Thou doth protest too much! (Part II)

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We ended Part I of our look at the 2020 budget by citing an anecdote of one of Papa Bird’s budget speeches, which were famous for their economy of words. Think, “Just the facts, Ma’am!” Papa Bird really had no time for blowing his own trumpet and waxing eloquent about pie-in-the-sky nonsense and other assorted fluff. Neither did he bother wasting time with tart denunciations of those who might not agree with his positions. He was strictly business; the peoples’ business, that is. No foolishness about ‘creative enrichment.’

In his book, VERE CORNWALLL BIRD: When Power Failed To Corrupt, Ambassador Lionel Hurst highlights the many magnificent ways in which Papa Bird went about transforming Antigua and Barbuda from a backward colony. Bird changed Antigua from a country totally dependent on the exploitation of wretchedly poor black people engaged in a sugar industry on life support, to a modern country where wealth was being created, the government and people owned nearly 70% of the arable land, educational opportunities were expanding, and the economy was being diversified in a most remarkable way. Antigua moved from a country with just three hotels in 1953, to a plethora of guest houses (there were four on Fort Road alone) and twenty additional luxury hotels by 1973 (P.211). Curiously, notwithstanding the enormous sums of investment money coming into Antigua, and the wealth that was being generated, Hurst feels compelled to write, “Despite high-valued contracts and the selling of crown lands, no one ever charged corruption!” (P.204).  He continues on P.205, [Papa Bird], did not act to enrich himself; his focus was on the down-trodden of Antigua and Barbuda.” Hmmm!

     Clearly, folks, this Antigua and Barbuda Labour Party is NOT that of Papa Bird’s. And our PM has made that abundantly clear with his dismissiveness of the Birds, in comments that are, . . .  well. . . not-so-gracious. This Labour Party has strayed far from its founding ideals and vision. Indeed, Papa Bird would turn in his hero’s tomb, were he to know that whereas he said of colonials and Plantocrats from Rhodesia, South Africa and Kenya, “Arwe nuh want dem ya,” this administration is saying of Chinese neo-colonials bearing gifts, “Bring dem on!” Whereas Papa Bird was intent on securing Antigua’s and Barbuda’s lands for Antiguans and Barbudans – he famously said at the Lancaster House Constitutional conference, “Leave the Bu-bu-da (that’s how he pronounced it) people alone!” with their ancestral lands and their communal form of land ownership; and whereas he purchased all the assets of the Antigua Sugar Factory and the Syndicate Estates for almost EC$ 6,000,000.00 for Antiguans. (P.229), this administration appears to be falling all over itself in selling the lands to the kith and kin of the very people from whom we purchased them.

What is rather curious in the good Ambassador’s biography of Papa Bird, is that he continuously goes to great lengths to point out that in every major contract and deal that the administration concluded, it was for the sole benefit of Antigua and Barbuda, and there was not even the whiff or taint of self-dealing, kick-backs, over-inflated contracts, self-enrichment or cronyism. We wonder why the good Ambassador feels so constrained to draw such a sharp distinction between the early Papa Bird era and succeeding administrations? The ‘then-and-now’ contrast and irony is not lost.

Anyway, under the section in the 2020 budget entitled, MORE INVESTMENTS AND STRONGER TOURISM, and another entitled, PARTNERSHIP WITH GLOBAL PORTS (GPH), our PM cites the many benefits to be derived from the relationship. He says that the country is already reaping benefits, and as proof, he says that Global Ports has already repaid a 20-year-old debt of US$21 million. To that, we say, “Big deal!” Papa Bird, an unlettered, seventh-standard boy, would have repaid that small amount of money, and it is indeed a small amount of money, without the Global Ports giveaway. Folks, take a look, if you will, at how Papa expanded the Coolidge Airport, built the Deepwater Harbour, the sweet oil and cornmeal factories, as well as a huge number of other industries and infrastructural upgrades through shrewd maneuvering and financial wizardry. We submit that Papa Bird would shudder at the Global Ports deal, much as the current good Minister of Education, was so aghast at the deal that he felt compelled to follow his conscience and pen a thoughtful denunciation of it. He spoke for many Antiguans who have similar concerns. But alas, in a stunning about-face, fearing a Trump-like dismissal, as recently happened to one of his colleagues, the good Minister repents of his supposed transgressions and denounces his own letter, his own principles, his own convictions. It was really quite pitiful and comical to see a grown man in full Jimmy Swaggart mode, arguing with his own conscience on national television. Sigh!

Of course, the good PM could not let the heavenly wonders of the GPH deal stand on their own and speak for themselves. Nay, he had to digress into another protestation, to wit, They wickedly twist our wish for fair deals, that benefit our nation, as much as it does the investor, into grandiloquent lies. Grandiloquent lies with fraudulent tongues. However, the proof of the pudding is in the eating.” (Again, we draw your attention to Queen Gertrude in Shakespeare’s HAMLET, “Me-thinks thou doth protest too much!”)

Meanwhile, under the section entitled, PUBLIC SECTOR PROJECTS, we note that the Ministry of Works is the fourth-highest recipient of funding this year with $84.5M. Sadly, the PM has to admit that our roads and infrastructure are in a dreadful condition, never mind the huge outlay of funds. Remember, last year, this ministry was also the fourth-highest recipient of funding with $80.2 M. Sigh!  But look at what that kind of funding gave us? Third World-type roads and sidewalks! Where, oh where, is the Progressive Labour Movement (PLM) administration which was called the ‘Road Government’ by virtue of the great roads that they gave us? Or the United Progressive Party administration which put down a network of roads in Barbuda that are better than any roads in all of Antigua? Or even Papa Bird’s administration in the early years that made sure that a brand new road led to the twenty-plus hotels and guest houses that became operational during his first terms?

Then there is the section in this year’s budget entitled, INVESTMENT IN EDUCATION. The PM, who received high praise from the Minister of Education in a rambling endorsement of the $119.4M that his ministry received last year ($151.6M this year), says, “That is why we will invest tens of millions in the renovation of schools in Antigua and Barbuda.” We certainly hope so.A goodly number of our schools are falling apart (See the Antigua State College), many need to be properly fenced so that the nonsense about flea infestations at the Antigua Grammar School, and the Clare Hall Secondary School more recently, will not be repeated.

Look, folks, we could go on and on and on with our peak at the 2020 budget, but we do not wish to bore you with more of its rhetorical flourishes and protestations. We believe that you get the idea. It is a budget full of flights of fancy and far removed from the reality that people are living. For example, the PM says, “We will not accept an economy where only a few do spectacularly well!” Hmmm! The reality is that the connected and the wealthy are doing spectacularly well and everybody else is catching hell in this economy!

In closing, we will just note that we share the PM’s disgust at what he calls the Decrepit state of St. John’s City.” He states the obvious, “None of us can be content with its present condition.” So true! We are confident that Mr. Saiid Greene, the Director of City and Urban Renewal at the St. John’s Development Corporation, who has been tasked with the responsibility of making St. John’s aesthetical pleasing and more business-and-consumer-friendly, will act with a sense of urgency. We believe that our confidence is not misplaced!  

Amusingly, we recall the comments made by the Leader of the Opposition in Parliament, Mr. Jamale Pringle, when asked his opinion of last year’s budget. We submit his comments back then, and suggest that they still apply today: “In 2019, we are still hearing a budget that we heard in 2014; basically the same way in which the government . . . proposed in 2014 to raise revenue for the country via certain projects which we have seen are still in a standstill mode. Those are the same projects they are looking to move this economy forward in 2019; and so, for me, if I had stayed home and anyone asked what is it that happened in the budget, I would just tell them to read 2014, 2015, 2016, 2017 and 2018 budgets.” Ooops! Think, “The more things change, the more they remain the same,” never mind the PM’s protestation about “careful planning” and “strategic implementation!”

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