President of the St. Kitts & Nevis Chamber of Industry & Commerce, Mr. Damion Hobson, Remarks at the 32nd Annual Private Sector Banquet, St. Kitts Marriott Hotel, Saturday 18th July, 2015, 7:00pm

The Chamber has benefited from a long history of fruitful cooperation with successive administrations, and we are very hopeful that these cordial relations will not only continue, but flourish in the months and years ahead.

We accept that you began your journey at a very challenging period in our nation’s history but we are confident that with the right approach and with the required resources and partnerships, success will be achieved.

We must also use this occasion to thank your predecessors for their contribution to national development and the occasions when joint action was facilitated on selected economic and social activities.

To the new Minister of Trade and Industry, who also holds the portfolio of Tourism, we extend best wishes as he shoulders the responsibilities of those high offices.

I wish to give the assurance, that the Chamber remains a willing partner and one that is committed to do everything possible in the interest of our citizens.

I must also state at this very early stage of my presentation, how grateful I am for the dedicated work and support of those pioneers who are to be honoured this evening. Your contributions to business and the development of our country are hallmarks that are respected and appreciated.

Mr. Prime Minister, fellow members of the Chamber, invited guests, ladies and gentlemen… our country is at a pivotal point in the 32-years since the attainment of Independence.

If ever there was a time for a new start, it is now. Now is the time for us all to work collectively to build on past achievements and to learn from failed economic models as we chart new courses on the road to greater national prosperity.

We have always said that government cannot do it alone and that a joint approach is best.

Forging a New Beginning

The Secretary General of the United Nations, Ban Ki- moon is noted to have expressed the view that:

Building sustainable cities – and a sustainable future – will need open dialogue among all branches of national, regional and local government. And it will need the engagement of all stakeholders – including the private sector and civil society, and especially the poor and marginalized.

I wish to state as President of the Chamber that our organization has a similar perspective when it comes to nation building and the advancement of all Kittitians and Nevisians.

We believe that any partnership between government and the private sector must be about the advancement of the people and the economy.

But it is also our considered opinion, that the joint approach between the public and private sectors is best facilitated in an environment of trust, confidence and mutual respect.

This is the foundation that we think will foster partnerships that will redound to the benefit of all stakeholders in the national effort to deliver a better quality of life for all our people, especially the most vulnerable groups.

And that is why today finds us at the doorsteps of a new opportunity. This new opportunity is one that can usher in prosperity in corners of the economy that have been challenged by various circumstances.

These are both circumstances and challenges that I am certain your new administration can mitigate as you continue that journey ahead in the management of the affairs of St. Kitts and Nevis.

The recent election of your coalition government was facilitated by a populace that seemed to have embraced your mantra of “fair share for all” and a subsidiary slogan, which was titled, Better Days Are Coming!

We too in the corporate community are hopeful that all small, medium and large businesses in the country will be considered in your promise of a better deal and the vision of a brighter tomorrow that you and your coalition partners have advocated.

Thus, for this our 32nd Annual Private Sector Banquet, the Chamber has adopted the theme, “Forging a new beginning-through stronger Public – Private Sector Partnership”.

Some may ask, why a new beginning? The simple answer is that the formation of any new government brings with it new possibilities. And with a stronger partnership new economic chapters can be written, ultimately resulting in more meaningful social transformation.

A new beginning ought to be a contract, not only with the Chamber of Industry & Commerce, but with the people of the country. A new beginning also has to be anchored in the principles of transparency, accountability and I repeat, trust.

In this new endeavour, transparency has to be central if we are to clearly make a distinction between the present and the past tendencies.

I am reminded of the saying by one Craig Lounsborough, who opined that:

“Starting over is an acceptance of a past we can’t change, an unrelenting conviction that the future can be different, and the stubborn wisdom to use the past to make the future what the past was not.”

Let us tie new knots of cooperation and jointly make the future what it ought to be. Let us make the future about meeting expectations and building resources to attain the levels of growth and development that we so keenly desire.

Local Investment in Housing

Your government is no doubt on a mission to attract greater investments. And we understand that the best approach is a careful mix between Foreign Direct Investment and Home Grown injections.

Though in the past one has tended to seek external sources of investment, we contend that perhaps the time is opportune for us to have a more serious fixation on local remedies and possibilities.

Many economists and financial experts have long argued that “Investment fueled by the private sector is recognized as a catalyst for attaining the twin goals of broad based sustainable economic development and poverty alleviation, as investment allows for entrepreneurship and employment creation opportunities that increase incomes for the poor and rich alike (Olweny et al. 2012).”

One area in which effort has been made to change the circumstances of the poor has been in the construction of low income housing. But this has been led if not dominated exclusively by public sector developments.

We are all aware of the history and recent challenges posed by these low income development programs. Part of the new response has been to turn to the commercial banking sector to facilitate a repayment system that is more reliable and sound.

Perhaps the time is right to turn the page on the old paradigm, and to examine the feasibility of affordable home development led and fueled by the private sector.

With the same levels of financial space and concessionary offerings currently extended to the National Housing Corporation, NHC, there are some local private sector investors who may be willing to partner with government in the continued upgrade of the national housing stock. This we appreciate would be new and different to the traditional approach, but let us be bold in the pursuit of new solutions.

A report in the CIBC Caribbean Market Overview 2015 Q2 recently caught my attention. It said:

“Production, Prices and Employment Preliminary ECCB estimates suggest that continued growth in construction and tourism drove a 5.4% economic expansion during 2014 relative to growth of 3.8% one year earlier. • Greater private sector construction outweighed the effects of reduced public sector capital expenditure to push total construction value-added 7.6% higher relative to the same period one year earlier”.

I have shared this information, only to illustrate that the private sector has indeed been shouldering its fair share of responsibility in the construction industry and that with a new beginning and a stronger partnership, there is so much more that we can do to move this pillar of growth, in the right direction.

Tourism

The Travel and Tourism sector is another critical industry that has been on the minds of many. While government has touted the increased numbers of cruise passengers we have in the past shared concerns about the struggles of the land based side of the hospitality sector. In particular, low hotel occupancies and comparatively low stayover arrivals have not met the expectations of industry stakeholders.

However, we are happy to note that according to the same CIBC publication, the ECCB is reporting that “Real tourism value-added increased 4.3% as stay-over arrivals increased 7.0% and 20.7% more cruise passengers visited during 2014. During January–March 2015, the ECCB estimates that a further 11.4% stay-over tourists visited and Cruise arrivals increased 21.9%.

This is encouraging.

However, the other figure that we must use to guide our response is tourist expenditure. This is the true measure of the worth of the tourism sector and how the industry is contributing to national development.

There is more we can do in tourism, especially in those areas where we can find a comfortable niche. One such area is the yet un-tapped potential of the yachting sector.

With the recent opening of the Marina at Christophe Harbour, the existing Port Zante Marina and the avenues for yachting in Nevis, both the private and public sectors can establish stronger partnerships to help promote and develop this new phenomenon.

The Chamber of Industry and Commerce has already given its commitment to work with Christophe Harbour in furthering the yachting agenda, in a fashion that best represents who we are as a destination and what we hope to achieve as a vacation choice for tourists.

Like other stakeholders, we have agreed to attend and participate in a special small group exploratory meeting, on Tuesday 28th July, involving key players from government and the private sector. This is an initiative sparked and organized by Christophe Harbour, and the Chamber wishes to state publicly that it fully supports the venture that will eventually lead to the adoption of promotional strategies for the yachting industry.

There is more that we can do for land based tourism. The example of the refurbished and greatly enhanced facilities at the Ocean Terrace Inn, OTI, is evidence that with closer cooperation there is so much more we can do as partners in the development process.

The next step we propose in this regard is a fresh audit of our accommodation stock, to determine what is needed to improve our tourism product so that we can create attractive choices and greater visitor experiences.

The noise surrounding the construction of a second cruise pier seems to have quieted. We should be careful not to send the wrong message that the confidence levels have dropped or that its feasibility or benefits are no longer realistic.

Clarity on the way forward on this project would be helpful.

Citizenship by Investment Program

Not only is tourism an area for more sober reflection and planning, but so too is the Citizenship by Investment Program, (CBI). This has been an income generator that surpassed all other sources of public revenue in recent years.

Its viability is central to any strategy for future consideration. But now its fate is in question.

Like the rest of the nation, we too were shocked by the current prime minister’s revelation, shortly after assuming office in February, 2015, that the SIDF portion of the CBI was now essentially broke.

The Chamber has been on record for several years with recommendations, not only pleading for transparency, but for a new style in the accounting of the funds and the policy directorship of the program generally.

Important entities such as the IMF and the governments of Canada and the United States have all added their voice of caution during the years of the previous government. The call for greater scrutiny of application and the cries for more productive use of the then hundreds of millions of dollars once in the fund were not met with the required and timely corrective measures.

We are all only too well aware of the consequences of such inaction.

What we now wish to say to this new administration is identical to what we have argued in the past… strong measures of accountability, transparency and fiscal prudence.

We are thankful for the recent invitation by the government to attend the opening ceremony of the special conference on the CBI programs of Caribbean states.

May we now offer the assistance of the collective expertise and goodwill of the Chamber as government pushes ahead to develop and implement new methods of screening, processing and qualification. We the Chamber are requesting a seat at the table where the design of the new CBI program will be fashioned.

The Chamber maintains the position that revenue from the CBI generally but especially the SIDF is best invested in long term infrastructural development, rather than the past experiments in short term activities that have done little to effect change.

A new beginning, can see SIDF investments in areas of manufacturing and other productive sectors.

Manufacturing Sector

St. Kitts and Nevis, though the smallest of the lot, continues to lead the pack in the sub-region of the OECS when it comes to manufacturing. There are opportunities still to be explored and there remains a clog on requests for new domestic policies that can provide more breathing space for manufacturers.

Two main areas of consideration for the manufacturing sector are (1) the Partial Scope Agreement with Guyana and Brazil and (2) The National Manufacturing Strategy which was passed in Parliament in November 2014. 

As a former Minister of Trade, Mr. Prime Minister, you no doubt understand, better than many others, the importance of the Partial Scope Agreement. This is perhaps the best vehicle we have ever had, to facilitate quick wins for increases in manufacturing jobs. But all these dreams of new jobs and higher export levels will only be attained if the final stages of this agreement are signed into effect.

It has been approximately eight (8) years since we started work on the Partial Scope Agreement but there is a bureaucracy that has been stifling the progress.

Joint Public Private Sector meetings on both matters are very necessary to move them forward. And some of this has taken place.

We are ready to take whatever action is necessary. Let us work closer on these issues. Let us strengthen our dialogue and let us move with the requisite alacrity.

There are many other concerns and issues with respect to manufacturing but allow me to just quickly list a few:

Threats to Aerated Beverages and Bottled Water Industries 

Vat Rebate to Indigenously owned Manufacturing Plants

High Energy Costs and

Improved Corporate Tax Incentives for Indigenously  owned  Manufacturing Plants

These are issues we hope to continue discussing with the relevant government ministries

Corporation Tax

However, there is one other area and it falls within your remit as the Prime Minister and Minister of Finance.

The matter of taxes is of great importance to all business persons in St. Kitts and Nevis. Please do not get me wrong Sir the Chamber fully understands that taxes are necessary in any democratic society. But we respectfully suggest that there is a need for a review of the Tax Code for the Nation. A new Tax Code that should see:-

 Corporate Tax Rates be reduced to 30%

Removal of Restrictions on Capital Allowances.

Removal of Restrictions on Losses carried forward.

Removal of Restrictions on Bad Debts

 Legislation to address restrictions on donations to charity organizations and

The need for an increase in the salary cap as it relates to tax breaks, moving to a rate that is pegged to the rate of inflation

As Prime Minister and Minister of Finance, you are uniquely positioned to give new life to the now dormant National Competitiveness and Productivity council. This was once headed by a member of the Chamber and we are willing and ready to lead the way in its resurrection.

This council could be so instrumental in any new effort to craft a new economic model for St. Kitts and Nevis. I urge you to make this a priority issue. So many of the problems we share and the issues we raise could be better handled through such discourse and careful planning.

Election Promises

Though the Chamber is an association of corporate owners very often the social and political dynamics of the country demand that it gives equal attention to the issues affecting our people.  We do accept that we have a social responsibility and in the past this has been exercised in the interest of the national good.

We have also gone on record with numerous recommendations for stronger democracy, a free press and better governance. We have also called for equal access to the national media, ZIZ Radio & Television.

The experiences of the aftermath of the 1993 general elections and the subsequent Four Seasons Accord are still memories etched in the national psyche.

Similar social and political demands were made of the Chamber leading up to, during and after the poll in February 2015.

The principles we advocated then for a new structure of governance, remain today, especially with a new administration.

A new beginning for our country does in fact require that promises on the political front be kept. These include Constitutional Reform, Electoral Reform, Transparency in the Operations of Government, Term Limits, Set Dates for Elections and higher levels of Accountability.

We are also mindful that the final stages for Integrity in Public Life legislation are still to be completed. This is a situation which we know your government will address in the not too distant future. We will remind when necessary.

With a new local election looming on the island of Nevis, it is critical that urgent steps be taken to rid the current system of the electoral machinery of all that is undesirable. And let us not shy away from the huge problems that have been caused in recent elections at both the local and national levels.

We ought not to allow a return to instability or at worse, the political violence of past decades.

We call for nothing but decency and a democratic approach when it comes to the upcoming elections in Nevis. There must be trust in the system. There must be respect for the democratic rights of all voters, candidates and their parties. 

Crime & Violence

As a nation, we are all allowed to dream of a more perfect world. And some of what we advocate, we know, does not come from an easy stroke of a pen. We are well aware that all the aspirations we entertain will go to naught, if crime and violence are not brought to their knees.

A total of 18 murders in seven months is bad for business and worse for normal everyday living of citizens across the twin-island state.

The fight against crime must be non-political and must not be used by any party for their own selfish desires. Crime must be an enemy to each Kittitian and Nevisian. And as such we must all play a role in its eradication.

The Chamber stands ready and willing to continue to play its part. And we applaud the already tremendous support that has been provided over the years by many of our Chamber members. This tangible support and investment in crime detection and prevention will continue.

We welcome the government’s recent Six Point Crime Fighting Plan. We also appreciate the invitation to be a participant in a meeting scheduled for next week to discuss that very plan. We have seen your plan and we hope to add our voice to more initiatives but to also give firm support to the programs already under consideration.

We must treat crime like a bad storm that respects no particular port or private home. We are all at risk and we all must be proactive and constructive.

International Education

Crime is also a risk to new and emerging industries like International Education, which is one of the pillars of development being promoted by SKIPA. This is an area of growth to whichj government needs to pay greater attention, and to protect it from the obvious harmful effects of crime and escalating violence.

There is no doubt about the significant contributions of existing international educational facilities that are located in both St. Kitts and Nevis.

If we are not careful and if left un-checked, the current crime wave can seriously impact the viability and expansion of these off shore schools.

Conclusion

As a new Prime Minister and government, the opportunity presents itself for a new beginning on this front. You have the opportunity and power to adopt a new way of doing things…an opportunity to correct the past tragedies of undemocratic practices.

Economic and social gains thrive best in oceans of strong democratic principles.

The St. Kitts and Nevis Chamber of Industry & Commerce is serious about its offer of friendship and cooperation.

May the theory of the famous saying that the private sector is the engine of growth truly become reality as we focus our efforts on nation-building.

While we promise you a hand of cooperation for the good of the development of the economy and country, we also make a promise to the people of this country that we shall ever keep a watchful eye on the political operations to ensure that the constitutional rights of all are protected.

But we have no fear Mr. Prime Minister, we are convinced that you will work with us and we are clear in our minds that your intentions are worthy and that you want only the best for our country. We will walk step by step with you, if allowed, on the journey to a brighter tomorrow. But we will only do so once democratic guidelines are being adhered to.

Let the Chamber and the Government forge a new beginning-through a stronger Public –Private Sector Partnership

Thank you.







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