(CNS): Opposition Leader Ezzard Miller has filed a private member’s motion calling on government to put the question of whether or not it should go ahead with the cruise berthing project to the people. Calls for a referendum on the issue have been mounting as public support for the increasingly controversial proposal appears to have dwindled and the justification from government is losing traction. Now the opposition is challenging government to let the public decide with a vote. Speaking on behalf of the official opposition at a press conference on Thursday, Miller said he doesn’t believe there is enough support or justification and the project will not benefit most Caymanians.
Miller said the government was pursuing the costly development on the “false notion of wide-scale public support”, but he said there is “considerable evidence of a lack of public support” for this “ill-advised course of action.”
He pointed to the absence of support from major stakeholders, such as the Chamber of Commerce, the Watersports Association and even the Cayman Islands Tourism Association, along with the demonstration of opposition from the people in 2015 with the sizable demonstration, and the public consultation results in the environmental impact study, where 73% said they opposed the project.
The leader of the opposition was confident that this motion would take priority over the motions expected to be on the agenda for the next meeting of the Legislative Assembly, which is scheduled to be held in Cayman Brac next month. Seconded by the opposition member for East End, Arden McLean, the motion calls on government to put the proposal to the people as soon as possible and not to sign any contracts until after the referendum.
While the opposition does not have the numbers to force government to accept the motion, prior to the election at least one member of the government benches was opposed to the port. But the motion is calling for a vote by the people, and in theory those supporting the project should not oppose a national ballot if government’s position is truly supported by the majority, as it claims. Nevertheless, it is unlikely that the front bench will embrace the idea.
But Miller explained that the motion provides an opportunity for the opposition to press the government to be more transparent and tell the people exactly what is happening in the closed-door discussions about the revised plans.
“We have asked more than four times for a presentation on this project, including in writing, and government has not responded,” Miller said. He pointed out that if nothing else, the motion should reveal more information than is currently in the public domain and force the government “to unveil the details”.
But he also said that if the motion for a national vote cannot persuade the government, through debate in parliament, to put a stop to the project, the opposition will join forces with local activists and environmental campaigners to purse a people-initiated referendum.
Miller listed a catalog of reasons why the opposition opposes the idea of building cruise berthing facilities, including the failure to justify it economically, the negative impact on the George Town infrastructure and wider tourist attractions, the risk to existing dive and watersports businesses, the threat to the marine environment, as well as the risk to Seven Mile Beach. which has not been ruled out by experts. He also noted the costs, which he insists will eventually be carried by the people, despite the government’s claims to the contrary.
“At some point in time the government is going to have to accept that we do not need this project and it does not have public support,” the opposition leader said. “For more than 20 years the government has been saying the cruise ships won’t come unless we build piers, but they still come because the good Lord put Cayman in the right place.”
He pointed out that passenger arrival numbers have gone up and the current minister of tourism has bragged of a 15% increase in numbers since he took over. Miller rejected claims put forward by the government and supporters that the piers would see ships stay longer. He said ships’ arrival and departure times are part of the schedule required to get from island to island, not piers, as well as the need to get into open waters to open the casinos.
“There can be no justification or urgency to build a cruise pier in the face of government reported sustained growth in cruise ship and passenger visits year-on-year for the last five years,” he said. “Cayman currently gets 90% of all cruise passengers on the western Caribbean itinerary and pre-disposing conditions are such that there is no likelihood that will change.”
He added, “To spend more than $200 million to secure a percentage of the remaining 10% is totally illogical and a waste of the country’s resources.”
Not just opposed to this plan but the idea of berthing facilities at all, Miller said he and the opposition members support the idea of a moratorium on tender licences to enable the existing businesses to invest in new modern fleets. He said that they also want to see immediate investment in new and appropriate facilities in the harbour to improve the disembarking and embarking process for passengers.
Surveys conducted by the cruise sector have consistently pointed to the cost of shopping in Cayman as the main complaints visitors have, not the tendering.
“Cayman has other far more pressing development and infrastructural needs, such as education and training for Caymanians, improved and expanded mental health services, and more comprehensive and efficient waste management systems and services,” Miller said.
The total cost is also cause for concern, as the government’s track record on major capital projects when it comes to costs and overruns may not fill the public with confidence, given that this project’s starting price could be as much as CI$300 million.
Government has constantly refuted this estimate but has never suggested what it believes is a realistic estimation, as the position of the current administration has been that the public purse will not pay for it as it will indirectly be paid for through the diversion of cruise passenger fees from the Port Authority to the cruise lines.
Meanwhile, local political pundit and former Chamber president, Johann Moxam, who has been unwavering in his opposition to the project, which he said has significant environmental, socio-economic and financial implications, welcomed the opposition’s call for a referendum. As someone who was instrumental in organizing the people-initiated referendum on ‘one man, one vote’ in 2012, Moxam said this was another issue that should be decided by the people.
“A referendum will clearly demonstrate the will of the people at a time when Cayman has record numbers in both cruise passenger arrivals and air arrivals,” he told CNS. “There are other more pressing priorities for the country at this time. The concerns of the masses must take precedence over the commercial interests of a handful of merchants who represent the pro-port lobby.”
Moxam added, “This will become another government white elephant project to placate a select few supporters, campaign financiers and the egos of politicians, which each tax payer, resident and corporate Cayman will subsidize.”
Category: Local News