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Airport Bills get green light

Two Bills crucial to the Bermuda Government's airport redevelopment were finally approved by 5.15am on Saturday, after a hard-fought 14 hours in the House of Assembly,

The Upper House will be the next focal point for lobbying of legislators — with the Progressive Labour Party urging the public to “contact Senators to encourage them to bring a pause to the privatisation of our airport”.

Calling the debate “very impassioned”, Michael Dunkley last night added: “It was an incredibly long and spirited parliamentary session, and I appreciate all Members' contribution.

“Government maintains that the airport redevelopment project will be significantly beneficial for the people of Bermuda,” the Premier continued, describing the government as “very satisfied” at the passage of the Airport Development Concession Act 2016 and the Bermuda Airport Authority Act 2016.

“We now await the Senate debate and we will be following those proceedings very closely.”

“Disappointed, yet not surprised” was the verdict from David Burt, the Leader of the Opposition, in a statement issued directly after the close of debate. Mr Burt noted that Independent MP Shawn Crockwell, along with the One Bermuda Alliance back bench, had supported both Bills.

Although the Senate is scheduled to convene today, items from February 3 such as casino regulations are up for deliberation, leaving the next phase of the airport debate farther down the line.

Much of Friday's debate reiterated the two parties' entrenched airport narratives, but both sides occasionally stood in accord: PLP MP Rolfe Commissiong, and Mark Pettingill of the OBA, both raised mistrust over Bermudian employment at the airport, which Mr Commissiong said was viewed as “hardly different than what we're seeing with the America's Cup”.

“Bermudians are not convinced with these types of projects ... they know that it will be only one benefiting: a very small, very powerful group,” Mr Commissiong said, rising after public works minister Craig Cannonier challenged the PLP to “name me a business of colour that got a multimillion-dollar contract” under their administration.

Accusing Mr Cannonier of “consistently misrepresenting the record of the PLP”, Mr Commissiong also cited the classroom hours required for Bermudian labourers to get work at the LF Wade International Airport redevelopment, which he said presented a barrier to local employment.

“Everyone knows that it was Aecon that selected CCC,” he added — suggesting that local construction head Michael Butt, whose position on the board of Aecon was raised in the wake of the airport project's announcement, had tipped off Canadian Commercial Corporation to the project.

“I am going to contend it was people like Michael Butt, a key OBA supporter, that probably within hours of them winning the Government was on the phone to Canada to mobilise the whole thing,” Mr Commissiong went on. “I could be wrong, but that's my view.”

Telling MPs that he had been “fundamentally torn” over the airport development, Mr Pettingill said Mr Commissiong had “referred to Anglo-Saxon discrimination that perpetuates to this day”.

“I am a blue-eyed Anglo-Saxon — that's my heritage. And if we Anglo-Saxons don't pause for a second and realise that the honourable Member is speaking his truth and his perception and his facts and his reality from his heart, then we have a serious problem.”

Much was made of the OBA MPs' early arrival at Sessions House, with deputy Opposition leader Walter Roban criticising the ruling party for entering the House “under cover of darkness like a thief in the night”.

“This project started wrong, and it continues wrong,” Mr Roban added. Jeanne Atherden, the Minister of Health, accused the Progressive Labour Party of “not being honest about why they are against the project”, saying the people of Bermuda had been used as “pawns”.

Referring to their early arrival in Parliament Cole Simons, the Minister of the Environment, said: “We did what we did to deliver on the goods.”

PLP MP Jamahl Simmons said: “People know this is a shady deal. We are about to make a bad decision. The Government has the numbers but when the book is written it will show only one side stood strong for the people of Bermuda, and there was another group prepared to sell off the airport and send millions to Canada.”

Sylvan Richards, the Minister for Sport and Social Development, said: “The Opposition are against the airport deal because it's the OBA's plan.”

Describing the PLP as “masters of manipulation”, he argued that the polls had changed in the Government's favour.

PLP MP Dennis Lister maintained that the Government did not have the mandate to push ahead with the airport redevelopment plan, and noted that during his talks with Mr Richards during the December 2 standoff outside Parliament, the minister had conceded that the OBA had not campaigned in 2012 with the airport development on its platform.

Meanwhile, shadow transport minister Lawrence Scott told the House that he had “good information” that “Aecon are masters of manipulation”, claiming that the airport deal had been “passed around”, and that under the deal the Airport Authority would not be independent.

Rising at 2.15am, the Minister of Finance told MPs: “There's been a lot of talk about giving money and giving profits to Aecon.

“If you hand over a $35,000 cheque to a car dealer to get a car, are you handing them $35,000? No. You're buying a car.”

Bermuda, Mr Richards said, would own the new terminal “from the moment it's built”.

The narrative that “an alien force is sucking money out of Bermuda” was “unnecessarily inflammatory”, Mr Richards said.

As for the public-private partnership, Mr Richards said that but for the government's $2.4 billion debt, “we would not be even considering this”.

“We are doing this because of the situation we're in. And the alternatives I have heard from the other side don't take this into account ... to avoid adding capital debt for this project, we have to do some sort of off-balance sheet financing.”

Discounting calls for its finance model to be disclosed, Mr Richards called the demands “sheer rubbish”, adding that even if he could have provided the model, “they would find some other reason to object”.

Mr Richards acknowledged that communication over the deal “could have been better”, adding: “If that's true, it's my fault. That's on me.”

He insisted that the stipulations involved in the deal had been contingent on “market forces”, but added: “The notion that we gave Aecon everything they wanted — how wrong is that? We negotiated a really good deal for the people of Bermuda.”

Addressing the point that the development had not been included in the OBA's electoral platform, Mr Richards said: “That's true.

“But what we did say was that we were going to encourage capital projects — to encourage inward direct investment into this island.”

On occasion The Royal Gazette may decide to not allow comments on a story that we deem might inflame sensitivities or discontinue them when the discourse is lowered by commenters to unacceptable standards. 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.

Police prepare for any eventuality at the House of Assembly on Friday before the airport debate got under way (Photograph David Skinner )

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Published February 13, 2017 at 8:00 am (Updated February 13, 2017 at 8:24 am)

Airport Bills get green light

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