Tomorrow the nation will know whether Minister of Education, Science & Technology, Michael Browne stands by the long list of concerns he outlined in a memo to his Cabinet colleagues last November regarding the Global Ports Holding (GPH) 30-year concession agreement with the Government of Antigua and Barbuda for the management and operation of all the country’s cruise ports on an exclusive basis.
The minister is expected to address the matter during the sitting of Parliament, according to government’s Chief of Staff Lionel “Max” Hurst, who declined to comment when asked about the leaked memo yesterday.
Michael Browne’s opposition to the project was made known “in good faith” just around the time when the Memorandum of Understanding was signed.
In his eight-page memo, he noted, “I [am] unpersuaded that the long-term interests of Antigua and Barbuda, our Government and our People are adequately served if this agreement is signed and executed.”
He did say then that he was looking forward to “further and more informed dialogue” because at the time there was “absent sufficient information.”
Many of the things about which he expressed concern remain in the document to date, such as “the awarding of concession by [the government] to a subsidiary of GPH for thirty (30) years on an exclusive basis, incorporating both cruise, retail and related services at the Ports currently owned and operated by the SJDC and APG, with an extension option for an additional 10 years, is grossly disproportionate as it obtrudes [the government] and the nation’s long term sovereignty interests and prosperity for a short term immediate financial benefit.”
Already the GPH deal has caused alarm in the cruise industry as well as among taxi drivers, merchants and many other residents who are in uproar over the likely implications for their businesses.
Michael Browne, like many residents opposed to the deal, strongly advised that the government needs to “renegotiate” and “demand” a number of “guarantees” from GPH, including a guarantee of “meaningful growth” in visitor arrivals.
The minister said the agreement creates an “unwarranted and unwelcomed burden” on generations of Antiguans and Barbudans “yet conceived and unborn”, while “it paralyzes” existing generations in related career fields.
He also contended that the agreement appears to be based on inadequate accessible capital and poor management at most, if not in all areas, inferred as per the terms of the MOU.
The minister outlined 18 points, and multiple sub-points, then concluded by saying that the Government of Antigua needs to renegotiate with Global Ports Holding from a position of strength, or withdraw from the proposed Agreement altogether.
He suggested the government also needs to engage in the arduous task of rebranding and rebuilding its economic prowess.
Another point of note is that the minister said the award of the particular proposed concession by the government is conflicting and contradictory in both principle and substance in the post-CCJ referendum era.
Reflecting on the words of Prime Minister Gaston Browne when he was championing a ‘yes’ vote for the CCJ over the Privy Council last year, Michael Browne reminded that it was the PM who said “This type of self-condemnation of our own has no place in our modern and enlightened society.”
Having alluded to that, the education minister wrote, “The premise of PM Browne’s arguments to support the CCJ are, in this instant, applicable in re-examining the proposed awarding of the Concession by the [Government of Antigua] to GPH.”
He added that to give up so much to GPH “at this juncture, at this period post celebration of our 37th year of political independence and socio-economic prowess, rather than comprehensively addressing the management and operational structures, strengthening the relationship conduits between the nation and the cruise ship owners and related partners … denies our people pride in who we are and what we are and what we can do.”
In his seventh point, the minister and MP for All Saints West said the effect of such a significant concession is to make “us as inferior” by suggesting the people here, including leaders, “are divorced from the integrity, capability and creativity to preside over the dispensation of the long-held tradition of mastering the business of tourism, port management … long term economic development.”
While some have questioned the memo’s authenticity, even suggesting that the MP is not “legally smart enough” to have penned it on his own, PM Gaston Browne has since confirmed that he is aware of the memo because it was in fact brought up by his colleague, Michael Browne, during a Cabinet meeting.
He said the document was not officially “tabled”, and that soon after his colleague started sharing the concerns outlined, he withdrew the memo.
He recalled that MP Michael Browne had then planned to change his mind. The prime minister added that the analyses drawn in the memo were flawed and needed more work.
He also said that regardless of whether Michael Browne had chosen to support the deal, the consensus of the Cabinet would in the end have carried and the minister would have been bound by it.
However, the country’s leader said Michael Browne’s final position was to support the deal for which the government has already begun feeling an adverse impact.
This has happened in the form of over a dozen pull-outs of cruise ships coming to Antigua in the upcoming 2019/2020 winter season.
There has also been a public row, with xenophobic remarks being made about the head of the Antigua and Barbuda Cruise Tourism Association, Nathan Dundas, who broke the news of the pull-outs. He has since been told he has “overstayed” his welcome in Antigua, a country of which he has been citizen for three decades.
Meanwhile, residents who formed a group called Faithful Nationals have also been protesting the GPH deal, but the government has dismissed the concerns raised.
At the same time, the government has toned down the quarrel and agreed not to make any further statements, saying it would be meeting with the cruise companies.
That promise was only made after several officials dismissed the pull-outs as insignificant when one looks at the 12,000 plus passengers who would be lost out of the estimated million plus annual arrivals.