Governor Holiday’s Parliamentary Address on the Opening of the 2020-2021 Parliamentary Year
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Governor Holiday’s Parliamentary Address on the Opening of the 2020-2021 Parliamentary Year

His Excellency Governor Eugene Holiday His Excellency Governor Eugene Holiday

SINT MAARTEN (PHILIPSBURG) – His Excellency Governor Eugene Holiday delivered the following speech at the opening of the 2020-2021 parliamentary year. His speech is as follows:

Mr. Chairman, Members of Parliament,

Good Morning,

And very special greetings to the people of Sint Maarten.

Today September 8th, 2020, we are gathered in this unusual virtual setting to mark the start of the new parliamentary year 2020-2021. It is a sign of the exceptional circumstances in which we live.

 

It is against that background that I appear before you, in my capacity as Governor, to present Parliament – and thus the people of Sint Maarten – with an outline of the policy plans of government for the coming year.

Mr. Chairman, Members of Parliament,

As a country, as a people, each of us, our families, our neighbors, our businesses, our civil organizations, and our government are experiencing and are called upon to respond to the unprecedented impact of the global coronavirus pandemic. The coronavirus commonly referred to as COVID-19 has affected our way of life and our livelihood in many ways.

Our health, our social interactions, our way of worship, our jobs, our economy, are under threat. Since March 17, 2020, the coronavirus, has infected 511 persons, hospitalized 70 persons, and taken the lives of 19 persons.

The outbreak of the pandemic has led to a virtual halt of international travel due to the lock down of countries and the fear of infection around the world.

That has resulted in and continues to lead to financial fallout in our tourism businesses and economy. Tourism arrivals are estimated to drop by up to 70% while GDP is projected to decline by 25.0% in 2020. The contraction in 2020 is expected to be significantly worse than the economic fallout from the effects of Hurricane Irma. Unemployment is expected to increase from 9.3% to 16.2%, as many among us lose jobs and face cuts in working hours and/or pay. Already cash strapped, the public finances have been hard hit, as the government faces a further increase of its deficit to NAf.350 million in 2020.

Over the past 6 months many of our people have as a result experienced and continue to experience tough times.

I therefore pray for the recovery of everyone who is suffering with the coronavirus and for those whose livelihoods are at risk. And my sympathy goes out to the families who have lost loved ones.

 

Mr. Chairman, Members of Parliament,

As we endure the impact of this public health and social economic crisis, we must come together to turn this crisis into a common purpose. That is, we must work together to find a workable balance between safeguarding the health of our people and the health of our economy.

 

Government’s agenda has as a result been dominated by the response to the outbreak of the coronavirus pandemic. That without losing sight for the long-term development needs of our country.

Confronted with the coronavirus outbreak, and the resulting significant loss of income, government’s immediate priorities are:

  • First, to contain the outbreak of the coronavirus;
  • Second, to support school and business continuity, prevent layoffs and protect the most vulnerable among us;
  • Third, to jump start the economy and implement the required reforms;
  • And fourth, to raise the required financing to offset the loss in revenues and cover budget deficits for the remainder of 2020 and fiscal year 2021.

Mr. Chairman, Members of Parliament,

Government is as such committed to working with social partners, businesses, and labor unions, to realize these priorities and put Sint Maarten on a path of sustainable social economic recovery and growth. A path which is to reflect the objectives of the National Development Vision 2030.

The National Development Vision 2030 aims to anchor our country’s development goals and mission for the coming 10 years. Government will take steps to diversify and create a multi-pillar economy. One that affords maximum growth for all, where opportunities exist to empower each citizen to progress to the next level through their determination, strength of mind and actions. The key underlying objective of the National Development Vision 2030 is to transform Sint Maarten into an economically resilient, compassionate, strong, and decisive country.

The ongoing community consultations to obtain input from the various partners, is a critical part of the preparation process. There is no limit to the progress that we can realize when we work together to address our challenges and seize opportunities. 

Mr. Chairman, Members of Parliament,

During the initial outbreak of the coronavirus government activated its emergency operating center. To contain the outbreak government declared a State of Emergency and locked down the country by instituting a curfew and restricting international travel. A decision which was not taken lightly.

In doing so, Government worked and continues to work closely with medical professionals, at Collective Prevention Services, at the laboratories, and at the Hospital as well as with our partners in the Kingdom. The development of COVID-19 testing capabilities was an important step in the ongoing fight against COVID-19.

During and since the lifting of the lock down government has and continues to focus on a combination of measures aimed at prevention, detection, and treatment of COVID-19 infections. These measures include:

  • One, a national COVID-19 information campaign, in various languages via mainstream and online media, via digital boards and via community campaigns, to reduce the risks to the population. This also includes the introduction of the 914 hotline;
  • Two, establishing and issuing guidelines for social distancing, wearing masks and washing hands;
  • Three, strengthening the capacity of Collective Prevention Services, to conduct testing, perform contact tracing and monitor those in isolation or quarantine;
  • Four, investing in PPE for medical professionals;
  • And five, decreeing the temporary closure of businesses and organizations where necessary.

From our experience we know that these measures worked to flatten the curve during the period April through June. We can therefore draw inspiration from the knowledge that we can contain the spread of the virus.

The resurgence and spread of the virus since July, however, have taught us that we cannot be complacent or let our guards down. To the con-tra-ry, we must remain vigilant and steadfast. This is a must because we will remain at risk, for as long as there is no vaccine or cure. We must continue to look out for each other by practicing social distancing, wearing masks, and washing our hands. 

Moreover, government is committed to continue working with the Sint Maarten medical Center to increase ICU beds, ventilators, and staffing capacity to meet the demand for care. Noteworthy is that 41 additional medical staff as well as extra ICU and ventilator capacity was arranged with assistance from the Netherlands.

Mr. Chairman, Members of Parliament,

In keeping with its priorities Government, facing the economic fallout of these exceptional circumstances, decided to introduce a three months Stimulus and Relief program, the SSRP, for the period April through June of this year. The program was designed to keep money flowing to workers and businesses and to protect the most vulnerable among us. The SSRP consists of payroll support for impacted businesses and income support for sole proprietors and unemployed persons. The program, somewhat scaled down, was funded with liquidity support from the Netherlands following complex discussions and disagreements regarding conditions for financing.

In addition, government has and continues to take measures to improve the living conditions of our elderly and vulnerable population. Having increased the general pension age to 65 and the pension amount to NAf.1240 in 2020, the government will now focus on a targeted approach for groups who need assistance the most. Groups, such as, those without a second-tier pension and those with a partial AOV.

Looking ahead government is as a result also working on the development and implementation of the Social Registry System funded by the Trust Fund at the World Bank. The social registry system will provide for the mapping of the most vulnerable in our society. This with the objective of improving the delivery and quality of services. It will help plan new projects and programs and play an important role in disaster risk preparedness, such as dealing with crises, like COVID-19.

Mr. Chairman, Members of Parliament,

Given the limited financial resources of government, investing in this and other social development programs to meet the needs of our population will depend on the availability and accessibility of funding.

 

For as long as the global economy and international travel remain depressed, finding ways to generate or access funds to preserve the wellbeing of our citizens is the key challenge for Government. This is an urgent task faced by our country as well as by many countries around the world.

Recognizing the urgency of the situation government has as a result decided to jump start the economy by gradually reopening the airport for international flights, subject to compliance with required safety measures.

Government has, in addition, identified several focal areas that will generate economic activity now and better prepare our critical infrastructure for when the global economy recovers. Specifically, government is directing its attention on:

  1. investments in our digital infrastructure;
  2. investments in our education infrastructure;
  3. investments in our health care infrastructure;
  4. investments in our transport and hospitality infrastructure; and
  5. investments in our energy infrastructure;

This considering the importance of these sectors for the performance and recovery of our economy and given that private and World bank financing has been secured for most of the investment projects.

These investments will secure work for our people, generate future foreign exchange, and pay for themselves. Government will therefore continue to work with stakeholders and Parliament towards the effective execution of these projects.

Mr. Chairman, Members of Parliament,

Looking ahead, Government deems it critical to act now to seize the opportunities of the rapid digitization of society. The need to do so has been further underscored by the realities of COVID-19, as the demand to use technology in everyday life, such as, buying groceries, distance learning, telemedicine, and remote working increased. The ongoing crisis has also highlighted the need for government to interact with citizens online in a secure environment as well as the need for in office or remote working options for civil servants.

Recognizing the rapid use of technology government is committed to facilitating investments in a secure, and efficient digital infrastructure. Government will therefore continue to work with telecom provider TelEm, to facilitate the realization of the island wide fiber-optic network. This ongoing investment of approximately NAf.40 million, is essential to better support the online platforms of our schools, of our health care sector, of our banks, and of our hospitality sector such as hotels, Airbnb, restaurants, and car rentals. Its implementation is as such providing jobs now and providing the backbone to power our social and economic development in the digital age.

Government is therefore working on the implementation of its Digital Transformation Project. Activities implemented under this project will increase the productivity and efficiency of the organization and transform how citizens interact with the Government and vice-versa. The digitization initiatives include:

  1. One, the introduction of a Digital Identity for citizens to allow for accurate identification when conducting business with Government;
  2. Two, the introduction of a new financial management system, including online billing and payment services;
  3. Three, automation of the building permits process, including online applications;
  4. And four, the retrofitting of the Public Service Centers with the installation of kiosks and other technological advancements to increase the number of transactions possible at those locations.

Under the World Bank managed Trust Fund a budget of USD.12 million has been allotted towards government’s digital transformation project which is to be implemented over a period of four years. The project is expected to be approved by September 30, 2020.

Mr. Chairman, Members of Parliament,

In navigating these challenging times, it is imperative to continue to invest in our human resources as the driver of our development and growth. The education of our children therefore forms a key part of government’s policy agenda, as outlined in the Education Master Plan.

Considering the challenges faced because of COVID-19 government has developed and established several policies to guide the safe delivery of quality education during the various phases of the pandemic. Specifically, government is implementing its Education Continuity Plan, to ensure the continuity of education during this crisis.

An important element of government’s plan is its ongoing work to improve the delivery of education through distance learning. The COVID-19 crisis has exposed the challenges of technology in education as schools resorted to remote learning. Challenges due to inequities between schools and households because of, among others, access to computers and to the internet. The distance learning policy is therefore directed at improving access to technology for all in education. That in support of improving the delivery and quality of distance learning.

Government is at the same time working with the World Bank to prioritize schools for emergency repairs. This aimed at activating the USD.35 million allocated in the Trust Fund towards the Education Master Plan. In that regard government expects to start with the first repairs of the identified schools this year.

Mr. Chairman, Members of Parliament,

With respect to investments in the health care infrastructure government will continue to work on reforming and upgrading the health care system. The objective is to further improve the quality and increase the availability and accessibility of health and mental health services for the people of Sint Maarten.

The planned health care reform is geared at upgrading the regulation and registration of all medical practitioners, improving communication between care providers via a Health Information Management System (HIMS), controlling cost for pharmaceuticals and improving the medical referral system.

A central element of the government’s health care program in the coming period will therefore be the construction of the new hospital, while also increasing the number of available specialties. The outbreak of the coronavirus pandemic has highlighted the importance of the realization of the new hospital facilities. The new hospital will increase in-patient bed capacity to 110, add operating theaters, create out-patient clusters, and include a 30-patient Dialysis center. The larger hospital will increase the quality and quantity of treatments on-island, thereby reducing overseas referrals and thus costs. The importance of reducing overseas referrals has been magnified with the current COVID-19 related travel restrictions.

Based on the current planning, the delivery of the New Hospital is scheduled for the end of 2024. With the financing already secured Government is therefore committed to supporting the Medical Center with the realization of the construction.

Mr. Chairman, Members of Parliament,

In charting our path for recovery, government is focusing on the improvement of our transport and hospitality infrastructure. That with an emphasis on product development, diversification, and legislative reforms. Government considers the restoration of the airport terminal building critical to the improvement and functioning of our transport and hospitality infrastructure. With the financing already secured, this project offers a good opportunity to generate economic activity and create jobs.

In addition, government as part of its product development policy has issued a building permit and is working with the developer to facilitate the construction of a new 452 rooms resort in the Great Bay area. The construction will create jobs now, offer future employment and help boost our economy.

The corona virus has also highlighted the need for Sint Maarten to reduce its import bill. Government will therefore work to reduce Sint Maarten’s dependence on fossil fuels. Government will, to that effect, pursue an energy policy anchored on solar energy. This will reduce the electricity bill for businesses and households and save foreign exchange to meet other needs of our population.

Likewise, the government will stimulate the development of the agricultural sector as a means, to reduce our dependence on the import of food. The goal is to promote the “grow what you eat, eat what you grow” movement towards greater self-reliance and food security. The development of this sector should help lessen imports and save foreign exchange.

 

Mr. Chairman, Members of Parliament,

Government is, notwithstanding its scarce financial resources, committed to investing in the strengthening of law enforcement. This with the objective of maintaining law and order to protect the safety and security of our residents and visitors. The ongoing COVID-19 crisis has created additional challenges in terms of capacity in meeting these objectives. This due to the increased need for manpower to monitor and enforce government’s measures and the need to protect law enforcement personnel against the virus.

Confronted with these challenges’ government has placed the formalization of the function books and the legal position of all employees of the justice ministry high on its agenda. Government is, at the same time, working on the further (re) structuring and strengthening of the executing departments in the justice ministry.

Government as part of its law enforcement agenda is also focusing on:

  1. One, implementing structural improvements in the prison system, including the construction of a new prison with support of the United Nations Office for Project Services (UNOPS);
  2. Two, ensuring a more effective enforcement of immigration legislation, including the use of information technology systems;
  3. And three, introducing a more realistic licensing and fees policy based on the actual costs of the justice products.

Government has, at the same time, considering our shared borders with the Northern side of the island continued to work with French authorities to better coordinate island-wide judicial cooperation to combat cross border crime.

 

In addition, Government will continue to hold talks with authorities in Saint Martin towards effective collaboration in regard to addressing the challenges of COVID-19.

Mr. Chairman, Members of Parliament,

On a Kingdom level, relations have and are expected to be dominated by the COVID-19 crisis. During the past months, government has engaged in extensive four country and bilateral discussions with our partners in the Kingdom. Sint Maarten has as a result received valued technical assistance in terms of health care and military assistance for law enforcement as well as liquidity support from the Netherlands. Government will continue to work closely with its Kingdom partners to address existing capacity and liquidity challenges.

Meanwhile government’s financial strategy is aimed at implementing measures to reduce expenses, increase revenues and source funding to address the projected NAf.350 million deficit budgeted for this year.

Government has, in that regard, already implemented a reform of the civil service pension fund to improve the sustainability of the fund while at the same time reducing the costs of government.

Government also plans to introduce Public Financial Management reform. The reforms are aimed at improved public expenditure management, increasing the efficiency of the tax administration, and broadening of the tax base. Efficiency initiatives include the introduction of online processing of tax returns and the improvement of tax compliance. With respect to the broadening of the tax base government is developing plans to tap into the income opportunities created by the rapid increase in activities in the digital economy, such as online shopping and Airbnb.

Meanwhile, discussions with the Netherlands, to secure funding to bridge government financial shortfalls, have and continue to be strained over disagreements about the terms.

Mr. Chairman, Members of Parliament,

Government, considering its policy agenda and taking the challenging circumstances of COVID-19 into account, is completing the amended 2020 budget and the draft 2021 budget for presentation to and handling by parliament. In doing so government will, in keeping with the Kingdom law on financial supervision, request the Kingdom Government to apply an article 25 deviation, based on the extraordinary financial impact of the Global COVID-19 crisis. And given the urgency government intends to move forward and issue bonds to raise the funds necessary to meet its obligations.

 

Mr. Chairman, Members of Parliament,

On the eve of our tenth anniversary of country status, we must act with a sense of urgency and common purpose.

One based on the conviction that together we can and will rise to meet the challenges of COVID-19. A conviction anchored on the courageous men and women out there risking their own health to save lives and to keep us safe. Courageous health care professionals, law enforcement officers, firefighters, other frontline employees, and volunteers, who remind us every day that the protection of our wellbeing and our country is our common purpose. The common purpose of protecting our health, our economy, and our future as a people.

Let us, all of us, businesses, labor unions, other civil society, and government, therefore draw inspiration from our courageous men and women to rise to the task that has fallen on us. A task which calls for effective collaboration across the board. Collaboration, which recognizes the value of unity, the imperative of sacrifice and the virtue of humanity in moments of crisis. (I REPEAT)

Mr. Chairman, Members of Parliament,

In this new parliamentary year, government will reach out to you with various legislative initiatives towards the execution of its agenda on behalf of our people. As you review and debate the business of our people - in these exceptional and challenging times - it is essential to keep in mind that our people are counting on parliament and government to rise to the task and lead us out of this crisis.

Mr. Chairman, Members of Parliament,

Thus, as you deliberate and decide on the issues that will come before you in the period ahead, I wish you an abundance of wisdom, strength, and God’s speed.

Stay safe, God bless you and May God bless Sint Maarten and protect its coast.

Thank you

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