All bets for peace came to an abrupt end once Parliamentary Representative for Castries South the Hon. Dr. Ernest Hilaire got up to speak at Tuesday’s Sitting of the House of Assembly. With a finger wagging accusingly towards government officials across the table, he laid his reprimanding on thick, drawing into the spotlight an aiport bill issue dating as far back as 2006.
Mr. Hilaire, who prefaced his criticisms with, “This Airport Development Bill is another example of how wicked this government is to the people of Saint Lucia,” brazenly introduced the following timeline of events surrounding the bill: when the Saint Lucia Labour Party (SLP) returned to office in 2012, it was presented with a situation of $400,000,000 being sourced for airport reconstruction. In an act of disagreement, the SLP sought advice from The World Bank which advised that Saint Lucia should gain funding through a Public Private Partnership (PPP) with the International Finance Corporation (IFC). This deal authorized the IFC to fund the project while overseeing “international tendering, awarding of contracts and monitoring of the process” for a proposed period of 30 years. Nonetheless, when the UWP regained power in 2016, it abandoned this IFC deal and resumed the quest of sourcing $400,000,000 via the “lock box” approach, where monies would be collected through taxes to pay the incurred debt. The question Mr. Hilaire eventually posed, and which was continuously reiterated for the remainder of the assembly, was: In a deal “where Saint Lucia would not incur a cent in loans, why would you overturn that and want to go back to borrowing $400,000,000?”
Government officials on the opposing end of the table appeared baffled and Prime Minister Allen Chastanet made an attempt to avert focus towards the plausibility of the “lock box” and not on the reneged IFC deal. However, the debate continued on its initial wayward course. In response to Mr. Hilaire’s claims, and with frank confidence, the Minister for Infrastructure, Ports, Energy and Labour, Hon. Stephenson King stated, “The mechanism of financing . . . is a matter that a government decides . . . so this government has decided we do not believe the PPP model is in our own interest. We do not believe that by introducing a method in which you would allow a concession to run the airport while you are paid every year . . . is the most beneficial. We are saying let us do it ourselves, let us put the support infrastructure to build the airport and to finance it.” The minister concluded, “Our philosophy is that we can do it ourselves.”
Prime Minister Allen Chastanet chimed in to quash doubts about the nature of the “lock box”. His claims were that its purpose is to give confidence to legislation that the collected funds are secured. He said, “Once we enter an agreement with a new entity, those monies would then be put into a “lock box” because that is what the developer is going to want to see, that we don’t have the ability to give and not give his money, he wants to know that he is committed. Every $35 we collect goes into a “lock box” and it could only be specifically used for the airport development. And it further gives the government the ability of binding those funds specifically to paying back a loan.”
Unwilling to yield on their disapproval of the ruling party’s decision, members of the opposition, unable to speak, were seen shaking their heads in disapproval at the rebuttals. Parliamentary Representative for Dennery North, Hon. Shawn Edward during his address stated, “The PPP arrangement is a modality that is being embraced by countries all over the world, and when you research airport development, with a specific focus on financial arrangement, you will discover that the PPP arrangement is the preferred option to finance.” He gave the example of India, saying, “There is a lot that can be deciphered when you look at the different airports that have been upgraded in places like India, and the benefits that they were able to derive from the PPP arrangement.”
Despite Mr. Edward’s composed demeanour and sensible argument, the Minister for Economic Development, Housing, Urban Renewal, Transport and Civil Aviation, Hon. Guy Joseph, declared that Mr Edward was comparing “apples to bananas,” in that India is already home to more than one hundred airports. Also, according to Mr. Joseph, deals with the IFC are not above corruption and, to justify his point, he vaguely made mention of a WASCO project which was headed by the IFC whereby the individual put in charge was eventually “transferred to Africa”. The minister ended his accusation with, “I will leave it at that, as when someone is not there to defend their name, I am careful as to the extent I go.”
As House Assemblies often go, all cards were laid and left on the table like rubble to be sifted through. The fact still remains that our current government will go forward with its plans of redeveloping the airport without the assistance from the IFC. Who knew a decision to build “a first class airport” – a supposed suitable compliment to our ever-growing tourism industry – would cause this much row?