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AC and airport: more public scrutiny needed

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Engaging and informing: People want to know about the America’s Cup. People should know what’s going on and what’s available to them

Night and day, black and white, OBA and PLP, two meetings, two Bermudas. But I expect that I am not telling you anything new, Mr Editor, or anyone else for that matter.

The two meetings to which I refer were meetings I was able to attend on the same evening last week: first, the one in Hamilton City on the America’s Cup and the second in St George’s on the proposed new airport project.

The audiences could not have been more different, yet each in their own way concerned, concerned for the future of Bermuda, near and long term — for different reasons, sure, but reasons which, when ignored, or dismissed, and left unaddressed, continue to divide and keep separate and apart a people who should be united in a common cause: a better Bermuda.

An exaggeration? I think not.

We know what the America’s Cup is meant to do for the Bermuda economy. Our Government is spending money to make money. The short of it, and these are not firm figures, but estimates, goes something like this: we make an investment of, say, $50 million or so for a return of as much as $250 million, or more, into the Bermuda economy from start to finish in 2017.

That’s a pretty nice return: but for whom? Inquiring minds want to know.

It is a fair and reasonable question. The America’s Cup is not without its sceptics — as recent polls have evidenced — and not without cause. Bermuda has a history of who benefits the most when that which glitters comes to town which cannot be and should not be ignored. The Cup itself also has a track record: it has not always delivered in dollars and cents what host venues thought they were going to get.

Credit then to those in charge who organised the public meeting last Thursday at Paul’s AME Church Hall. They were obviously trying to reach out, engage and inform.

People want to know, people should know what’s going on and what’s available to them. Some of the promises are taking shape. Some are already visible at Dockyard. There are as well any number of businesses, construction, real estate and retailers, who are likely experiencing an uptick in business as more and more sailors and their families arrive on our shores.

This is what we are being asked to believe and, excuse the expression, buy into. It fits nicely into our maritime history, a welcome adjunct if not boost to a flagging tourism industry (think of all that TV coverage), and an injection of money from outside the Island. Good stuff.

The timing couldn’t be better either — for the OBA Government. The next election will be held at or about the time this Cup runneth over. The OBA landed it, sure, and rightly want to take the credit, but it could have benefited, in my view, by co-chairs, from the start, much like Bermuda First, with the Minister responsible and his Opposition shadow. That’s reaching out too — and arguably not just different, but better politics.

Here’s the other thing too. We may not really know the arithmetic for sure until after the event. There ought to be a means to track developments as we proceed. Not just by public meetings, which by all means should continue, but through independent parliamentary verification, open and public, much like the Public Accounts Committee started a while back. We all get to follow the money whether by grant (no pun intended), or by concessions, which is all a part of holding Government to account and in the sunshine of public scrutiny.

Such scrutiny ought not be viewed as extraordinary, unusual, political, or misplaced, but rather simply as the means by which we keep public expenditure under independent check and review.

This is what is missing on Government’s plans for a new airport. First, the entrustment letter squabble, then that e-mail correspondence, then the commissioning of an independent study (the Deloitte Report), and information that comes out in dribs and drabs, largely on account of and in response to the Opposition, combined or otherwise.

This is a very important project that is being proposed — on any view. The people who showed up to the meeting in St George’s are rightly concerned. They are not alone. Thirty years is a long time. Bermuda ought not to be giving up any control over this critical connection — and a strong revenue producer — to the outside world.

We don’t just need more press conferences and public meetings, although I am sure they will be helpful. Steady, sure parliamentary oversight each step of the way is needed as well. Opposition and Government MPs have this constructive and crucial role to play, along with an opportunity to roll up their sleeves, show us their stuff and keep the decision- makers’ feet to the fire.

In the absence of any attempt to bridge the divide in a meaningful way, worlds will collide — to borrow a line from the hit TV comedy Seinfeld. Except that’s not funny, nor is it meant to be, Mr Editor. It could and should be otherwise.

Right to be concerned: The people who showed up to the meeting in St George’s about the airport project are rightly concerned