PHILIPSBURG:--- On the 8th of September 2020, we had a historic opening of the parliamentary year we are closing today. Tomorrow the opening ritual will take place again like is customary throughout the Kingdom of the Netherlands. There is one big difference though, the opening of the parliamentary year in the Netherlands with the Crown Speech is followed by the presentation of the budget of the “Kingdom” government, one of the many abnormalities our constitutional system engenders. Our budget is as with so many things to reach this parliament……on its way.
According to our constitution, the governor will tomorrow present the government’s statement, in other words, His Excellency the Governor will be presenting to the parliament and the people, the National Alliance/United People Party plans for the coming parliamentary year.
While during last year’s presentation by the governor, the emphasis of that presentation was understandably on the Corona pandemic that had engulfed us by then, slowly but surely we come face to face with the reality that there is no way forward by going back to pre-covid. Today is the new normal!
HE Governor Holiday stated in his 2020 message that “we should come together to turn this crisis into a common purpose.”
Government’s agenda was dominated by the response measures to the outbreak of the pandemic. I present you some sound bites of his excellency’s speech on behalf of the government of St. Maarten.
• Government is committed to working with social partners, businesses, and labor unions to realize their priorities.
• The National Development Vision 2030 and the development goals are their guiding principles.
• Community consultation to obtain input from the various partners for the development vision is a critical part of the preparation process.
• A focus on a targeted approach towards those without a second tier of pension and those with a partial AOV.
• Reduce dependence on fossil fuel, pursue an energy policy anchored on solar energy and reduce the electrical bill.
• Introduce public financial management reform.
It was also clear that this government puts a lot of emphasis on and hope in the Trust Fund-funded, World Bank-managed Dutch hurricane Irma assistance.
And the list goes on.
Still, this funding remains a source of much debate and the government continues to lament the slow pace and the bureaucracy, without taking its share of the blame for the delays caused in some of the same major projects due to its own internal wrangling. But rather they paint the program black, hiding behind “previous administrations”.
Projects such as the airport, hospital were highlighted as major investments, yet both these projects were unnecessarily delayed during the past parliamentary year by the current administration.
What I do know is that had this government picked up where the UD-lead government had left off (ousted, if you wish), we would have been years further with the financial improvement plan, the proposed tax plan, the national health insurance (universal coverage) and the economic recovery plan presented by that government.
Granted, like the rest of the world, St. Maarten was not spared the onslaught of a pandemic that still has the world in its grip. It is therefore understandable that on a kingdom level, relations have been and are expected to be dominated by the covid crisis.
At the closing of the 20/21 parliamentary year, I rhetorically asked 2 questions:
What will we hear on behalf of the government of SXM? What will the government present to the people of St. Maarten?
And the second question: How effective was the parliament? What did parliament do?
I stated then and that statement remains just as valid today: “Without a clear vision of the government, parliament will be, yes expressions of the individual members and factions, their feelings, their sentiments, and their criticism, but the fact is that our accomplishments as a parliament are tied very much to the course established by the government and the coalition members supporting that government.”
The few initiative laws that have passed through parliament, primarily initiated by me are with the government and they will decide the successful implementation. To mention these, the timeshare law and the ban on plastic bags etc.
“Without a clear government’s position, a clear government’s vision, a clear government’s path, the parliament of St. Maarten might get some satisfaction in presenting motions in parliament, in posing questions, but if you look at it from a country’s perspective, how much has been accomplished?”
A lot has happened since the opening of the parliamentary year that we are closing today.
It is now evident that we need to focus on our short and medium-term future, if not with the Covid 19 pandemic foremost on our mind, then surely its aftermath. This virus and its effects on our economies, our health, our communities are going to be with us for a long time.
We don’t know how long the vaccines will protect the vaccinated. We don’t know if boosters will become the norm.
The proverbial elephant in the room is the lack of cohesion in this administration where major matters are concerned.
Today, some of the ministers stand proudly for a photo op, but at the same time criticize the Netherlands, the World Bank, and even our own NRPB.
We complain at IPKO about the management of the Trust Fund, conveniently forgetting the role of this administration, that came in on an anti-Dutch agenda, but was faced with no other option than to accept what was.
Don’t be fooled by the caretaker’s status of the Dutch government. Don’t be fooled by the political impasse in the Netherlands. The agreement brokered by the St. Maarten government is a long-term agreement and we might as well “man up” to that. Stop holding out to the people that this is a temporary situation. It is not!
The Governor also implored during his 20/21 presentation to work together, to plan together. But how can parliament work or even contribute meaningfully to the debate, if the government and its support in parliament conveniently schedule meetings, conveniently answer questions, and prefer meetings behind closed doors mostly.
Last year stood in the context of the covid 19 pandemic. The government needed the space to take responsible decisions and I for one pretty much gave them that space, balancing that with my constitutional duty to represent the people.
But where is the social dialogue the governor spoke so passionately about? Dialogue with business, civil society and parliament. The entire population should not and can not be held hostage for changes of ministers and delay in appointment of ministers.
Taxes: how long have factions, including my own not implored this government to discuss the tax regime and tax administration of St. Maarten. I presented proposals for consideration and that was more than one year ago. We heard nothing. Now we have the country package that says one thing; CFT that says another thing; the ministry of TEATT has its own solution by means of a transaction tax. In comes the FAD of the IMF with its report, now making its rounds in the halls of government and parliament awaits.
There is nothing original in the Country Package of St. Maarten. Because when we should have been at the table, we were here flexing our muscles and trying to uphold the anti-Dutch agenda. After all, was that not the motivation for the fall of the Leona Marlin cabinet? The country package is now one size fits for the 3 Caribbean countries, with one or 2 lines here and there, because of the differences due to e.g the French side; the fact that Aruba has its own central bank, and so forth.
St. Maarten Country package is a copy-paste, because of our stonewalling.
In June I wrote to the honorable PM regarding this, as it was clear for the blind to see that no way could we manage the things as prescribed in the first implementation agenda within the timeframes presented.
I heard an interesting remark from the Minister of Finance of Curacao during an interview he had with a journalist in the Netherlands recently. That remark was and I paraphrase “that now the parliaments will have to approve the implementation agendas and they will get 14 days to do so.” Another onslaught on the creativity that the parliament should be demonstrating.
Is that how the governments of the 3 countries ensured that the parliaments will have some say in the COHO story when these implementation agendas are based on the country package? Taking the position of “once it is not against our laws and our autonomy” is a cheap cop-out.
COHO in my opinion is an agreed to form of higher supervision, I hope the version that the governments, including ours, agreed to will prove me wrong on this point.
So much time has been spent on the topic of decolonization, without presenting a clear understanding of what it is that we want. Letters and motions back and forth between those who should be collaborating, namely the government and its coalition.
The Kingdom of the Netherlands is in a very peculiar position vis-à-vis the United Nations. On one level, the Netherlands is reporting on behalf of the Kingdom in the presence of the other countries for whom it is also reporting, and on the other hand the other countries (or at least St. Maarten) are complaining the Netherlands (read the Kingdom) to a body of the UN.
I think that this administration wants political independence from the Kingdom, but lacks the gumption to call it that. “A full measure of self-government” within the current constellation is a new charter, that no way the UN or any other body can force upon the other parties in the Kingdom.
Furthermore, Knops has reported to the second chamber that in executing a Second Chamber motion of former MP van Raak and others, the countries including St. Maarten agreed to establish a workgroup, that will get started shortly. And this workgroup will address or at least investigate the filling in of the responsibilities of the countries individually and of the Kingdom collectively.
In fact, in IPKO, just a few weeks ago, the parliaments, including St. Maarten decided to do exactly that. Yet, our esteemed parliament engages with the very UN Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination that the government of St. Maarten sits alongside the Netherlands and reports to. And we wonder why we are confusing ourselves and others. I had to learn from a colleague’s letter to the Prime Minister that our President of Parliament engaged with the Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination. Whose mandate was this?
The government is approaching this wrongly and divisively and the only ones to suffer are the people who are relying on the government to know what fights to pick and when to pick their fights.
It is this same government that sits in IPKO and professes that they want to better the relationships within the Kingdom of the Netherlands. So what exactly is it that the government wants OUT of this relationship.
IPKO declaration: “The delegations have jointly identified three action points: - The Kingdom of the Netherlands is a party to the Charter of the United Nations. The countries of the Kingdom are not individual. As a result, Caribbean countries are restricted in their access to UN climate finance. The Kingdom Government is asked to bring the political structure within the Kingdom to the attention of the UN.”
The Governor implored during his 20/21 presentation to work together, to plan together. 8 months ago, I requested a meeting of the Constitutional and Decolonization committee of this parliament to discuss this matter. 8 months!
Our minister of Justice came out guns blazing ( no pun intended) to clean up the immigration situation. And then it went quiet. But what is our unemployment today? How does that number relate to requests for foreign work permits? How is that synchronization going? A Meeting with the VSA and Justice ministers on Immigration and foreign work permits was requested 4 months ago.
Health: who can forget the elaborate presentation here in parliament by Ethegrity. They were poised to solve our mental issues. Never heard anything else. Today we hear government is busy with its mental health policy; updating the one that was there and there is a project with The World Bank for the Mental Health Foundation. Where is the urgency for this, when so many of our people face mental issues due to a myriad of reasons? We have no proper facility and many family members are left to fend for themselves due to the high demand for care.
ENERGY: His Excellency said last year that the government’s energy policy is premised on solar energy. I guess the energy policy that was there was either tweaked or discarded without any policy initiatives having been undertaken. Is this a priority in accordance with the implementation agenda(s)?
I would need another meeting for GEBE. Will this too play out until the first one bites the dust? Do we have to be nudged before resolute action is undertaken? New corporate governance rules are urgently needed.
Electoral Reform: I am still awaiting a meeting of the committee for electoral reform to be called, one I requested 11 months ago.
Universal Health coverage: asked for a meeting 4 months ago. What am I expected to do? Go on a rant on radio, TV, and social media?
Tomorrow the governor will deliver the government’s statement to parliament for this new parliamentary year. But that will not be worth the paper it is written on, if not aligned with the country package and implementation agenda. Ideally, this statement should have been accompanied by the budget.
The people should hold us responsible for supervising the government. The people should hold us responsible for not contributing to the debate. Which motions of parliament has the government executed? No wonder some members of parliament are taking over the role of government.
DOES THE GOVERNING COALITION SPEAK? When I see its motions and hear its members speak, I need to ask: DOES THIS COALITION SPEAK?. Do you speak to one another?
Are we going to play the same tune with waste management? And beat up on the world bank and previous governments for what we face now.
Our Social security woes and the National Health Insurance. Remember that? Now we are doing a piecemeal, but what is the larger picture going forward?
Budget right: much excitement for the amendments by members of parliament. But the budget is not yet ratified. Mid-September!!
We need indexes along with the plans of approach that are in the making by the government. That’s the first thing we should have agreed to, to be performed. Social progress index, governance index, and rule of law index. What is our current state in these areas, objectively established?
Our countries are not the same on every level, such as social progress, integration, cohesion, immigration. So we should not accept a blanket solution. The United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) are a big thing in the Netherlands. We should make them that here too. And move from the abstract that the implementation agendas are, to concrete goals, such as those against poverty, for housing, small businesses, women, elderly, youth, the environment, climate change, which is a real and present danger. Such collaboration presents an opportunity for us.
In closing, I hope these topics are reflected by the government in its presentation. I await with much anticipation, the degree of realism in the plans of government in relation to:
• The country package
• The implementation agenda
• The country budget
• The kingdom charter/decolonization efforts/relationship with the Netherlands.