By Staff Writer
The optimistic outlook painted by Hon. Finance Minister Chris Saunders when he presented the PACT government’s first Strategic Policy Statement has been subjected to detailed critical scrutiny by Hon. Leader of the Opposition Roy McTaggart, the former finance minister.
Mr McTaggart challenged many of the assertions by the PACT government and suggested that their expectations and conclusions were unrealistic.
He directed his criticisms particularly at the Hon. Premier Wayne Panton and Finance Minister Saunders.
“We on the Opposition benches, had expected more than the somewhat generalised assertions that we have heard today from the Premier and the Finance Minister… As I said, we recognise they are new to all this. But the challenges facing the country are too significant for us to just wait around before they can agree on real priorities and real solutions, like our reopening, that will benefit our Islands and our people.”
REOPENING, POPULATION AND VACCINATION EQUATION
On the central issue of reopening the borders, the Opposition Leader felt that the government’s approach lacked detail and created more uncertainty.
“The approach to reopening outlined by the Premier last week is, in our view, does not give us the type of plan and confidence that is needed. There is nothing outlined in their re-opening plan that can be relied upon when you have such high thresholds to achieve. At best it is list of dates, themselves provisional, with changes to quarantine and vaccination requirements that might come into being. There is no certainty on how thresholds will be achieved or how reopening will be properly planned and implemented.”
Mr McTaggart also questioned the government’s vaccination target which underpins the reopening strategy as being too vague saying he was sceptical about the rationale to revise the population figures from 65,0000 to 71,100.
“What I do know is that in making this increase they have now given the country a huge hill to climb and in so doing have likely created an impossible goal to get 80% vaccinated, particularly if we are unable to vaccinate children under 12 who comprise a large part of our population. Additionally, with no clear date to open, many people will not be motivated to get vaccinated.”
The PACT government’s phased reopening plan is stretched over the period through to January next year with critical stages from September linked to preparations for the winter tourist season and its peak in January.
But Mr McTaggart questioned: “What strategy did they set out in the SPS, ready to implement, for supporting the opening of Cayman’s tourism industry? The answer is, they had very little of any substance, let alone present a clear plan for its recovery. Not one single plausible word on the future of stayover tourism.”
CANCELLATIONS, CLARIFICATIONS AND PRIORITIES
The Progressives leader also took the government to task over what he said was a series of ‘cancellations’ or scaling down of several projects and initiatives left in place by his government, including farmer stipend, a courtesy bus service, and a reduction of a stipend for tourism workers over the final two months of that programme.
However, the PACT government has rejected those accusations saying in some instances the schemes had reached their initial schedule and were being reviewed, while the tourism stipend was being extended to the end of the year beyond its original deadline and was only being reduced in the last two months.
Mr McTaggart laid out three main priorities that the Opposition felt the PACT government should consider, listing them as: restoring Cayman to its path of sustainable, long-term economic growth, getting balance right between accommodating growth and protecting the environment, and continuing the improvements in the public schools.
In a subsequent rebuttal, Premier Wayne Panton disclosed that his administration requested the Opposition Leader to submit ideas for consideration - which they did, and which were reviewed with selected elements incorporated into the SPS.
CALCULATIONS AND REPUTATIONS
The former finance minister, also zeroed on criticisms voiced by current post-holder Chris Saunders about the state of government finances and budgetary projections inherited by the PACT administration from the previous Progressives-led government.
Defending his track record, Mr McTaggart declared: “I need to make this very, very clear - there can be no suggestion that there was some kind of conspiracy afoot to conceal the size of the deficit … Of more concern Mr. Speaker has been the Minister's statements that suggested my government may have deliberately mis-stated the government’s 2020-year end deficit by some $48 million. Though today I note that it has increased further by another $20M to $110M! I have addressed this publicly already and, as I indicated, this change, occurred after my departure and on the Minister's watch.”
“I hope in his contribution to the debate that the Minister will provide the country with an update and let the country know – it’s important to me,” he stated.
The ex-finance minister also challenged his successor on his stewardship to date.
“What is the future strategy on borrowing? Does the government intend to restore revenue financing in the longer term? If so, when? The Minister talked about getting Caymanians into work and reducing unemployment by, I think he said, in such a way that it would ‘shift labour market dynamics.’ I am not sure what this means as it was not explained – but I look forward to having it explained along with understanding how he is going to do it?” Mr McTaggart asked.