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Airport redevelopment project takes flight

Legislation paving the way for the Bermuda Government's airport redevelopment project has been approved by MPs despite vociferous opposition from Progressive Labour Party MPs.

At 4.20am today, after almost 14 hours of debate, the Airport Authority Act 2017, was passed by 18 votes to 16, with MPs voting on party lines and independent MP Shawn Crockwell supporting the Bill.

The parliamentarians went on to consider a second piece of legislation, the Airport Redevelopment Concession Act 2017, which was approved at 5.15am.

The heated debate came after Chris Furbert, the president of the Bermuda Industrial Union, had opted to send union members back to work after only 150 to 200 showed up yesterday morning at Union Square.

Disappointed by the turnout, Mr Furbert declared that it was impossible to ask “the minority to carry the majority forward”.

According to Michael Dunkley, One Bermuda Alliance MPs arrived at the House far earlier than usual: the Premier said he showed up at about 6am, aiming to be “early and prepared”.

In the afternoon, as the debate neared, it faced another challenge in the form of an Opposition motion, brought by Shadow Attorney-General Michael Scott, which sought to defer it, charging that Bob Richards, the Minister of Finance, had breached parliamentary rules — first, on December 2, by withholding the project agreement from MPs, and most recently by withholding the financial model.

The motion was allowed by Randy Horton, the Speaker of the House, but ultimately defeated.

When the debate of the Bermuda Airport Authority Act finally got under way at about 3.30pm, Mr Richards, told the House that the project would cost $302 million and take 40 months to complete.

He maintained that Bermudians and local firms would be given priority when it came to jobs created by the project. “More information, over 1,000 pages, has been disclosed to the public in this project than any other project in the history of Bermuda,” he said.

Pointing to the findings of the Blue Ribbon Panel, which described the deal as “commercially sound”, Mr Richards concluded: “This transaction represents the best way forward given the atrocious hand left to us by the former government.”

But Opposition leader David Burt condemned the Government for allegedly lying about the project, which he said would result in hundreds of millions of dollars being sent to “a Canadian company”.

In an impassioned speech, Mr Burt questioned whether the OBA thought a building was more important than the people of Bermuda. “The priorities are wrong,” he told the House. “A vote ‘no' tells the people of this country that our schools and our children's future is more important than a building.”

Mr Burt accused the Government of privatising the airport under the deal, saying: “It's a private company making money off a public asset. Why won't the Minister of Finance tell us how much the private partner stands to make from this deal?”

He claimed that under the 30-year deal, using the most conservative estimate, Aecon would receive $356 million in dividends, while the taxpayers of Bermuda would get zero.

“But we are still stuck with $586 million in expenses,“ Mr Burt added. “That's a difference of $942 million, which works out at $31 million a year.”

Grant Gibbons, the Minister of Economic Development, branded the Opposition hypocritical for questioning the transparency of the project. “It's very easy to multiply out these numbers over a long time, but that is not the way that these projects should be analysed,” Dr Gibbons said.

Telling the House that “somebody on this side [presuming the PLP will win the next General Election] will probably be cutting the ribbon on an airport we don't want”, Opposition MP Wayne Furbert said that the only people who could stop the project were MPs on the government side.

Mr Crockwell gave his support for the legislation, but conceded that the warring opinions, including those of economists, “can cloud your mind” — and that information had taken root in the community that was “way off-base, and that became entrenched”.

The ensuing debate played out along party lines: OBA MP Suzann Roberts-Holshouser, who represents St George's South, called for a better working environment for her constituents, while PLP MP Walton Brown called the deal tainted from the start, saying Aecon had “preselected itself” before approaching Canadian Commercial Corporation, and telling the House than an unnamed member of the Blue Ribbon Panel had told him: “That's the way business is done.”

PLP MP Kim Wilson lamented that the “meat and potatoes” of the project was missing, while fellow Opposition MP Mr Scott echoed Ms Wilson's sentiments and described Mr Richards's position in the deal as “woefully conflicted”.

Mr Scott added: “This debate has been weakened and impeded, and does a great disservice to our island home.”

Patricia Gordon-Pamplin, the Minister of Home Affairs, hailed the training opportunities the project would give to young Bermudians, while OBA MPs Jeff Sousa and Susan Jackson expressed support for the airport project.

PLP MP Zane DeSilva suggested that some government MPs had not read the file about the project before throwing their support behind it, then asked: “How can we say this is the best deal if it's the only deal?”

Opposition MP Diallo Rabain branded the airport deal “shady and underhanded” before taking a swipe at the Government. “They were weak in opposition, and they're even weaker as government,” he said.

PLP MP Michael Weeks lambasted the idea of the new airport rejuvenating tourism, saying airports were “the last thing I would consider” when travelling — and suggested that a $184 million renovation presented a better option.

Craig Cannonier, the Minister of Public Works, extolled the Blue Ribbon Panel's assessment, praised the overall level of scrutiny, and called it “unfair” to insinuate that the project was being “forced” on the country.

The debate over the second piece of legislation, the Airport Redevelopment Concession Act 2017, was completed in a little more than an hour before being approved by MPs without the need for a vote.

Mr Richards told the House that the Act enshrined into law would afford relief from customs duties, taxes and miscellaneous fees to facilitate the redevelopment project.

But PLP MP Lawrence Scott condemned the concessions outlined in the Bill, accusing the Government of “giving everything away”.

He said: “These concessions are not what is best for the country. They put us at risk, at the worst, of losing all commercial air traffic. They have given away the airport.”

Mr Burt also questioned what he described as “blanket concessions”.

On occasion The Royal Gazette may decide to not allow comments on what we consider to be a controversial or contentious story. As we are legally liable for any slanderous or defamatory comments made on our website, this move is for our protection as well as that of our readers.

Ready for action: police prepare for any eventuality at the House of Assembly as the airport debate gets under way. Later in the morning barricades were taken down after BIU president Chris Furbert sends union members back to work (Photograph David Skinner )

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Published February 11, 2017 at 12:26 am (Updated February 11, 2017 at 2:37 pm)

Airport redevelopment project takes flight

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