. Guess why? Because the Prime Minister took the position that since the parliamentary representative enjoyed such strong and seemed unbeatable in the constituency, state resources for constituency development should go to constituencies where the support was less strong and seemingly vulnerable. I was told that I had won overwhelmingly at every election and I should therefore allow other candidates a chance to get state funds spent on infrastructure in their constituencies. Being a selfless party man, I tried to be understanding. I waited patiently.
Before the election of 2018, as a broken-hearted parliamentarian I reflected with great sadness on the appalling treatment of my constituents by my sitting ABLP government even after utilizing millions from my family financial resources to win the 2014 election. I decided that something needed to be done.
I engaged every single heavy duty equipment operator in Antigua and Barbuda (including new Gaston Brown hopeful, my prodigal son Rawdon Turner) at the cost of well over one and a half million dollars to my family, to clear cassie bush on hundreds of acres of land; clean out and excavate public ponds; grade dilapidated roads; purchase allin and stone for the roads; purchase street lights to put on state-owned lamp posts; repair and fix the Sugar Factory Cricket ground and the fence around the Parham football field.
The Antigua & Barbuda Labour Party of which I am a proud member became the government again in 2018 and the pattern of neglect and abandonment of St Peters, the largest constituency by land mass, continued.
In recent years, the Housing Project in Paynter’s, which is part of the constituency of St Peter, benefited persons from other constituencies much more than the constituents of St Peter.
There are over four hundred recommendations from me sitting at the Central Housing and Planning Authority and the Ministry of Lands on behalf of constituents who are able to pay the deposit and monthly instalment on state lands being sold in the constituency. The long frustrating wait continues. And every time… every time state lands are made available for sale in St Peters the lion’s share always goes to persons from other constituencies.
The leadership of our party claims in this budget statement that it benefits from learning the lessons of history. But, right before our eyes, it is presiding over the same neglect and abandonment of the constituency that Joseph (Uncle Joe) Myers endured under VC Bird 40 years ago. My predecessors turn in their graves.
The people of St Peter gave their Antigua and Barbuda Labour Party candidates decisive mandates at the polls for more than seven decades. The St Peters delegates of the ABLP voted unanimously for Hon Gaston Browne at the two conventions in which he contested the leadership of the party. Today, that same ABLP leader wants to violate the ABLP constitution to dictate to the people of St Peter who their ABLP candidate should be at the next election?
What makes the constituents of St Peters so different from all the other citizens of Antigua and Barbuda? What justifies the discrimination against them? When will they receive their just desserts from the public resources in this parliamentary democracy?
I have listened with interest over the years as my Labour Party colleagues reeled off the infrastructure, health care, social service improvements in their constituencies… amazing road works, for example, in St John’s City West, St John’s Rural East and St John’s Rural North…
The lives of the people of the St Peters constituency matter. They are sons and daughters of this land who pay taxes like everyone else and therefore deserve their fair share of the national pie just like their brothers, sisters and comrades in other constituencies. Their representative spends more from his pocket attending to the needs of his constituents than any other MP in Antigua’s history. They have been patient. They have meekly waited. They have murmured not. It seems, regardless of which government is in office, the more neglect and abandonment they take, the more they are expected to take.
Injustice is injustice. The people of St Peter deserve a lot better than they have been forced to endure. They have been taken for granted by the party, now in government, that they have faithfully supported for seven decades. It is not right. It is not fair. It makes a complete mockery of representation in a parliamentary democracy.
I share a special bond with the people of the St Peters constituency, and they have noted with deep regret, the high-handed, undemocratic, unchristian moves within the leadership of the Antigua and Barbuda Labour Party to replace me as their parliamentary representative.
In our house-to-house engagements over the past six months they have empathized with me and prayed with me and encouraged me to keep standing for the best Antigua and Barbuda for all Antiguans and Barbudans. They know the truth and facts of the struggle to develop the constituency in the face of deliberate government neglect and abandonment. They know what is right. They know what is wrong. They know what is good. They know what is evil. They know that Asot cares for all the people. They know the sincerity of my commitment to their wellbeing, progress and happiness.
Notwithstanding the trials and tribulations that surround me, the people of the St Peters constituency have asked me to continue as their representative for a fifth straight term in parliament. And by the grace of God, I will.
The ABLP Constitution provides that “the Constituency Branch shall be responsible for the election of a candidate for General Elections whenever it becomes necessary”. It is not a responsibility given to any individual or group of persons seeking to subvert the constituency will for their own selfish reasons.
As a Christian of conscience, I say to my comrades of Labour, please listen, as I have done, to the voice of the people. I came in peace; I serve in peace with love and devotion. Let all the fighting cease. Now is the time for the sons and daughters of Labour to bind together to consolidate the position our party in the governance of Antigua and Barbuda
I say to this honorable House once again, I come from the bowels of Labour and our struggle to perfect this democracy runs in my blood. The union of Asot Michael and the Antigua and Barbuda Labour party is no accident. It is a product of dedication to the politics of Labour in the advancement of Antigua and Barbuda.
And so, Mr. Speaker, only the people of the St Peters constituency will decide whether I continue as their representative and only the people of Antigua and Barbuda will decide when I hang up the boots of political life and call it a day. The idea of bullying a faithful, committed, loyal soldier of Labour out of this honorable responsibility, is unthinkable. Indeed, it is contrary to high ideals of love and human kindness on which our party stands.
I serve a righteous God and his people in this blessed land. In that cause, I stand firm for health, wealth, progress, peace, order, justice, a level playing field, and caring, accountable governance for all.
I thank the constituents of St Peter… the Gramps Morgan classic reminds me that they give a little more than they take… that they try to fix more than they break… and they are the kind that helps strangers in the rain… so there is a place up there for people like them… up there where the streets are paved with gold and they will find a hand to hold.
The Prime Minister’s enlightened philosophies of ENTREPRENEURIAL SOCIALISM and EMPOWERMENT CAPITALISM need to be rescued from the basket of clichés to become real and tangible policies that permeate the entire spectrum of the Antigua and Barbuda society.
Beginning in this budget year, let us step away from piece-meal, catch-a-vote schemes and ensure empowerment for the entrepreneurial dreams and capitalist ventures of all indigenous black people and businesses who still happen to be more than 70% of our population.
Let us ensure that the Antigua and Barbuda Labour Party remains properly aligned with the equality principles of human development that V. C. Bird championed. All shall eat. All shall rise.
Water is life. We have a water supply problem that has gone from one administration to the next with more blame and back and forth criticisms between political parties than proper solutions. In this budget year, we are doing it again. “UPP did nothing about the problem for 10 years in office”; but “ABLP has been in office for the last eight years and is only now talking about arrangements to meet the nation’s daily water requirements”
There is a remedial plan in this budget statement. The money required will be approved. Let us focus on effective implementation to relieve the water woes of the people.
The young people of this country and the marginalized working class want to see what is in this year’s budget to meaningfully facilitate their participation in nation building for the benefit of themselves and their families.
This Budget Statement features numerous claims that this government is a stand-out practitioner of good governance. I only wish to remind the Cabinet of ministers and the citizens of this country that good governance is what it is, and not what the Prime Minister says it is in Antigua and Barbuda. And the proof of the pudding remains in the eating.
Good governance is not a series of flowery words of self-praise in a budget statement.
It is not publicly crucifying with hate speeches in the most offensive language those who criticize government policy
It is not ensuring that those who exercise the right to protest for rights do not progress in their country.
It is not bullying others to accept your way or take the highway
It is not teargassing innocent citizens protesting for the right to decide whether they want to be vaccinated or not
It is not ridiculing and demonizing Heads of Government in neighboring Caribbean countries perceived to be standing in the way of getting what the Antigua and Barbuda leader wants
Good governance is about respect for human rights; honest conduct of public affairs; and transparent and accountable management of public resources in a manner essentially free of abuse and corruption and with due regard for the rule of law.
Finally, Mr. Speaker,
Irrational exuberance from government in times like these to sell itself as the exemplar of good governance often leads to errors that only serve to undermine credibility.
Here is an example:
In the Budget Statement, at page 3 of the printed text, we read:
“The policies and initiatives of this government delivered growth of 5.3 per cent in 2021.
“By any objective standard, Mr. Speaker, turning around the economy by more than 25 percentage points from a contraction of 20.2 per cent in 2020 to growth of 5.3 per cent in 2021 is a phenomenal feat”.
Mr. Speaker, there was no 25 percent turnaround in the economy from 2020 to 2021. The economy lost 20.2 percent of its 2019 value in 2020 and increased that reduced 2020 value by 5.3 percent in 2021. This means that at the end of 2021 the economy was still 15 percent below its 2019 value. If the GDP in 2021 is still 500 million less than the 4.5 billion in 2019, how could you possibly achieve a 25 percent turnaround from a contraction of 20.2 percent in 2020.
Yet, this reality is what the budget statement uses to tell this honorable house about “true competence… astute management of scarce resources… with integrity and skill in the best interest of the people and always delivering on its promises… We leave empty promises, deceitful statements, and tax numbers that do not add up, to others who promised in the past, and did not deliver…”
But get the numbers right. Because the numbers don’t lie. And those who misinterpret and/or misrepresent their own numbers to pull wool over the eyes of an unsuspecting public will be hard pressed to develop and deliver credible economic development strategies for the benefit of the people of Antigua and Barbuda
I close with the words of a favorite song of Christians around the world:
In Christ alone my hope is found
He is my light, my strength, my song
This cornerstone, this solid ground
Firm through the fiercest drought and storm
What heights of love, what depths of peace
When fears are stilled, when strivings cease
My comforter, my all in all
Here in the love of Christ I stand
No guilt in life, nor fear in death
This is the power of Christ in me
From life’s first cry to final breath
Jesus commands my destiny
No power of hell, no scheme of man
Can ever pluck me from His hand
Till He returns or calls me home
Here in the power of Christ I’ll stand…”
I thank you!
God Bless you… and God Bless the wonderful people of Antigua and Barbuda.