Editorial: Contradictions be damned

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It never ceases to amaze us how politicians can twist words and situations to best suit their agendas. There is no thought of contradiction or lack of consistency when a policy or decision needs to be pushed through. All that matters at the time is to enunciate the logic of the day in an attempt to convince enough people that the decision being made is the right one.
Recently, in efforts to put aside fears that the government was selling or giving away the new port to a foreign entity, Prime Minister Browne made it clear that privatisation is an option that the government pursues when dealing with agencies that are not profitable. So that we are not accused of misquoting the PM, here is what was said in that interview. “There is a need for a private entity to lead our cruise tourism sector. I know that there are some who are saying we are privatising the port while we have fought against privatising the State Insurance Corporation. My government will be inclined to privatise entities that are not profitable, but if it is making profits, then we are against privatisation,” PM Browne said.
That is an interesting revelation to some but a repeat of convenient rhetoric to others. As exhibit A, we present the Antigua and Barbuda Broadcasting Service (ABS). ABS runs a media house that loses millions every year for the government. It competes against private media enterprises, including Observer, and artificially keeps prices in the market low; in many, if not most cases, below the cost of doing business.  The reason for this is, ABS has no profit motive. It is a propaganda arm for government and has always been. It is and was no different under any administration.
The usual retort is that the government needs a media company to communicate with the people, but they already have the Government Information Service (GIS) and they have the authority to commandeer radio and television stations, along with telecommunication companies, in cases of national emergencies, etc.  Beyond that, Government is not blocked from access to the media. In fact, most people will say that the government has too much access to the media.
It is easy to talk about “millions” in losses but actual numbers are much better. According to the Government’s 2017 Budget Estimates (hosted on antiguaobserver.com for easy reference.  EC$8,804,983 was budgeted for Public Information and Broadcasting, which is fairly close to the revised 2016 number of EC$8,887,447. One major and obvious omission from the budget is something that all ABS’ competitors pay, utilities. So, if that one line item is taken into consideration, the budget will likely be closer to or exceed EC$10 million. We like round numbers so let’s stick with that.
Do you know what the expected recurrent revenue from the EC$10 million budget expenditure is? A whopping EC$599,302. Less than EC$600,000 after spending somewhere around, or north of, EC$10 million. Certainly, in the Prime Minister’s definition of an entity that it is not profitable, ABS must tick every qualifying box. Although we have answered the question before, we will explicitly ask it again:  If the government is “ inclined to privatise entities that are not profitable,” why is it not inclined to privatise ABS so that a fair playing field can exist in media?
Now, we already know that we will be criticised, and this analysis will be described as a self-serving piece. We are okay with that because we have been consistent with our criticism of how governments should run, and to repeat that position: government revenue should be derived from taxation, and it should not be in business to compete with private enterprises in competitive markets. This goes for any sector where an environment for competition exists because competition should be fostered. The natural benefits of being a government agency should not be used against citizens and to the detriment of private businesses. This applies to insurance, construction, communications, and any other area in the competitive private sector. So, when we hear plans for Public Works to compete for private jobs, we cringe in the same way we do when we see the below cost prices ABS charges for media placements. 
 The thing is, this is not a new thing. The double-speak related to privatisation goes back decades. If we look at the Observer Radio case, one of the government’s defences to not issuing the license to Observer was the ‘fact’ that they were undergoing a privatisation process in regard to ABS. Our co-founders, Fergie and Winston Derrick made their investments in electronic media with the understanding that there would be a free and fair playing field established in quick time. That nev­­­er happened, and we have had to compete against a government-subsidised entity every day.  
Don’t take our word for it. Here are a couple of extracts from the Privy Council court decision. “As already mentioned, on 24 July 1996 (being the day after the date of Mr. Samuel Derrick’s letter advising of the intention to begin broadcasting on 1 September) the Cabinet approved a White Paper presented by the Prime Minister as Minister with responsibility for public information … Described as a Paper on Privatisation of ABS Radio/TV…”
So, when you hear politicians defend decisions that are inconsistent or contradictory to what you have heard before, you should look a bit deeper to see if their words are without substance and meant only to get them over the hump. You would generally find that is the case. Convenient arguments to carry the day.
See the 2017 Antigua and Barbuda Recurrent & Development Estimates here.

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