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Published 30th October 2019, 1:29pm

This is a single, integrated project and always has been.  It is disingenuous in the extreme to suggest otherwise at this stage. So, Mr. Speaker, it is entirely appropriate that the referendum question includes both the cruise and cargo elements.   The voters, in deciding the fate of the project must know what is at stake when their vote is cast.    

The referendum question set out in Section 4(2) of the bill conforms to the set of common sense and natural justice principles that Cabinet agreed to test it against.  The question is clear and simple; it gets to the point of the issue at hand; it is unambiguous and definitive including in terms of the consequences of the vote, and it is neutral.  Those who criticize should bear in mind that neutrality means being fair to both sides.

The other issue dealt with in Section 4 of the Bill is the restatement of the requirement, set out in the Constitution, that the votes of more than 50% of registered electors are needed for the referendum result to be binding on the government.  Perhaps I should not be surprised but the government has come under fire even for this.  So, at the risk of repeating myself, the requirement to achieve over 50% of electors for the result to be binding mirrors Section 70(3) of the Constitution.  It has not simply been dreamt up by the Government.

Those who accept the Constitutional realities sometimes go on to argue that we should amend the Constitution to drop that provision and make the referendum a straight majority vote.  Leave aside first, the intent behind the Constitutional provision. Leave aside second, the need for due process to amend the Constitution. Leave aside that it is not in our power to amend the Constitution. Instead, just imagine changing the rules right as the referendum is being legislated for.  Suppose, the government brought forward a change to increase the threshold to 60% or 70% of the electorate.  Our opponents would rightly cry foul.  Everyone knew the rules when this process began.  There is no legitimacy in changing those rules now.

What is even more bizarre is the charge that I am somehow using this provision to thwart the requirements for a secret ballot and thereby intimidating civil servants and others. The logic – if indeed you can call it that – goes as follows.  I have supposedly told voters that if they support the cruise berthing and cargo project they should simply stay at home.  This means - again following their logic - that only “no” voters will turn out at the polls.  The government will, therefore, know who voted and that they voted no.  And by extension, if civil servants turn out to vote no they will be identified as such and subject to victimization.  

This is an argument that is based on a false premise; its tortured reasoning is nonsensical; and it reaches a totally invalid conclusion.  I would have thought better even of the self-appointed brains trust that concocted this nonsense live on a radio talk show. And to hear this paranoia repeated on the radio by some of my colleagues who sit opposite is even more remarkable.

First, I have not told supporters to stay away from the polls.  What I have done is explain to the country the consequences of staying at home if that is what they chose to do. The onus to stop the country moving forward with building the cruise berthing and enhanced cargo facilities we need rests with those who have brought the referendum and who need to meet the 50%+1 target to make the referendum binding.  This is Cayman’s first people-initiated referendum and all involved have a duty to explain to the public how it works.  No doubt if I had not talked about it, I would have been accused of trying to hide this from voters.  Again, so we are clear, I welcome support at the polls from those who want to come out and show their backing for this much-needed development.  

Even if I had advised people to stay at home, why do these particular conspiracy theorists imagine that everyone would simply obey my command?  It might on occasion be tempting to wish that I could simply utter a few words and everybody would fall in line but that is just not a reality.  Whatever I say, many, many Caymanians will want to lend their active support to this project.  They are as tired as I am of the disinformation being peddled by the opponents of the port and they look forward to the opportunity to register their wish to secure the future of our cruise tourism industry and get access to more and cheaper cargo.  Therefore, whatever I say, there will be a sizeable yes vote on 19th. December.  The secrecy of ballots will be maintained.

Finally, even if the premise were not false and the reasoning was not as flawed as it is, neither I nor anyone else in the government has any interest in victimizing any civil servant (or indeed anyone else) who votes no at the referendum. There is absolutely no evidence to the contrary.  We heard time and again during the referendum campaign that any civil servants who signed the petition risked victimization but we have heard no complaints from anyone who has been so victimized.  Nor will we.  Civil servants are perfectly free to vote their conscience at the referendum without any fear of any action by any government that I lead.

Next, Mr. Speaker, I want to address an issue that is not found on the face of the Bill itself – that is the date chosen for the referendum.  The House will be aware that earlier this month the government proposed 19th December as the referendum date.

This has been the subject of considerable conjecture since it was announced.  That is despite the fact that I have said for some time that if the referendum petition reached the required threshold, the Government  would then move to call the referendum as quickly as possible.  This was in response to suggestions from the CPR that the Government would seek to avoid or delay the vote.  Whatever date is chosen, some people may be away.  That is why there are arrangements in place that allow every registered elector to cast their vote by other means if they cannot do so in person.  Anyone who wants to vote can do so whatever date is chosen.  There is no reason to delay.

The argument being made against this date is a somewhat strange one.  Throughout the year or more it took to gather signatures for the referendum, we constantly heard that there was deep-seated opposition to this project and that voters were demanding to have their say.  At every turn, campaigners expressed their confidence that if only they were given the opportunity then voters would come out in their droves to vote against the port and that they would do so in numbers sufficient to reach the 50%+1 threshold for the result to be binding.

Now the argument apparently goes that so weak is the level of opposition to the port that people will be put off voting simply because the vote is happening six days before Christmas.  Which is it?  If the “no” campaign is confident in its case, why do they believe that the date will make the difference?  For, in reality, there is no impediment to voting whatever date is chosen.  Anyone who is not able to vote in person can apply for a postal ballot as is always the case in Cayman.

If any vote is likely to be suppressed by the choice of the date it is the “yes” vote.  I understand that (whatever I say) some voters who support the project may not bother to vote, especially if they are off-Island for example.  They may feel that they can do so safely because of the 50%+1 threshold.  I accept, therefore, that the final result is likely to understate the real level of support for the port development project.

While I am on the subject, the same applies to arguments about the sale of alcohol at licensed premises on the day of the vote.  We have heard arguments that again this will suppress the “no” vote.  Do our opponents have so little confidence in their supporters that they think that faced with a choice on the day they will decide to sit in a bar rather than turn out and vote down a government project that we are told they passionately believe will do harm to Cayman’s long term interests?

The reality is that many people and offices will already have booked Christmas parties and luncheons for that day and we do not want to disrupt those arrangements nor indeed stop tourists spending their money here in the busy pre-Christmas period.  That is why the bars and restaurants will remain open.  It is not some ploy to distract weak-willed “no” voters as is suggested.  Our opponents really should have more confidence in Caymanians.  If they truly believe the arguments put forward against the port, they will vote “no”.  Either our opponents lack that confidence in their supporters or they lack confidence in their own case.  I am tempted to think it is the latter and that all these arguments about the date are simply a smokescreen to excuse their eventual failure to get the numbers they need.

There is one other consequence of the choice of the date that has also been controversial.  Section 5 of the Bill before this House in and of itself is uncontroversial.  It simply states that those entitled to vote in the referendum will be those registered to vote on the date of the referendum.  In this case that means those registered to vote on 19th December will be entitled to vote and in practice that in turn means that it will be those electors on the official register as at 1st October 2019.

The suggestion is, I believe, that the legislation should be changed to allow the 1 January register to be brought in two weeks early and to allow some 220 persons to vote who are on that revised register.  Again, I find this extraordinary.  Why should the rules be changed?  The argument is that the government is trying to exclude these new voters because we fear they will vote “no”.  If that were true, it must conversely mean that those opposed to the port are seeking to get the rules changed because it would advantage them.  Once again, imagine if the government were to do that.  Suppose we had been on a “sign up to vote” campaign to get supporters of the port to register and were now looking to bring forward the use of that revised register.

The fact is that on the date of any given election or referendum, we have to use the electoral register as at that date.  If we do anything else that would constitute a form of gerrymandering.  As is always the case, if you draw a line as at a date, some people find themselves excluded by that line.  That is just the way it is.

The government has nothing to fear nor indeed anything to gain from having 200 or so more or fewer voters eligible to vote.  We do not believe our opponents have sufficient support to reach the 50%+1 threshold with or without those new voters.  We are not excluding them for some Machiavellian purpose.  Rather they are not eligible under the rules that we consistently apply in the Cayman Islands. Seeking to change the law for the advantage of one side or another, be that real or perceived, would be the real anti-democratic thing to do.

Mr. Speaker, just as I come to believe that I have heard all the complaints from the opponents to the port there is yet another controversy that they are creating. The Bill, Mr. Speaker, calls for the ballot papers from all the electoral districts to be taken to a central location and “mixed together for the purpose of counting.”  In other words Mr. Speaker the count of votes will be considered a national vote and not an electoral district vote. 

The opponents, including some in the official opposition, cry foul because they say they will not know how their own constituencies voted.  Mr. Speaker this is not some opinion poll being carried out for the convenience of the Member for Bodden Town West or George Town Central to provide data for later use or to help them in the next election campaign. This exercise is a referendum on a matter of national importance and it should be treated as such. The referendum is where a national decision will be made and what is important is the view of the country as whole – not individual electoral districts.  In 2009 when we voted in our very first referendum as to whether to support the 2009 Constitution Order, that count was done in the same way – the ballots were mixed and a single count was done to determine the outcome.  That was done efficiently even though the Elections Office was also carrying on the count for the general elections that were held the same day as the referendum. That was a national count for a matter of national importance.  

This referendum, too, Mr. Speaker is one of national importance and will have a national count.

In short, Mr. Speaker, the government has put before the House a Bill that deals in a straight-forward way with the need to get on and meet the demands placed upon us by 25% of registered electors that we hold a referendum.  The question to be used conforms to all good practice and is fair to both sides.  It recognises that there is only one project that can reasonably be subject to a popular vote - and that is to move forward with building the country’s cruise and cargo port improvements together as has always been envisaged.  We have chosen a date to expedite the speedy resolution of this referendum issue that has been ongoing for well over a year.  And we have determined that the count should be a national count in line with the nature of the referendum itself. The rest of the arrangements under the Bill are consistent with the normal democratic arrangements of the Cayman Islands.

At this point, I would notify you, Mr. Speaker, and the rest of the House that there will be some tidying up amendments that we need to consider at Committee stage.  These will be introduced in due course.  However, we have heard opponents of the port arguing for more substantive amendments to the Bill.  We may hear those arguments repeated from the Opposition benches today Mr. Speaker.  Those arguments amount to an attempt to rewrite the question in what they believe is their own interest or to alter the normal arrangements for voting in Cayman, presumably for the same reason.  We have those standing arrangements about how we conduct public votes for a reason and that is precisely to stop the kind of manipulation of who is or who is not eligible to vote that our opponents are proposing.  This is Cayman’s first people-initiated referendum and it must be held in a fair and democratic manner.  This Bill will achieve that objective.

However, it is not just for the sake of our democracy that this is important.  The process and conduct of the referendum are significant concerns but it is the underlying issue to be decided that the nation should now focus upon.On 19th December, Caymanians are being asked to decide on the future direction that this country will take.  Opponents of the port project seek to portray this as a simple choice. At heart, their argument is that the development of a new cruise berthing facility and enhanced cargo provision will cause irreparable environmental damage.  There are subsequent issues but this is the matter of principle at stake for the port’s opponents.  I have said in this House before that this is a principled position, which I can understand and which I respect.

It is not though a position that any responsible government can take.  Like most Caymanians, we in this government believe that in considering the port project, as in considering other forms of development, there is a balance to be struck between economic and environmental issues. There is no right answer to how to strike that balance, no formula to follow that yields an unambiguous solution.  In the end, it is a matter of weighing the evidence and making a judgment. 

In initiating this project, that is what the previous Administration I led did.  We assembled a business case and carried out an environmental impact assessment in order to inform us but in the end it was our political judgment that the economic benefits were so significant that they outweighed the potential environmental impact of the project. What the referendum is doing is asking Caymanians now to repeat that process and to exercise their own judgment. Just like the government has done, voters need to weigh the evidence and make their decision.

Again, our opponents have tried to muddy the waters here.  We hear repeated claims that either government is hiding things or that it is seeking to mislead people.  The claim is that there is not enough information for people to make an informed decision.

In reality, there is more than enough information available.  What I do accept is that some of it is relatively inaccessible and that it is spread across too many different documents.  For that reason, the government will be producing an information booklet that will bring together into one place all the key information about this project.  We will be making the booklets as widely available as we can in the run-up to the referendum.

To be clear, the booklet will be a presentation of the government’s case.  I do not claim it will seek to present our opponents’ case for them and nor should it.  This is a referendum about the delivery of one of this government’s key policy objectives.  Explaining government policy is one of the responsibilities of government and promoting and defending a project we believe is necessary for the future wellbeing and prosperity of the Cayman Islands is something for which we make no apology.

However, setting out our case does not mean that we will in any way be untruthful.  We are happy to set out the facts and to explain why we believe the project should move forward based on those facts.

The case for moving forward with building the cruise berthing and enhanced cargo facility is overwhelming.  Consider first the economic case.  Looking ahead, there is no status quo.  Either Cayman’s cruise tourism industry continues to grow with the benefit of the new berthing facilities or we face the very real risk of its gradual but inexorable decline.  Either we protect and grow the jobs and businesses of Caymanians who depend on cruise visitors or we face those jobs being lost and those businesses failing.

The approach we have adopted in moving forward the port project not only guarantees that the new berthing facilities get built. It guarantees that they get used, not just by the two major companies who are partners in the project but by other cruise lines as well. Put simply, without a throughput of passengers the Verdant Isle partners, including the two cruise lines, do not get their investment back. It is in their interests to bring their passengers to Cayman and to maximize the use of the berths throughout the week and in low season as well as high.

Without the new facilities, Cayman will increasingly be at the mercy of market forces that are likely to result in declining cruise visitor numbers.  This will not happen overnight but the impact will be real and in the medium term will have a significant effect on Caymanian jobs and in Cayman’s wider economy.

In the last couple of years, Cayman has delivered strong positive performance in terms of cruise visitor arrivals.  Our opponents suggested this demonstrated that our assumptions in the outline business case were flawed and our views on the likely decline of the industry were merely scaremongering.  When it was recently reported in the press that cruise visitor numbers for the first 6 months of this year were down just over 5%, I did not hear anyone rushing to defend our opponents’ previous position. Worryingly, the numbers continue to decline.  The first 6 months were buoyed by January 2019 being the best month on record. But if we look at the most recent 6 months for which data is available (March through August 2019), our cruise visitor numbers are down 12.3% compared to the same period last year.

This is in large part due to a correction in the market as other destinations that were hit by hurricanes have been able to welcome back cruise visitors.  We must be thankful for that in many ways but the impact on Cayman is real.  The future of the cruise industry is about bigger ships and more passengers.  Those ships are already passing Cayman by. The impracticality of tendering passengers in those numbers particularly when they would have to queue for hours in the Cayman Sun to return to their ships means Cayman would no longer be attractive for many cruise itineraries.