Mum’s the word from MP Michael Browne on GPH deal

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No explanation or statement of any kind was made in Parliament yesterday by MP Michael Browne who, by virtue of a commitment given by Chief of Staff Lionel Hurst, was expected to state whether he continues to hold his dissent to the agreement between the government and Global Ports Holding (GPH).

On Tuesday, Hurst declined to comment on the eight-page leaked memo to Cabinet in which Browne outlined numerous concerns and asked his colleagues to reconsider the deal.

Hurst had said it was Browne’s responsibility to speak about the matter and that would be done on Thursday, March 21st when the Parliament met to discuss the Income Tax Amendment Bill 2019 which is intended to assist with funding of the 4th Landed Campus of the University of the West Indies to be established here.

But yesterday, although he strayed from the Bill numerous times – and was chided by the Speaker of the House, Sir Gerald Watt, QC, for doing so – Michael Browne never once touched on the Global Ports issue.

He spoke of matters in his constituency, but never offered any explanation as to why he would not speak on the GPH deal or where he stands now.

What is known from his memo – published in full by The Daily OBSERVER on March 19 – is that back in November 2018 he wanted the government to revisit the 30-year concession agreement with GPH to manage cruise port operations here on an exclusive basis.

Browne’s opposition to the project was made known, “in good faith”, just around the time when the Memorandum of Understanding was signed.

He contended then that “the awarding of concession by [the government] to a subsidiary of GPH for 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.”

The deal of which he wrote has since caused alarm in the cruise industry, with over a dozen cruise ships cancelling their scheduled visits for the upcoming 2019/2020 winter season.

There has also been dissent from taxi drivers, merchants and many other residents who say they are furious over the likely implications for their businesses.

Browne, like many residents opposed to the deal, strongly advised that the government of Antigua needs to “renegotiate” and “demand” a number of “guarantees” from Global Ports, to include 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.

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.

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.”

The authenticity of the memo was confirmed by Prime Minister Gaston Browne who told OBSERVER media about a week ago that although the document was not “tabled” officially, the All Saints West MP in fact raised it; but soon after the MP started sharing the concerns outlined, he withdrew the memo.

He recalled that the education minister 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 have carried and the Education Minister would have been bound by it, in accordance with the principle of collective responsibility.

Currently, the government is awaiting a meeting with cruise line companies which own the ships that have pulled out and (by Information Minister Melford Nicholas’s account) the parties have agreed not to make any further public comments about the fallout.

GPH has also met with a number of interest groups, hoping to allay fears that their livelihoods would be threatened.

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