Recently, it was reported that a customs duty waiver was granted by the Cabinet of Antigua & Barbuda to Prime Minister Gaston Browne’s son, Andron Gaston Browne Jr. Some believed that the decision pointed to a conflict of interest for the prime minister IF he was involved in the deliberations and Cabinet decision. (Please note the “IF” in the previous sentence). It was a legitimate question and our intrepid journalists sought to get the answer to that simple question on behalf of those that had concerns.
We first approached the Minister of Information Melford Nicholas on the sidelines of a post-Cabinet meeting, to ask whether the PM had recused himself from the January 11th session of Cabinet when the decision was made. Minister Nicholas said that he could not remember. He did say that the “rule of thumb” is that ministers would recuse themselves in situations that could be perceived as a conflict of interest and he suspected that the PM “would” have recused himself, but he was not certain. More specifically, he said, “The [minister] involved would be required to say that there is a personal or family interest and recuse themselves from taking part in that decision.”
A fair answer at the time and considering that Nicholas never checked the official record and reported back on the matter, we reached out to the Prime Minister to ask directly. When the PM was contacted via Whatsapp, he dismissed the question of whether he recused himself saying, “Get a life.” With that flippant response, the PM turned a molehill into a mountain.
The answer was not well received by the public and since then the PM has gone into damage control by employing his favourite narrative – attack the media and try to sell a sad, convoluted, made-up conspiracy theory that the opposition and the media are out to get him and his administration. He has also taken to state media to publicly state that he was off-island at the time and did not participate in the decision of Cabinet.
With that revelation, one has to wonder why neither the Prime Minister nor the Minister of Information decided to let the people know that simple fact when asked? It would have been a clear answer that would have settled the people who expressed concern. Instead, the PM created a big issue out a simple question and even simpler response. Our reporting on this matter has been accurate. We asked the question and reported on the responses. No one had said that there was anything untoward the granting to exemptions; people were only interested to know whether the PM had recused himself from the discussion.
In the wake of the PM’s “get a life” response, the whole question of transparency and concessions has come to the fore. A panel assembled to discuss the issues led to Political Scientist Charles Mahon pronouncing that relatives of a sitting prime minister and other ministers of government should not benefit from concessions. Mr Mahon was of the opinion that there were others who qualified for concessions but were being discriminated against and he utilized that argument to support his call for family exclusions.
Consultant at the Department of Political Science at the University of the West Indies, Josh Drayton disagreed with Mahon citing there needs to be greater transparency when concessions are being granted. With all due respect to Mr Mahon, we tend to agree with Mr Drayton. Our society is too small to exclude anyone from participating in economic development. It would be wrong to penalize someone for simply being family or a friend of a sitting Member or Parliament.
Everybody in our bit of paradise should be given the opportunity to succeed and drive the economy because economic growth is for everyone’s benefit. Excluding persons because of political or family association would be discriminatory and foolhardy. All we need is a transparent process for processing applications where conflicts of interests may arise.
The crazy thing is, our take on the issue of concessions is in concert with the Prime Minister’s so it becomes clear that the PM is attacking the media on this issue for the sake of advancing a poorly constructed narrative. In this specific case, PM Browne scored an own-goal by not being forthright and transparent from the get-go. That single flippant “get a life” reply was dismissive and unnecessary and instead of being evidence of a strong leader, it caused people to wonder. Mr Mahon sought to put it in the perspective of a concerned citizen when he said that the response was questionable and raised red flags.
The prime minister may want to reassess his current anti-media narrative and overall strategy because it is simply not working. Knowing that the PM is an intelligent man, we are left wondering if he is being persuaded that this is a good strategy or whether he came up with it himself. Regardless, we will continue to ask questions and report the answers – of course, less any unnecessary colourful language.