FLASHBACK: Sparks fly in Guiana Island debate

Front page of the Daily Observer from June 2, 1997.

The Leader of the Opposition, the Honourable Baldwin Spencer, has written Prime Minister Lester Bird with regards to the Asian Village agreement signed between the Government and Asian Village Antigua Ltd. We print below Mr. Spencer’s letter to the PM, and the Prime Minister’s response to the said letter.

Hon. Lester B. Bird M.P.
Prime Minister of Antigua and Barbuda,.
Prime Minister’s Office,
Queen Elizabeth Highway,
St. John’s, Antigua. W.1.

Dear Prime Minister,
I note with more than passing interest that you moved a motion for the adjournment of the sitting of the House until June 4, 1997. In your explanation for the adjournment, you indicated that the Opposition said that they needed more time to study, consult on, and prepare themselves for the debate on the Asian Village project. You also indicated that it was not your intention to ram the Dato Tan Asian Village agreement through the Parliament of Antigua. I wish to make it quite clear that a one week adjournment of Parliament still does not give the Opposition enough time or proper public consultation regarding an agreement with such tremendous implications.

On April 2nd, 1997 I wrote you requesting among .other things time on ABS Radio and Television to present the Opposition’s side on the proposed development and I suggested to you that since, I was unable to answer all the queries which were coming into my office on the project we should arrange a debate on the Public Media so that the Citizenry may be better informed on this Development.

On May 7th, 1997 I again wrote you requesting thirty days notice to permit national discussion before the debate. You have ignored these requests and have attempted to surreptitiously rush this matter through Parliament with as little debate as possible among our people. Despite your numerous promises to the Nation, you have failed to provide the opportunity for full and frank public discussion on this matter. It was only last Friday May 23, 1997 you made a copy of the agreement available to members of the House of Representatives. Surely Prime Minister, you must realise that this clandestine method of dealing with the promised debate does nothing to satisfy the concerns of the people which I have previously outlined. If anything it causes the level of suspicion to be elevated and it is now at the point where a very significant number of them feel that their Government can no longer be trusted to carry out the responsibilities reposed in them at the last elections.

Prime Minister, the Opposition does not think that you have a mandate from the people to alienate such vast quantities of land without the people’s consent. Sir, our position is that this proposal is such a radical departure from what obtained before, that it necessitates a Referendum or Election to produce the necessary mandate for you to proceed.

Having read through the agreement which you signed on February 18, 1997 and having got over my shock that you have already executed the agreement between the developers and your Government, I am of the view that your arrogant, callous and uncouth behaviour to the members of the House of Representatives by expecting them to act as your rubber stamp, is unacceptable. This behaviour supports the public’s feelings of mistrust for your Government. The document indicates that you have given away in the vicinity of one thousand acres or our patrimony for little or nothing, and displays a false and astonishing sense of your feeling of omnipotence. This perception needs to be corrected in the eyes of the public.

As a consequence Prime Minister, and in an effort to provide you the opportunity to correct this unfortunate image which the country now has of you, I challenge you to debate this agreement on National Television and Radio with a view to providing the Citizenry with the truth as to what your Government has given away in exchange for the nebulous promises of Asian Village Antigua Limited, and whether or not your Government has a mandate for so disposing of our patrimony.

We look forward to an early reply.

Yours sincerely,
Baldwin Spencer M.P.
Leader of the Opposition

Response to Baldwin Spencer from the Prime Minister

Hon Baldwin Spencer MP
Nevis Street St. John’s

Dear Leader of the Opposition,

I write to acknowledge receipt on 30 May. 1997 of your letter dated 27 May, 1997 concerning the Guiana Island project.

First, I have to say that I find it remarkable that you could say in your letter that “a one week adjournment of parliament still does not give the Opposition enough time for proper public consultations” regarding the agreement. I find this statement remarkable on four counts:
(1) in your statement to the press, you claimed that it was your members of parliament who had not had sufficient time to study the agreement, now that I have delayed the parliamentary debate for 9 days you conveniently claim that it is the “public” with whom you wish to consult;
(2) the Outlet, propaganda arm of the political party wIthin your party, the ACLM, published and commented on sections of the agreement a full benefit of his admittedly extremist views;
(3) on the same day that I announced the postponement of the parliamentary debate, you and senior members of your party held a public meeting in which you
dissected the agreement and placed your own interpretation of it to the audience; and
(4) a senior member of your party in the House who witnessed the agreement had possession of it for several weeks and evidently shared it with you and other members of your party. Therefore, if you continue to say that you have not had sufficient time to study the agreement, it is a full and complete admission that the statements made by you and your appointed Deputy Leader at the public meeting last Tuesday night and your appointed Deputy Leader’s comments in his propaganda arm, the Outlet, were ill-informed and meant to deceive the public.

However, if as you and I both know to be the truth, you have had more than sufficient time to study the agreement, then all your public protestations to the contrary are nothing more than a deliberate attempt to mislead those who listen to you.

Second, your idea of “proper public consultation” seems to be very one-sided: it appears to be a process by which you tell the public what to believe at party political meetings. There is no opportunity for any section of the public to respond to a harangue from you and your party leadership.

If that is”proper public consultation”, I am afraid you have no appreciation of the meaning of consultation. What you do is not consultation it is dictation. By the same token , my Government has been consulting with the public through meetings representative groups throughout the country. One such consultation was a formal meeting which I held with the Chamber of Industry and Commerce at which I made a presentation and responded to questions and comments from responsible members of the business community. Thee have been many other informal consultations with the leaders of the community.

Third, you ask for a debate on the project and agreement. Yet, when the opportunity for a full-scale debate, broadcast live to the public, is given to you and your party, except for one senior member of your party, you chose to boycott parliament. In other words, you choose to reflect the proper place for a debate – a place to which you were elected for just that purpose – in favour of one sided party political meetings and posturing.

Fourth, I utterly reject your propaganda efforts in suggesting that I “have attempted to surreptitiously rush this matter though parliament with as little debate as possible among our people”. Parliament is the proper place for a public debate by the persons elected by the people to represent them. Live broadcast of such a debate will give our people an opportunity to hear all sides of the argument and not just the twisted interpretation which you and others in you party wish to put on It. Further, as I have already said, consultations have been held and continue to be held with leader of representative groups throughout the country.

Fifth, I remind you that in March 1994 – just three years ago – my party was given a comprehensive mandate to speak and act for the vast majority of the public of our country. Your party and the representatives of the party within your party were rejected by the electorate. Therefore, you have no basis – save your own claims – to speak for the public of Antigua and Barbuda. You have a basis for speaking for a minority and I have a basis for speaking for the majority – that basis was the result of the constitutionally held last general elections in this country.

Sixth, you and your party – in your lust for power – have acted recklessly and rashly in providing completely false information about the Guiana Island project to the public. You have failed to tell the public that:
(1) the environment will be preserved and protected,
(2) the majority of land for the project will be leased not sold,
(3) the project will add a minimum of 4,100 jobs to this country,
(4) the project will boost the economy by an additional $173.6 million per annum in which the entire nation will share,
(5) the wealth creation in this country will be US$200 million being the cost of the project, plus the money that will flow into the pockets of employees and the business community and the Treasury of the State. Primarily, you have not told the public that you real objection to the project is your fear that when it gets off the ground, its benefits will deprive you and your party of the power you so desperately seek.

I am more than happy to debate the intricacies of the Guiana Island project with you and the elected members of your party in the proper place – Parliament. Do you duty and attend parliament and the debate will be joined fully and vigorously.
Your sincerely
Lester B Bird
Prime Minister

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