Address of the Governor of St. Maarten on the occasion of the opening of Parliament 2016-2017

PHILIPSBURG, St. Maarten -

THE GOVERNOR’S ADDRESS

DELIVERED BY THE GOVERNOR OF SINT MAARTEN

HIS EXCELLENCY DRS. EUGENE B. HOLIDAY

ON THE OCCASION OF THE

OPENING OF THE 2016/2017 PARLIAMENTARY YEAR

TUESDAY, SEPTEMBER 13, 2016

Madam Chairlady, Members of Parliament,

A pleasant good morning and congratulations to the people of Sint Maarten and the members of Parliament on the opening of the 2016-2017 parliamentary year.

In keeping with our Constitution, this event, held on the second Tuesday of September of each year, marks the beginning of a new political year. On this occasion I, in my capacity as Governor of Sint Maarten, as regulated ought to present you and thus the people of our country with an outline of the policy plans of the government for the coming year.

Today we do so just 13 days before the September 26th parliamentary election. As a result the composition of Parliament will change on October 31st; while a new Council of Ministers will be formed and installed based on a majority in the new Parliament thereafter. In the interim, between now and the installation of a new Council of Ministers, the government is to continue to take care of the interests of the people.

In view of this transitional reality, this address will, considering the prevailing domestic socio-economic conditions, the global economic climate and government’s policy program, provide an outline of the policy challenges and opportunities for the upcoming year. And in doing so, present a socio-economic policy framework aimed at fostering continuity in governance anchored on a sound financial foundation.

Madam Chairlady, Members of Parliament,

Our economy is expected to expand by about 0.7% this year,reflecting a slight increase compared to the 0.5% in 2015. The slow growth can in large part be attributed to domestic political fragility and the tempered economic developments in our main trading partner and tourism market, the United States. Inflation remains low at 0.3% in 2015 and around 1% in 2016, in large part reflecting low United States inflation and low international energy prices. Meanwhile, the population is growing due to immigration and people are living longer leading to an aging populace resulting in increased pressure on social, healthcare and pension systems. Unemployment rates are trending downwards to around 8.7% in 2016, but remain high among the youth. Mentioned low growth coupled with tax compliance issues have left government revenues under pressure resulting in reduced fiscal space.

To govern its affairs effectively a country, and Sint Maarten is no exception, ought to have political and fiscal stability. Stability is a necessary condition to facilitate public and private investments, which are required to strengthen economic growth to meet the socio-economic needs of our people. As a result government’s policy agenda has and continues to be geared at bringing about reforms to encourage greater political stability and to putting its financial household in order.  

Madam Chairlady, Members of Parliament,

To encourage greater political stability government, having considered various electoral reform alternatives, initiated legislative reforms to address ship-jumping. As a result government has prepared a draft constitutional amendment. With the amendment, government proposes to exclude members of Parliament who declare themselves independent from the political party with which they were elected to Parliament from participating in the process to appoint ministers.

In keeping with the legislative process government has presented its draft proposal to the Council of Advice and the Kingdom Council of Ministers for review. It has now made adjustments to its draft proposal based on legal concerns raised by the Council of Advice and the Kingdom Government and intends to present the draft constitutional amendment to Parliament for approval within short. Government considers resolving the issue of ship-jumping of paramount importance for the long term development of our country.

In terms of electoral reform the government, in addition, believes that it is important to keep the island’s youth involved in its development. The government has as a result initiated the process for a constitutional amendment to expand voter eligibility aimed at allowing students living abroad to vote. The draft legislation has been reviewed by the Council of Advice and will be presented to Parliament.

Madam Chairlady, Members of Parliament,

Moreover, government, faced with limited fiscal space and considering the immediate and long term importance of fiscal stability, has placed the realization of fiscal stability at the forefront of its policy agenda. And it is expected to continue to be an important policy challenge for the coming period. Government has as a result taken steps to create sustainable budgetary conditions. The first step towards achieving this entailed the presentation and approval of a balanced budget for 2016 along with multi-annual financial plans. A step that was taken to comply with existing regulatory fiscal rules and to address the concerns of the financial instruction given by the Kingdom government in 2015. Key policy decisions in this regard have been:

  1. The strengthening of procedures to tighten spending controls;
  2. The improvement of the quality and timeliness of the budget for greater accountability; and
  3. The preparation of plans to invest in the strengthening of the tax administration and collection.

Looking ahead, it is essential to invest in the tax administration to help curb the trend in revenues and realize structural increases.

Committed to its public service responsibility to the citizens of Sint Maarten, government has, within its limited financial space, directed its attention to the following priorities:

  • First, the building and strengthening of capacity in terms of Sint Maarten’s human, physical and cultural capital;
  • Second, the securing of the safety and security of our citizens and visitors; and
  • Third, the facilitation and creation of sustainable tourism and economic growth and development.

Madam Chairlady, Members of Parliament,

We live in an ever changing and dynamic environment and government must always be equipped to help address the challenges our people face. Government recognizes and is appreciative of the vital role civil servants play in the functioning of government and service to the community. As a result government believes that it is essential to invest in its human capital through continued training of civil servants and by providing the resources necessary for them to continue to grow in the fulfillment of their functions. Based on internal review sessions of the ombudsman and senior civil servants, government believes that this can best be achieved by drawing on its pool of experienced and knowledgeable civil servants. This to provide regular "refresher courses" to civil servants and specialized training to the staff in the cabinets of the ministers.

A key element in government’s program to enhance the level and quality of public services is its investment to realize the move to the New Government Building. The service improvements of this capital investment are expected to come from:

  1. the centralization of services which will lead to convenience and efficiency gains for the public;
  2. the improved working conditions for civil servants; and
  3. the budget savings because of lower rental expenses.

Madam Chairlady, Members of Parliament,

With an eye on the future, government believes that capacity building naturally starts in our schools, with the education of our children. Regardless of the nature of the challenges we face and of our views on how best to address them, we agree that a strong educational foundation is a prerequisite for success. Important societal factors in this regard are a growing student population and the need to improve learning outcomes to meet the needs of the labor market. It is in that respect that government launched its education on the moveinitiative aimed at getting the entire community involved and at increasing awareness of how important and valuable education is for society.

Government, in the execution of its education policy agenda, has prepared several vital policy documents and draft legislation. These include:

  • First, the finalization of legislation establishing the Council for Labor and Education (Raad van Onderwijs en Arbeid, ROA) in July, aimed at realizing a better balance between education and the labor market;
  • Second, the introduction of regulation for functions, salaries and compensation for our vital teaching staff in May;
  • Third, the draft legislation to regulate the issuance of Study Financing; and
  • Fourth, the Higher Education framework document which addresses the position of institutions for accredited Higher Education.  

Government, in addition to its focus on education, has been working on instituting programs to increase the opportunities for youths to participate in and contribute to our community. As such government has presented its draft Youth Employment Program and Fund to the Social Economic Council for review. The relevant legislation is to be completed for presentation to the Council of Advice and Parliament.

Meanwhile, government continued to work on the further development of proper infrastructure for the implementation of sports and physical education programs for all and in particular for our children and youth. Government’s focus has in this respect been on institutional strengthening for the various sporting organizations and national team development.

Government acknowledges that capacity building ought to go hand in hand with other nation building activities. Government is therefore committed to strengthening national unity and identity. This through its support for and participation in national activities such as Sint Maarten Day, the National Day of Prayer and Emancipation Day.

Noteworthy in this regard are also initiatives to preserve our national heritage. In 2016 such initiatives included:

  1. two programs to assess and map Sint Maarten’s tangible and intangible cultural heritage in collaboration with UNESCO; and
  2. the emergency repairs of Fort Amsterdam as well as the upgrade and repair of the old Salt factory in collaboration with and funded by the Dutch Government.

Madam Chairlady, Members of Parliament,

Our healthcare and social safety net systems, which are required to care for and protect the most vulnerable among us, are under pressure. And they are expected to remain so during this parliamentary year. This is due to structural changes in our population landscape, such as, ageing as mentioned earlier, and due to unexpected outbreaks, such as, Zika. This calls for constant review and timely response.

Government, to address these social and healthcare challenges, has been active strengthening and upgrading systems and facilities as well as responding to the Zika outbreak during the past months. Priorities in this regard included:

  • First, instituting preventative measures, such as eliminating breading grounds and public awareness campaigns, to curb the outbreak of Zika;
  • Second, the completion of the health care study – “How Healthy is Sint Maarten?” – in collaboration with the French side in April 2016, as input for a National Health Care policy;
  • Third, taking steps to introduce legislation for a National Health Insurance Plan to secure affordable and better access to health care for all;
  • Fourth, the finalization of the draft Feasibility study to introduce a mandatory pension system; and
  • Fifth, the execution of the construction tender and ongoing preparations to arrange the financing for the construction of a new hospital aimed at providing solutions for the growing hospital care needs.

Meanwhile, government considering the social needs of our community has continued to work towards improving the living conditions of our citizens. Initiatives in this regard included:

  • First, the recent transfer of land at FOGA Estate to the Sint Maarten Housing Foundation as well as the subdivision and provision of building parcels in the Over-the-Bank area; this for the development of adequate and affordable housing for the population; and
  • Second, the ongoing connection of the main sewage line and homes on the St. Peters Road, as part of the much needed investments in the expansion of the sewage collection network.

Madam Chairlady, Members of Parliament,

To safeguard the stability necessary to improve socio-economic conditions and opportunities it is essential to ensure the safety and security of our people. In this regard our men and women in law enforcement ought to be commended for the work they do. This in particular considering the ongoing challenge to expand the manpower necessary to ensure they can function properly. This due to limited finances and availability of manpower. Noteworthy in this regard are the continued challenges with meeting the requirements to implement the plans of approach for the police force and the prison.

Government is, notwithstanding the limited finances, committed to investing in the strengthening of law enforcement. It has therefore placed the finalization of the regulation of the legal position of police officers and national detectives high on its agenda. This with the objective of placing the officers in their respective positions before the end of the year.

Other important law enforcement initiatives of the government during the past months included:

  1. The introduction of electronic monitoring of juvenile offenders as of June this year;
  2. The investment in the start of the first phase of the camera surveillance project on July 28, 2016, aimed at recording evidence for solving crime;
  3. The investment to realize the Justice Institute of Sint Maarten, with the purchase of the building in Cole bay to, among others, house the shooting range and the forensic department; and
  4. The establishment of the K9-brigade to assist law enforcement entities with combatting crime.

At the same time government has considering the complication of our shared borders continued to work with French authorities to better coordinate island-wide judicial cooperation to combat cross border crime. Noteworthy in this regard are the ongoing talks to develop the required operational protocols to implement the Police Cooperation Treaty which became effective on October 1, 2015.

Government has also continued to work with Kingdom partners and foreign partners in the fight against international crime. This is, among others, reflected in the Memorandum of Understanding regarding the enhancement of existing cooperation and the strengthening of law enforcement and the criminal justice system between the United States, the Netherlands, Aruba, Curacao and Sint Maarten, which was signed on June 2nd of this year.

It is, given the complexities of domestic and international crime, expected that mentioned programs will continue to demand the attention of Parliament in the period ahead. In that regard it is essential to find a good balance between preventative measures - through education - and repressive measures, as we seek to keep our people safe and secure.

Madam Chairlady, Members of Parliament,

Government, in addition to law enforcement, considers maintaining good foreign relations a critical factor for the governance of our small and open country. This because maintaining good foreign relations and strong bonds in the region help Sint Maarten to benchmark, pool resources, build capacity and grow economically. Continuation of close cooperation with French Saint Martin, Kingdom partners and the United States of America are key in that regard. There have been a number of important developments in this area:

  • From a St. Maarten/St. Martin perspective, government is currently involved in preparations for the realization of a sewage treatment plant and network for the Cole Bay area in cooperation with French Saint Martin and with the support of the European Commission;
  • On a regional and international level, Sint Maarten has recently teamed up with regional partners and met with the US government to seek its assistance to address ongoing correspondent banking concerns;
  • And in terms of Kingdom relations, government wishes to draw your attention to the recently concluded Memorandum of Understanding with the Dominican Republic to promote cooperation and trade relations between Sint Maarten and the Dominican Republic.

Drawing from this government believes that more can be done to strengthen ties with its Caribbean counterparts. In keeping with the provisions of the Charter for the Kingdom of the Netherlands, government considers it important to establish a formal basis for regional cooperation. As such, efforts to formalize areas of cooperation are being examined among participating ministries.

Madam Chairlady, Members of Parliament,

The realization of mentioned programs and the creation of new opportunities is heavily dependent on positive developments in the economy. This because economic growth is the main driver of government revenues. As a result government’s economic policy agenda has been and should be geared at facilitating sustainable growth to create income generating opportunities.

Government therefore believes that it is essential to continue to find ways to invest in improving the management and quality of our tourist product and to address expected challenges, such as, the opening up of Cuba. The key elements of Government economic policy agenda during the past period therefore included:

  1. The establishment of the Sint Maarten Tourism Authority Foundation to realize a more effective execution of the tourism policy; and
  2. Investments in the upkeep and enhancement of our country’s infrastructure, such as, the start of the construction of a parking lot at Kim Sha, as part of the Commercial Strip beautification project Cole Bay and Simpson Bay.

Other areas of attention in this regard include;

  1. Investments in a Solid Waste Management Facility to resolve the ongoing debate and concerns regarding the landfill.
  2. Investments to alleviate the traffic congestion on the island to improve the quality of resident and visitor experiences and increase the efficiency of doing business;
  3. Investments in renewable energy sources and in particular solar to reduce costs of living and of doing business; and
  4. Investments in protecting and preserving our environment as a valuable natural and economic asset through zoning plans and the establishment of a terrestrial park.

Looking ahead government believes, that it’s important to strike a proper balance between maintaining and creating favorable sustainable internal conditions and responding to external developments. It is also in this context that government continues to work with the Government of Curacao, our partner in our joint Central Bank, to address ongoing concerns in this institution. This with an eye on ensuring the continued stability of our financial and economic system.

Madam Chairlady, Members of Parliament,

Addressing mentioned policy challenges through the execution of existing plans and/or the development and implementation of new policy plans will come at a cost, costs which will have to be managed efficiently and effectively. This in view of the limited fiscal space mentioned earlier.

Over the past 10 months, government has worked to create a better foundation to address these challenges. In that regard it is important to note that progress has been made in the timely preparation of the draft budget of 2017 for presentation to Parliament. Point of departure in that regard is that government must structure its finances to create room to allow for continued investment in our people. For government can only comply with its public service responsibility through sustained and effective investments in its citizens.

The government, through the outlined programs and through the identified policy challenges and opportunities, hopes to contribute to the debate on future policy plans. This aimed at continuing to create opportunities for all residents of Sint Maarten based on a sound national, social, economic and financial foundation.

Madam Chairlady, Members of Parliament,

It is in that light that the government hereby thank you as members of Parliament for your support and cooperation towards the achievement of its agenda during the past 10 months.

And in closing, I hereby take this opportunity in view of this transitionary period to thank you as siting parliamentarians for your service during the past parliamentary year.

Thank you, God bless you and God bless our beloved Sint Maarten.

 

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