La Corbiniere: ‘We Chose To Do It Right’.
THE Senate met for just three hours last Tuesday to debate the Hewanorra International Airport (HIA) Development Bill. However, the session seemed to have enough fireworks to last an entire Chinese New Year festival.
The nine SLP, UWP and Independent Senators present – Independent senator, Dr. Stephen King was absent – went about either tearing apart or defending the implications of the new bill which, according to government Senators, aims at positioning the island’s southern airport as one of the region’s finest. Leader of Government Business, Victor La Corbiniere, presented the bill.
UWP senator, Mary Isaac, said she had a few concerns in the manner the bill was drafted, including leaving too much discretion to the concessionaire who will eventually be chosen. She believed that the Saint Lucia Air and Sea Ports Authority (SLASPA) will be given a minimal role in the airport’s future when the development phase comes into effect.
“I do not see anything that is left for the government or the Authority, SLASPA, to perform, after reading Clause 4 of the bill,” Isaac said in her presentation. “It sounds like a giveaway to me. I feel as though our airport is being taken away from us and given to a foreign entity because we do not know who this concessionaire is, although we’re told how it’s going to be formed.”
As part of the airport’s public-private sector partnership development phase, a seven-member bid evaluation committee, which includes two representatives from SLASPA, will be set up to administer the bidding process from which the concessionaire will be selected.
Isaac expressed concern about the future of the staff employed by the airport, adding that employees’ long-term tenures might be affected. However, SLP senator, Debra Tobierre, responded to Isaac’s concern about the employees’ tenure, referring to Isaac’s concern as “highly irresponsible”.
“I think it is highly responsible of us, particularly Senator Isaac, (who) represents the public service and the general workforce in Saint Lucia, to encourage employees or individuals to believe that they should have some sort of long-term protection,” Tobierre said. “Mr. President, this presents an opportunity for those who are currently employed by the Authority to really evaluate their own performance to ensure that they have exceeded management’s expectations, that they continually encourage growth and development in themselves and ascribe to work ethics that are only going to develop and push us forward as a nation.”
According to La Corbiniere, Section 21 of the bill that deals with transfer of staff, covers the rights of existing employees which will be respected in accordance with the Labour Act.
UWP senator, Ezechiel Joseph, said that while the opposition was not opposed to the development of the Hewanorra International Airport, his party would not support the bill. He said the redevelopment plans for the international airport began under his party’s administration during 2006-2011. Joseph also chided the government for taking too long to implement the airport’s development plans.
While he applauded the current government for following up on those plans, he said had the current administration not discontinued the airport development tax imposed by the previous government, that tax could have been used towards financing the estimated $400 million development plans for the airport. He also believes government should not pass on the responsibility of running the airport’s affairs to a private entity. SLASPA, he said, should continue to manage the facility.
“By now, we would have collected over $104 million which could have taken us a long way in the development of our airport,” Joseph said. “And there would be no need to enter into a PPP (public-private partnership) the way we are entering.”
In summing up, La Corbiniere said the reason for the lengthy delay in implementing HIA’s development plans stemmed from first unraveling the contract the previous government had entered into with other private interests regarding HIA’s development plans. He added that assistance was also sought from the International Finance Corporation (IFC), an arm of the World Bank, “to ensure that we did it right, above board and without reproach”.
“These things take a little time if you’re doing them right,” La Corbiniere said. “The reason why we’ve taken a little time is because we chose to do it right.”
The bill was eventually passed.