General — 18 March 2008 — by Adele Ramos
Thirty one members of the House of Representatives and twelve members of the Senate were sworn in on Friday morning on Independence Hill, at a grand ceremony that lasted just over an hour to formally usher in new members of Parliament – both its elected arm (The House) and its appointed arm (the Senate).
All members took their oaths of office before a crowd of citizens that unabashedly booed the majority of Opposition members—and especially Opposition Leader Said Musa—as they were taking their oaths to serve the interests of Belizeans.
The new Government, led by Prime Minister Dean Barrow, took the opportunity to underscore the circumstances that led to the drastic change in the nation’s political administration on February 8, when he took over the reins of power from his embattled predecessor, Hon. Said Musa, the current Opposition Leader.
“A nation fed up with the plunder of its resources on February 7 declared, ‘Enough is enough!’ A people bludgeoned by abuse and lies jettisoned what must surely qualify as the foulest bruise inflicted on an independent Belize…” commented Barrow, in his speech.
He noted that itwas “…a coalition of the true-hearted that won…the battle to reclaim Belize.”
And while he accepted that the United Democratic Party (UDP) is the instrument the people chose for Belize’s rescue, he also acknowledged the great responsibility they are now faced with to restore integrity to government—a responsibility, he said, they would discharge “to the best of their ability.”
The cornerstone of administration, said Barrow, is integrity, characterized by openness, honesty and transparency.
“We know there is no room for backsliding; there is no room for failure. We know there is no room for anything other than to walk the straightest, truest, governance course ever on behalf of the people of this country for the people of this country. Of this, Mr. Speaker, I am determined, to this I am dedicated. And there is no power on earth, that can keep me from serving Belize now with all my heart, and with all my mind, and with all my soul,” PM Barrow pledged.
He restated his party’s commitment to fulfill its core manifesto promises: to lower GST, reduce the cost of living, bring down the price of fuel, provide land to the poor, expand free education, and create jobs.
“We will do all this, Mr. Speaker, while stamping out ministerial corruption and creating an administration properly policed by the Contractor General, the Auditor General, the Ombudsman, and the Upper House [the Senate].”
The UDP had promised some key reforms in governance, and now that it enjoys an overwhelming majority of 25-6 in the House, as well as an expected coalition with social partners in the Senate, it is in the position to push ahead with key reforms it had pledged during its campaign.
Specifically, Barrow pointed to (1) a recall mechanism, (2) a term limit on the office of the Prime Minister, (3) criminal sanctions for breaches of the Finance and Audit Act, and (4) an empowered social partner-controlled Senate.
“The core of the manifesto will be swiftly implemented,” Barrow declared on Friday.
“We shall not let this nation down. After all is said and done, the task given to this new government by the Belizean people may be summarized in just two words: national reconstruction. Let the work now begin,” he concluded.
Prior to delivering his remarks, Barrow nominated attorney Emil Arguelles to be the Speaker of the House, succeeding the former People’s United Party Speaker, Elizabeth Zabaneh. Mesopotamia area representative and Minister of Housing Michael Finnegan seconded his nomination, which the floor accepted.
Thereafter,Marco Pech, UDP Orange Walk South area representative, was nominated and elected as Deputy Speaker.
Pastor Norman Willacy of the Belmopan Baptist Church offered prayers at the inauguration, noting that unless the Lord builds the house, they will labor in vain who build it. He also quoted scriptural references on obeying authorities.
Before Barrow gave his speech, Governor-General Sir Colville Young was invited to attend the session, to deliver the Government Speech (or Throne Speech), and the newly sworn-in Senators were all invited to join the proceedings.
Sir Colville said that the day marked the inauguration of the 10th House of Representatives and the 11th Senate since Belize’s attainment of Self Government in 1964.
“Today also marks the 6th change of Government since Independence and the beginning of the 3rd Government of the United Democratic Party,” he added.
In encapsulating the reason for the change in government, he noted that, “…when the people spoke on February 7th, they were registering their demand not merely for a changing of the guard, but a demand for a fundamental paradigm shift in the way our country is to be governed. It was a demand for national reconstruction based on foundation stones of openness, honesty, and transparency. This Government understands that it must build upon this foundation the brick and mortar necessary for economic rescue and social and moral renewal,” said the Governor-General.
He went on to review the Government’s plans in 8 key areas: good governance, crime, education, health, strengthening a damaged economy, oil and energy, utilities, and the public service.
“In this session of the National Assembly, the Government shall restore and maintain good governance. To achieve this, the Belizean people will be empowered with the right to recall elected representatives and impeach the Prime Minister.
“The people will have easy access under a revised Freedom of Information Act to information on government contracts, operations and projects.
“The people will have the right to call for a referendum on matters of great public importance.
“The Senate will be empowered to initiate and conduct public enquiries into mismanagement or corruption by public officials.
“The peoples’ elected representatives from both sides of the House will be empowered by the fair allocation of funds to enable them to serve their constituencies.
“The social partners will be empowered with greater control over statutory bodies such as the Social Security Board and the DFC.
“Senate reform, legislation to outlaw secret contracts, to prevent conflicts of interest, nepotism and cronyism, and to punish unjust enrichment by elected or public officials are all to be addressed in this first session. The people demand justice and restitution where economic and political crimes have been committed,” he said, to encouraging applause from onlookers.
On the issue of crime, he said that his Government has recognized the fueling effects of the drug trade, pervasive corruption, social injustice, and the breakdown of our social systems in swelling the wave of crime that has been sweeping the nation.
“The Government’s plan, therefore, is to simultaneously address all these factors. Government will transform the Police Department into a highly trained, adequately equipped, creative and professional security team.
“A democratic policing style with respect for the rule of law and respect for the constitutional rights of citizens will in turn enhance citizens’ respect for the police. This will be coupled with improvements in the terms and conditions of service for our policemen and women to attract and retain competent officers. Government will institute a fair and competitive merit-based promotion system based on performance, education and experience,” he elaborated.
Other initiatives include a special “Gun Court” for swift prosecution of gun-related crimes, the strengthening of the anti-drug unit (ADU), and investment in necessary human and capital resources to quell the curse of gang violence.
“To this end, a Gang Violence Prevention Unit…will be established, comprised of specially trained police and public officers. On the positive side, a secretariat dedicated to youth development will be established to offer young Belizeans a positive alternative to violent behavior and gang life. A National Employment Agency and Small Business Development Programme, coupled with adult education programmes to assist school dropouts wishing to improve their lives, will assist job seekers and employers alike,” the Governor-General informed.
And to combat possible corruption within the very judiciary, the Barrow administration pledges to “…recruit competent and trained professionals who will serve with the highest level of integrity and ethical conduct.
“The Office of the Ombudsman and Contractor-General will be further empowered to investigate wrongdoing and negligence on the part of the Department of Public Prosecution and the Magistracy in order to ensure equal justice for all.
“The Internal Affairs Department of the police will be improved to strengthen its investigative abilities and to make it accountable to an oversight Police/Civilian Board.”
He indicated that promised improvements in education will also be on the front-burner.
“The free secondary school tuition policy established by the 1993 UDP Government will be improved with a direct annual grant of $300 to deserving first and second form students to assist parents with the additional fees now being charged by secondary institutions. Government will review the school book programme instituted in 2007 with a view to eliminating the numerous administrative and educational problems which arose due to its hasty implementation. This review will not result in a disruption of the programme in the coming new school year.
“My Government will provide financial incentives for teachers to upgrade their professional qualifications by establishing a Continued Professional Development Fund for teachers to access loans and small grants for continuing their professional training.”
As important as education is the health of the nation, and while the UDP has halted the rollout of the National Health Insurance Scheme, with an eventual annual cost of $38 million, it promises to make comprehensive advancements in the entire health sector, but more importantly, to continue the existing NHI coverage.
The G-G said that, “The Government will focus on preventive health services, early childhood nutrition and immunization, more and better-equipped rural clinics, public health education, the removal of GST from medical services, and medications that are currently subject to tax.
“Government will expand support for the Karl Heusner Memorial Hospital as the people’s hospital, and upgrade facilities at all regional hospitals. The district hospitals in Corozal, San Ignacio, and Toledo will be properly funded to provide all basic testing and primary care services.”
He added that oncology (cancer) and dialysis treatment facilities will be introduced at the KHMH, and Government will not only foster partnerships with outside institutions for Belizeans to get needed medical treatment, but will also create a fund for special assistance for those who need to venture outside for treatment not yet available in Belize.
“Government will establish formal partnerships between the Ministry of Health and KHMH and hospitals in the United States of America, Mexico, and Guatemala … Since the cost of medical care abroad is prohibitive for most Belizeans, my Government will create a special government/private sector mechanism for administering financial assistance for those needing to travel abroad for medical care,” Sir Colville informed.
Government will continue to focus on issues surrounding HIV/AIDS, and to fund the National AIDS Policy recommendations, and work closely with community organizations serving infected or affected persons through the National AIDS Commission.
Of note is the plan to establish a Department of Mental Health Care within the Ministry of Health, as well as acute mental health centers and support systems at all regional hospitals for families of affected persons.
In addressing the professional development of care providers, the G-G related in the Throne Speech that, “Government will implement a system of performance-based promotion while offering competitive benefits to attract and retain motivated and qualified individuals… [and] seek to identify areas of specialist training the country lacks for the purpose of determining the allocation of scholarships and other training incentives. Special attention will be given to nursing education and attracting and keeping well-trained and qualified nurses.”
As regards to the economy, Sir Colville read that, “Government will implement major infrastructure projects to rebuild our streets and roads, bridges, and drainage systems, creating jobs in the process. Wasteful spending and bloated contracts will no longer be tolerated. The autonomy of the Central Bank and other regulatory bodies is being restored, and a new development financial institution will rise from the wreckage of the once proud DFC. The woeful 2% estimated growth in the past year will be transformed to a targeted 6% annual growth through responsible management and growth oriented policies.”
Noteworthy is the Government’s pledge to reform the current tax system to replace those that “impede growth and impoverish those who are already poor”, “that discourage job-creating investments or that fall heaviest on the poor.”
In improving economic benefits to Belizeans, the Barrow administration has given a public undertaking to give Belizeans more ownership in what has become the number one export industry – oil.
“My Government believes that legally and morally the oil resources of Belize belong to and must benefit the people of Belize,” said the Governor-General. “Proper management of this industry will increase our standard of living, fund our childrens’ education, create jobs, and help to realize the Belizean dream of a prosperous future.”
He reiterated Barrow’s pledge for his administration “…to create a mechanism whereby the masses of Belizeans can collect personal dividends from the national petroleum wealth.”
Even though the Belize Electricity Limited (BEL) was simultaneously requesting a 15% rate increase at the end of the week, Sir Colville said, “My Government recognizes that the high cost of electricity, water, and telephone services is a major obstacle to economic development.
“The Public Utilities Commission will be empowered to better carry out its obligation to regulate the utilities in support of the consumer and our national interests. Utility providers must not stand in the way of competitors willing and able to provide lower cost service by means of the new technology that is readily available throughout the world.”
Finally, on the public service, Sir Colville asserted that, “Government will appoint an assertive and independent Public Services Commission in consultation with the Public Service Union. A National Quality Assurance Coordinator will be appointed, with the main goal of implementing a quality process aimed at streamlining all government procedures and reporting. Our public officers represent the backbone of good governance. Their contribution must be recognized, their authority renewed, and their advice heard.”
He concluded by saying that the Barrow administration “…will require accountability of Ministers, political appointees, and public officers, and lessen the influence of partisan politics in the work of government.”
Friday was the first time all elected officials met together in one place, since the February 7, 2008 general elections. They have yet to convene for their first business session, the date of which is yet to be announced.
Below is the list of legislators in Parliament – the people who will be making the laws:
The House of Representatives (31 members and a Speaker):
Speaker: Emil Arguelles
Deputy Speaker: Marco Pech, UDP Orange Walk South Area Representative
Freetown Francis Fonseca
Fort George Said Musa
Albert Mark Espat
Lake Independence Cordel Hyde
Orange Walk Central Johnny Briceno
Corozal South East Florencio Julian Marin, Jr.
Ruling Party (25):
Caribbean Shores Carlos Perdomo
Pickstock Wilfred Peter Elrington
Queen’s Square Dean Barrow
Mesopotamia Michael Finnegan
Collet Patrick Jason Faber
Port Loyola Anthony “Boots” Martinez
Belize Rural North Edmund George “Clear the Land” Castro
Belize Rural Central Michael “Hutchy” Hutchinson
Belize Rural South Manuel Heredia, Jr.
Corozal Bay Pablo Saul Marin
Corozal North Nemencio Acosta
Corozal South West Gabriel Alberto Martinez
Orange Walk North Gaspar “Gapi” Vega
Orange Walk East Marcel Porfirio Cardona
Orange Walk South Marco Pech
Cayo North Salvador Fernandez
Cayo West Erwin Rafael Contreras
Cayo Central Rene Montero
Cayo South Ramon Witz
Cayo North East Elvin Penner
Belmopan John Saldivar
Dangriga Arthur William “Turo” Roches
Stann Creek West Melvin Hulse
Toledo East Peter Eden Martinez
Toledo West Juan Coy
The Senate (12 members and a president):
President: Andrea Nicole Gill
Deputy President: Deborah Mencias-McMillan (UDP member)
Ruling United Democratic Party
1. Douglas Singh
2. Juliet Thimbriel
3. Deborah McMillan
Opposition People’s United Party
7. Rodwell Ferguson
8. Magali Marin-Young
9. Dr. David Hoy
10. Godwin Hulse
11. Paul Perriott
12. Henry Gordon