Million-dollar HIA loan bill sparks passionate debate in parliament, revealing the Incomprehensiveness of the Politician
ALTHOUGH the debate on the historic US $100 million loan took place on Tuesday, December 11, 2018, this saga really began the day before, during St. Lucia’s first Knowledge Fair, which was historic in its own right.
Seated right next to each other on that Monday morning were the principal protagonists of the battle which was to ensue on the following day: Prime Minister Allen Chastanet and Opposition Leader Philip J. Pierre.
When one juxtaposes the mannerisms of the two men on that fair-weather Monday morning, against the frequent shouting matches they held within the “hallowed halls” of the Parliament Building the following day, one realises that never was the saying ‘the calm before the storm’ more applicable in describing their quite amicable Monday interactions.
The two leaders laughed and joked and spoke amicably at the fair — and when one looked at them, one would never suspect that this was merely the prelude to their gargantuan clash just 24 hours later.
And as Philip J. Pierre streamed right past reporters on the following morning, it was clear that the brief moment of friendly parley with his opposite number had already become a distant memory.
Pierre’s debate contribution was impassioned, as he answered Chastanet’s opening statement.
He said: “Mr. Speaker, the Prime Minister gave a long story about the need for the redevelopment of Hewanorra Airport. That was never in question. That sermon was unnecessary.”
“The issue is”, Pierre continued, “Why is the government burdening the tax payers of the country with US $100 million in loans, when they found the same arrangement that would have done the exact same thing, or would have been at a high stage of processing at this time? And that’s the fundamental question…”
The Opposition Leader went on to rue the debt situation in the country stating: “In the Estimates of Expenditure 2018/2019, the government proposed that they would borrow $300 million to finance the budget. Since that time, the government has increased that spending by $514 million, meaning that the government has borrowed $814 million dollars in one fiscal year.”
Things later got heated between the two leaders when Pierre brought up the $1.50 collection from the gas tax, accusing the Prime Minister of not being completely honest about the amount being collected.
The PM then intervened on a point of order, which the entire opposition challenged.
“What’s the point of order?” was the refrain. “The Honourable Member is misleading the House” was Chastanet’s reply.
At that moment, an overarching theme had not yet surfaced and after a year of covering debates in the House of Assembly, such themes are seldom easy to quantify and put down on paper.
However, as Bradley Felix, the Choiseul/Saltibus MP stood to respond to Pierre’s contribution, he said “I can never understand politicians. Never!” — and I knew immediately that this was the theme of not only this debate, but of St. Lucian political life in general.
Felix had just compared Philip J Pierre’s debate contribution to a drowning man in the middle of the ocean who refuses to even try to swim to give himself a chance at salvation, when he stated that he could never understand politicians.
Explaining the reason, he quipped: “At one time, when it’s convenient, you hear the conversation against giving up-strategic assets and another time it’s okay to give up a strategic asset.”
He immediately cited the Hewanorra International Airport as an example of double standards oftentimes seen with politicians and their constantly shifting positions.
“We recognise the previous administration had an arrangement to literally give-up our airport to a private [entity]; give up our airport for thirty years, when according to their arrangement it would have cost approximately $208 million to build the airport,” Felix stated, adding that the party the then government was negotiating with “would end-up in his coffers almost nine times the amount that we would be giving up.”
This among other reasons, Felix stated, was why his administration decided to go against the plans of the previous SLP Government, despite the protestations of the Opposition Leader, earlier.
Castries South MP, Dr. Ernest Hilaire must have realised the thematic significance of Felix’s statement as well as I, as he immediately jumped on it in his debate contribution.
“Mr. Speaker, the Member for Choiseul/Saltibus said that he does not understand politicians and I can sympathise with him. If you’re a member of this government, you have to suffer daily confusion.” Hilaire declared.
Then applying Felix’s words to him, he rhetorically asked; “As a former banker, would he ever have approved such a loan? Would he ever have advised a client to take such a loan if he was a banker assessing such a submission?” — the point being that such apparent double standards must be applied universally and they don’t just apply to one side.
But Felix’s statement was more poignant than even Dr.Hilaire’s response gave it credit for.
For hours, MP’s on both sides of the aisle pointed fingers, using historical precedence to show just how hypocritical the other side was being, given the kinds of decisions that have been made by all and sundry in the past.
As I sat ringside to witness the verbal haymakers, jabs, feints and counterpunches politicians on both sides threw, I realised that each made several valid critiques of the other — and the most glaring thing is that each side knew it.
Ultimately, both of our major political parties have given up any moral high ground they may have had long ago, given that the reality of St. Lucian politics is that they each have a 50-50 chance of either coming to or retaining power every five years or so, positing one thing while they’re in power and another while in Opposition.
That is the nature of our duopoly in St. Lucia. No wonder it’s so difficult to understand politicians.
But to end as I began, one positive thing the populace can glean from Tuesday’s proceedings is that as heated as it got between the PM and the Opposition Leader — and between MP’s on either side of the aisle — there is plenty of evidence to show that for the most part, they are quite civil towards one another when away from the political battlefield.