Prepare for the long haul on airport debate
Expect a marathon debate down party lines as two key Acts for the airport project go before legislators today in the House of Assembly.
The Airport Authority Act and the Airport Redevelopment Concession Act have been kept on hold for months — through a combination of protests, calls for details, and an independent assessment.
MPs have had two weeks to study more than 600 pages of the airport project agreement, with Bob Richards, the Minister of Finance, sparring with Opposition leader David Burt over whether or not its financial model merited inclusion.
Although a three-line whip is guaranteed, compelling MPs to attend and to toe their respective party lines, potential twists remain — assuming today's debate proceeds uninterrupted.
Last week, when Parliament resumed after the tumultuous protests of December 2, One Bermuda Alliance MP Sylvan Richards was ordered by Randy Horton, the Speaker of the House, to leave the chamber for refusing to retract an alleged verbal jab at Lawrence Scott of the Progressive Labour Party.
“You won't be back in this House until you apologise,” Mr Horton told him on that occasion — raising the question of whether that remains the case. Mr Richards could not be reached yesterday by The Royal Gazette.
Mr Horton himself proved decisive last week, casting the critical vote on the deadlocked casino legislation debate.
However, the OBA has the numbers: 18 to the PLP's 16 — although Michael Dunkley, the Premier, was grounded in New York yesterday, albeit temporarily, as the East Coast's winter storms held up his return home from London.
Meanwhile, Independent MP Shawn Crockwell, the possible wild card, assured this newspaper that he supported the project.
“The Blue Ribbon report addressed any issues, hopefully, for the public,” Mr Crockwell said.
“I appreciate some of the disquiet, and I will highlight my concern, but overall we need a new airport. Out of all the options, the one they are pursuing is the most practical and beneficial. Of course, while in Cabinet, I voted on entering phases one and two, knowing fully what was involved.”
He added: “There will be a whip on both sides; this is one of those issues where if any member of either party breaks ranks, significant consequences will ensue.”
While Mr Crockwell said he knew of no dissent in the OBA, he attributed disquiet to “how it's been handled”.
Although he called himself “thankful” for the disclosures of recent weeks, Mr Crockwell said there were OBA reservations lingering over the “methodology”.
“The Blue Ribbon report would have been very helpful many months ago. Opposition is well entrenched and I don't think it will be able to persuade people. To the minister's defence, he was going about business as normal for all large contracts. There was not much disclosure for the hospital. When I was the minister I did not give disclosure to the Opposition for hotels.”
Today's first two speakers in the House get an hour each to make their case. All other Members are allowed 30 minutes' speaking time, and OBA whip Nandi Outerbridge said all Government MPs are ready to speak. Even with just two Acts scheduled for their second readings, it adds up to a long day on the Hill.
If passed, the Airport Authority Act will dispense with the Government's Department of Airport Operations, creating a new entity to run LF Wade International Airport, while the Airport Redevelopment Concession Act grants a swath of taxes and duties connected with the terminal project.
While Mr Richards has stressed that today's debate does not amount to a vote for or against the project, it has effectively stood as such: the OBA has consistently touted the need for a new terminal without adding to the Government's debt, while the PLP has branded it a privatisation that turns over airport revenue to a foreign entity.
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