Renewed calls for axing of minister over e-books saga

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Former Education Minister Michael Browne
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By Carlena Knight

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An opposition party has called for the immediate resignation or firing of former Education Minister Michael Browne – now Creative Industries Minister – over the e-books controversy.

Second Vice President of the Democratic National Alliance (DNA), Anthony Stuart, made the call on the Observer AM show on Tuesday.

“I want to say that the Honorable Minister Dr Michael Browne must resign or be fired for his many failures, some of which have cost the government and the people of Antigua and Barbuda thousands and thousands of dollars, and in this hard guava crop time, these wasted thousands and thousands of dollars were monies simply thrown away,” he said.

“It could be paying pensioners, it could be paying the Clarevue workers, it could be paying the quarry workers, the CBH workers, port workers, it could be paying suppliers of goods and services to the government, paying scholarships for students who are overseas, and paying those hardworking nurses at the Sir Lester Bird Medical Centre.

“So, I am saying the eBooks scandal, the eBooks wastage, is a prime reason why Dr Michael Browne should resign or be fired,” Stuart said.

Stuart was speaking following the revelation that dozens of e-books had been dumped at the Cooks landfill after the Ministry of Education explained that the devices had been “rendered irreparable” and “long past their technological lifespan”.

The move prompted a flood of criticism from the public and opposition parties who have long been accusing Browne of wasting the government’s finances in purchasing the e-books that they say were never used to their full capacity.

In fact, Stuart went on to say that Browne’s track record in this matter shows a number of mistakes and mishaps.

At the heart of the issue is a US$250 licensing or user fee that Indian company, Fortuna Pix, demanded from the government in 2019 for each e-book user annually.

“The wastage of the e-books, the money, the over $70-$80 million, this is the crescendo where we are saying the waste of taxpayers’ money is too much.

“You can recall back then that Dr Michael Browne had some mix-up with Fortuna Pix. So, the question today is, the license fees, are they still being paid?” he asked.

“Those e-books, when the young entrepreneurs wanted to provide content, they were denied that opportunity, but in the parliament of Antigua and Barbuda on January 302019, Minister Michael Browne described this massive exorbitant wastage of taxpayers’ money as an ‘irregularity’ for which he is sorry. We are saying that it is too much,” he added.

It is for these reasons why Stuart believes Browne should either resign or be fired by Prime Minister Gaston Browne, who he said has previously removed Cabinet ministers and senators for far less.

“In fact, the PM himself, in January 2019, told the nation that the minister would have to be held responsible. So, Prime Minister Gaston Browne, I am saying to you the evidence is clear, the wastage can be seen and you have no other choice but to dismiss the Honorable Michael Browne,” Stuart stated.

This is not the first time that opposition party members have called for Browne to resign or be fired over the e-books scandal.

Back in 2019, Opposition Leader Jamale Pringle, former Education Minister Dr Jacqui Quinn, UPP Senator Richard Lewis and former DNA candidate Vere Cornelius all made calls for Browne’s removal.

Meanwhile, Education Minister Daryll Matthew has accused both the UPP and DNA of playing politics when referring to the cost spent on the e-books.

Speaking in Parliament on Tuesday, he sought to clarify several claims made by members of the opposition parties that he said continue to paint a false picture where the government’s finances are concerned.

Matthew said it was only a little over EC$21 million dollars spent over five years, instead of the $60 million and $75 million figures circulating in the public domain.

In fact, Matthew revealed that there were several instances that the initial cost for the devices and the user fees were negotiated and the cost dropped.

Matthew also spoke to the text books that were also disposed of.

He said although some Opposition members had suggested that the books should have been given to the public, along with school and community libraries, instead of being dumped, there simply wasn’t enough storage space for them. 

“Even if you put a few in the school library, let’s say they put in 50, you still will simply have too many [of the same edition] to be absorbed in the system, and a lot of these books come back damaged and cannot be recirculated,” he said.

“Again, you ended up having thousands of books, totally unusable, out of print, already replaced in storage for up to eight years and so these books were disposed of.

“We are not into hoarding. It was a responsible decision and they were disposed of,” he added.

The Ministry of Education embarked on an initiative to acquire e-books for secondary school students in Antigua and Barbuda in 2017.

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