Opposition members criticised the government on Monday for delaying an economic stimulus package and they proposed a plan of their own, but Premier Andrew Fahie clapped back the next day, accusing them of misleading the public by offering a “magic-potion plan” that is neither affordable nor realistic.
“My dear people, do not fall for this uninformed hype and propaganda,” Mr. Fahie said on Tuesday evening during a live Facebook broadcast.
Opposition Leader Marlon Penn, however, said in a press conference earlier in the day that opposition members were primarily concerned with having an open discussion and getting information out to the public.
“We thought it was prudent, based on all the concerns that have been raised,” he said on Tuesday. “The important thing is to make sure the dialogue has started.”
The opposition’s proposed plan was published in a three-part series that addressed the importance of boosting the two pillars of the economy: tourism and financial services. Other areas of focus include fishing and agriculture, construction, and unemployment benefits.
Opposition members also called for the government to explain its recent decisions, especially concerning so-called “stimulus measures” that have been rolled out gradually in the absence of a comprehensive plan that has been promised since early April.
“After several weeks of mentioning and promising a recovery plan, the Virgin Islands Party-led administration has yet to produce viable solutions to sustain the territory and boost the economy in the face of the Covid-19 pandemic,” the opposition stated in a Monday press release.
Multiple media outlets reported a response from the premier the same day in which he reiterated his explanation that the comprehensive economic plan should not be rushed and will take a phased approach. The Beacon was not provided with this statement, despite requests for it.
However, opposition members said on Tuesday that enough time has been given.
“We’ve had enough time. We have to get to the point,” Mitch Turnbull (R-D2) said during a Tuesday afternoon press conference.
Mr. Turnbull also explained their reasoning for publishing the document.
“We’re laying it out,” he said Tuesday. “Now you hear a response to it, so if that’s what it takes to get things moving then we are willing to do it, but we have to move beyond just the fast talk, just the rhetoric, just the catch phrases.”
Also on Tuesday, government posted a flyer that listed seven “stimulus” initiatives with dollar amounts attached to six of them, plus a promise that “Phase Two” of an economic stimulus plan would be announced on May 28. This week marked the first time the government set a date to announce the comprehensive package.
Opposition member Julian Frasier (R-D3) said the government is late on its promise.
“As far as I’m concerned, whether the premier comes the 28th of May or the 4th of June or July 2nd or whatever the case might be, it’s late,” he said.
Premier ’s response
Around 8 p.m. on Tuesday night, Mr. Fahie broadcasted a lengthy response to the opposition, standing by his claim that a stimulus plan should be rolled out in phases.
“Anyone who insists on seeing a static, long-term plan etched in stone during this fluid Covid-19 global situation is either naïve or being misleading. This is why your government has been moving in phases,” he said. “I say this because it has come to my attention that Her Majesty’s tri-party loyal opposition has returned to their familiar strategy of engaging in propaganda, by promoting a magic-potion plan for healing all the economic wounds of Covid-19.”
During his Tuesday evening address, Mr. Fahie also discussed some terms of the opposition’s plan, including questioning how it would be financed.
While the opposition proposal listed ways to finance some proposed initiatives, details of the overall funding for the plan were not provided.
During the Tuesday press conference, members suggested tapping the territory’s reserves and taking out loans, including accessing the United Kingdom loan guarantee promised to the territory following hurricanes Irma and Maria.
While Mr. Fraser stated that the opposition doesn’t know what happened after a revised Recovery to Development Plan was submitted to the UK last September, Mr. Fahie later countered that the government is still awaiting approval from the UK on the loan guarantee.
After friction with the UK spilled out onto the public stage last year, Mr. Fahie’s administration sent the UK a downsized plan: a 33-page document that omits much of the detail of its predecessor and estimates financing needs at $186.9 million over the course of four years.
The original RDP was extensively debated before it passed the HOA in October 2018 with unanimous support, including a vote from Mr. Fahie, who was then on the opposition.
Last year, opposition members and Governor Gus Jaspert urged the government to quickly access the loan guarantee, which they say would bring low-interest loans backed by the UK government to help repair and restore hurricane-damaged infrastructure like schools, police stations, roads, libraries and more.
Mr. Fahie brought up the issue of the loan guarantee again on Tuesday evening, stating, “Conditions agreed to by the previous government placed the [VI] at high risk of losing control of its finances” and adding that the current government had to renegotiate the terms.
Also during the opposition press conference, members urged government to use money that has been set aside in the territory’s reserve fund.
This month, Mr. Jaspert said that there is some $80 million in the reserve fund which could be used to support economic stimulus initiatives.
However, Mr. Fahie said Tuesday, “While there are some persons who are pushing us to dip into the VI’s rainy day savings, it is unwise for us to do so to any great degree. We must resist doing this as much as possible.”
Mr. Fahie also hinted that using the funds or borrowing further could compromise the territory’s fiscal position, possibly breaching borrowing guidelines outlined in the 2012 Protocols for Effective Financial Management and triggering greater oversight by the UK.
But Mr. Jaspert painted a different picture during a May 8 interview, stating that the protocols are designed to ensure financial prudence but that they don’t preclude the territory from launching a stimulus package or accessing the loan guarantee.
In apparent response to such arguments, Mr. Fahie said, “There are persons who are saying the protocols are not impediments to the BVI raising and spending money. But you have to keep in mind that those persons have their own agenda, and for the most part are not mutually aligned with the purpose of the people of the Virgin Islands.”
While financing a stimulus package remains hotly debated, both opposition members and government officials agreed that the financial services sector remains an integral part of the economy, and that consideration should be given to it.
The opposition’s plan states that financial services have remained less impacted since the industry was easily able to transition to a remote working scenario, adapted after hurricanes Irma and Maria.
Still, some signs of job loss and the loss of working hours have been seen, the plan stated. Since financial services employees have disposable income which they spend on the internal economy, financial services businesses “should be among the first to reopen,” the plan opines.
Mr. Fahie said Tuesday that government is awaiting a May report from the Financial Services Commission regard- ing the performance of the industry before making any decisions on securing loans to support the “forthcoming economic stimulus package.”
Another topic hotly debated by Mr. Fahie and opposition members on Tuesday was the re- opening of the tourism industry, which is commonly known as one of two pillars of the territory’s economy.
According to the plan submitted by the opposition, tourism accounts for about 40 percent of the national income and 50 percent of employment, and “is the largest single economic contributor” to the territory.
While the opposition noted that re-opening the industry will be “perhaps the most difficult task,” it also stated that the longer the territory remains closed, the “more difficult it will be for the economy and the territory to recover.”
Therefore, it proposed that with proper health and safety measures in place, including a single port of entry and rapid testing, the Terrance B. Lettsome International Airport be opened on Sept. 1 for all overnight guests.
Mr. Fahie pushed back strongly against such suggestions, stating that reopening borders without proper control measures would place the territory at risk. He also said that most of the world has its borders closed to travel, and that most people will not have money to vacation.
According to Mr. Fahie, the United Nations reported recently that 72 percent of destinations worldwide have put a complete stop on international tourism.
Touching on emotion, he asked residents to look at their family members and ask themselves if they would risk the lives of their loved ones in favour of opening borders soon.
Though the opposition said that its plan was not discussed between members of the House of Assembly prior to publication or after, discussion opened up on Tuesday on public platforms.
Opposition members also discussed issues they’ve faced in communicating with the government recently, claiming that they were not invited to meetings where important decisions were made.
“Because there is no communication, because there is no dialogue between the government and the opposition, then you’re finding that these things are coming out haphazardly and there’s a lot of amendments,” Mr. Turnbull said.“What we’re faced with is now where the government comes out, they make their decision, they make their comment, they do whatever they want to do and we’re forced to accept it. Nobody is given the opportunity to challenge it, and if you challenge it then you’re seen as not a lover of your country and all the other foolishness that’s coming out.”
Mr. Fahie opposed this claim, saying that the government consulted with stakeholders, maintaining a “very transparent and collaborative approach” with members in the business community and the opposition.
He also said that opposition members failed to attend meetings and public forums held to represent their districts, but “thankfully, we were able to still ensure representation of those districts through the four at-large territorial members.”
While adding that related issues are more complex “than the tri-party opposition is portraying them to be,” Mr. Fahie also warned residents not to allow their trust in the government to be damaged by “persons who feel that they can get inside of your head and play on your emotions.”
However, opposition members have stressed their roles as district representatives, saying that the needs of residents are not being heard and that the common man is not getting enough help from the government.
“What people need is assistance in getting through their daily lives,” Mr. Fraser said, explaining that tenants are asking him what they should do since they are unable to pay rent. “The government has a responsibility to ensure that its residents are able to function and have access to resources.”
He said this can be done by launching food and rent stimulus measures at least.
The government also published a graphic on Tuesday outlining seven measures that Mr. Fahie has described as “stimulus” efforts being rolled out pending the comprehensive plan. During their press conference that day, opposition members responded to some of them.
The first included spending over $12 million in purchasing testing kits, respirators, medical supplies, and constructing and preparing quarantine spaces.
The second listed measure was buying food, medication, and other essentials for seniors and others in need at the cost of $2 million.
Free water and water delivery for Water and Sewerage customers was also listed. Mr. Turnbull stated that a closer look into this initiative reveals that some residents who are not city water customers were un- able to receive aid.
“You’re denying them water because they’re not in the system,” he said.
A $2 million farming and fishing programme was listed as the fourth initiative, but members of the opposition said it had been in the works for a long time.
House-to-house garbage collection was the fifth initiative. Mr. Fraser argued that government was already collecting trash from bins pre-pandemic, and that steering the programme was not a new initiative. It remains unclear how the $800,000 initiative has created “jobs and business opportunities,” Mr. Fraser said.
The sixth measure on the government’s published list was the purchase of 500 laptops for students and teachers in need “to ensure participation in online learning.” Mr. Turnbull asked how recipients were chosen, how the government decided on the amount of 500 laptops, and how officials would ensure the computers would be used for education purposes.
Finally, a stamp duty waiver for the sale and transfer of lands to belongers was the most recent “economic stimulus” initiative by government. Opposition members raised issues with this measure as well, claiming that the measure did not put money into government coffers.