Losing not an option!
The Antigua and Barbuda Labour Party heads into tomorrow’s general election without a member of the Bird family at its helm for the first time in its history. And Gaston Browne says he’s confident that the party has done its work to end the United Progressive Party’s two terms in office. Senior Reporter Carol Williams spoke to the ABLP leader about the issues dominating the election campaign, whether the rift caused by his leadership battle with Lester Bird has been healed, and the health of the former leader. Browne also outlines his position on public sector layoffs, regional integration and LIAT.
Q. With just hours to go before general the election, what is the situation on the ground for the ABLP?
A. Things are looking extremely well for us. Peter Wickham has been polling practically every week and his surveys have consistently shown that we will win, and by a landslide. We’re aware that there is a competing push poll, CASURO, that has no scientific basis that is trying to muddy the waters but the reality is that Peter Wickham is perhaps easily the best pollster in the Caribbean.
They had a motorcade on Monday and I understand they only had a maximum 700 vehicles on the road and we were able to actually put 2,500 vehicles on the road the day before. In addition, they had a concert with an international artiste and only about 2,000 people showed up; we had a secular concert Monday night with three Jamaican artistes and some local ones and we ended up with at least 10,000 people so in terms of the public support the Labour Party has actually blossomed.
We feel confident.
We’ve had issues in terms of fighting their superior resources but I think we have done well to stay afloat and from all indication, on Friday we will have a new government and certainly a new prime minister.
Q. But CASURO is an Antigua poll. Why shouldn’t we believe what it’s saying compared to CADRES?
A. CADRES is on the ground as well and is a professional organisation.
Q. You mentioned the activities that you’ve held and the turnout but it’s well known that this doesn’t necessarily translate to votes. Why do you believe this will be different for your party?
A. I accept that and I also made that observation. But when you look at the substantially large turnout I think it’s really showing renewed confidence in the Labour Party. It is also indicating that we have the popular support and that something is really happening.
I think it’s really signs of the time. [That’s] not to say that we’re going to become complacent; we’re going to continue to fight hard and press on but from all indications
we have the support and . . . we’re not relying on these mass public meetings in which people show up in their thousands.
We’ve been in the homes of the people and we know what they’re thinking and we believe that the majority of them are honest and that they’re telling us the truth.
Q. What are the main issues in this election?
A. Primarily the economy and crime and violence . . . so the key issue is fixing the economy which contracted between 2009 and 2011. Since then only about two and a half per cent has been recovered which means we’re still behind by about 22 and a half per cent.
The UPP has not demonstrated any capacity to fix the country’s economy, to put the people back to work. So the Labour Party has the competence, experience and superior networking capabilities to attract the investment to grow revenue and put the people of Antigua back to work.
In addition, we have no doubt that crime and violence, especially robberies and theft are being perpetrated by individuals who are in very bad economic circumstances. I’m not suggesting that we justify using crime and violence as a means to an end but that’s just the stalk reality to what is going on the country today.
Q. What exactly are your solutions to those problems?
A. In terms of fixing the economy, to have more investments and already we have a number of memorandums of understanding [waiting] so you’ll see more foreign direct investment.
In addition, we’ll actually pursue an international tourism promotion to increase trade and grow revenue. The whole thrust of fixing the economy would be about bringing more tourists to the country. Plus we also have initiatives to stimulate domestic investors.
Q. You mentioned the issue of increasing foreign direct investment in Antigua and Barbuda, which is something we’ve heard mentioned time and again by politicians throughout the Caribbean, but they continue to struggle economically. What makes you think that Antigua will be able to do it when other countries in the region haven’t?
A. There are always opportunities that come with challenges and it’s for us to seize those opportunities and exploit them. Clearly the outlook of the present administration has been one of a defeatist with them [saying] that it’s a global crisis and investments have dried up but we’re saying that it doesn’t mean there’s no investment. Our outlook will be a far more positive one.
Q. But why would an investor go to Antigua and Barbuda rather than St Kitts and Nevis, St Lucia or even Barbados?
A. Our primary sector is tourism, which continues to be the main driver of the economy, at least for the foreseeable future and the Caribbean area is one of the best areas in the world for tourism and Antigua and Barbuda is certainly one of the best areas for tourism in the Caribbean, so I believe there is far more scope to attract more tourists and more tourism-based businesses than the countries you called.
We have a lot of beaches, our people are just as qualified or better qualified than other islands, we have more trained people for the industry and we have more facilities, our infrastructure is superior to them.
Q. One of the issues that will have to be tackled by any administration that goes into office in Antigua and Barbuda is that of the size of the public sector. In Barbados, the Government has laid off in the region of around 3,000 public servants. We’re hearing that other regionals governments will have to look at the issue as well. Will you be able to maintain the size of the public sector in Antigua if your party goes into office?
A. We’ll have to. As far as we’re concerned we’re opposed to retrenchment. Retrenchment brings with it other problems which invariably make retrenchments counterproductive. If you lay off a man today then that person can’t find work and feed his family and becomes susceptible to a life of crime. Also, when you put several thousand people out of work you’re also reducing aggregate demand.
So for the Antigua and Barbuda Labour Party, retrenchment is not an option. What we propose to do is to exercise some discipline in our hirings to keep the public sector stable in terms of the aggregate number of employees while growing revenue so over time we’ll be able to trade out of our difficulties and we’ll see a reduction in the total emoluments and as a percentage of total revenue so we’re looking at a revenue growth strategy.
Q. Would you have given that advice to Barbados?
A. If they had spoken to me I certainly would have. You can be sure that it [retrenchment] doesn’t work and you destroy the social harmony within the society and there’s a social cost. There’s also an economic cost because when you retrench you have to find a lump sum to pay the workers.
Q. The issue of LIAT has come up on the campaign trail. If your party is elected, what are your plans for the regional carrier?
A. As far as I’m concerned, LIAT is the most important institution for the movement of people within the region. It should remain headquartered here because it’s very important to the economy of Antigua and Barbuda.
We’re seeing an unfortunate situation in which our government has allowed the Government of Barbados to obtain the majority of shares and we’re now at the mercies of Barbados as to whether they would wish to have the headquarters moved to Barbados.
We know that they’ve been pushing hard, saying that they’re the majority shareholders and they should get more of the benefits and you can’t blame them and especially from the standpoint that Barbadian taxpayers have been called upon to carry the bulk of the burden. But I think it was a strategic mistake on the path of the UPP Government to allow any holder to get as much as 50 per cent of the shares in LIAT. The distribution should have been done in such a way that there wouldn’t have no single majority shareholder and if there was a majority shareholder it ought to have been Antigua and Barbuda.
So I’m hoping we’re in a position to even expand the ownership of LIAT to get other countries to provide more support to LIAT to keep it viable and to keep employment stable.
Q. Are you suggesting that your government, if elected, would look to increase its stake in LIAT?
A. If we get the opportunity, yes. You can’t expect somebody else to carry the burden and we get all the benefits.
Q. You mentioned movement of people. Explain what will be your regional thrust.
A. Clearly we has lost steam in Caricom and I want to play a role in bringing some energy to the process that will help to advance and accelerate the integration process . . . .
Q. Has the Antigua government done its part in the regional integration movement?
A. We have absorbed a lot of Caricom nationals. When the Labour Party was in power under the late V.C. Bird and Lester Bird we played a more leading role. I think what is happening now is that there is no leadership at the level of Caricom and I’m hoping that i’ll be able use by skills to get the commitment of the other leaders to advance and deepen regional integration.
Q. Let’s look at the ABLP itself. We know about the very divisive leadership race between yourself and former leader Lester Bird in late 2012. Have you been able to bridge that division?
A. The answer is a resounding yes. One of my biggest successes would have been literally pulling the institution together. The party is fiercely united and we’re operating in a very professional and disciplined manner so that things we used to hear in the past we’re not hearing anymore. I had to make some tough decisions, replacing a number of candidates with more viable ones and I would say that the change management in the Antigua and Barbuda Labour Party would go down as one of the best to take place in any political party anywhere in the hemisphere.
Q. Do you have the full support of Lester Bird?
Q. Bird has health issues and in at least one political meeting he was forced to address supporters from his vehicle. How is he standing up to the rigours of the campaign?
A. His issue is really one of ability. His brain is still good and he still has a contribution to make. His constituents still adore him and when we polled his competitors he polled ahead of them and he’s also beating his opponents so there was absolutely no need to replace him in that constituency and from all indications he will win his seat.
Q. What are your plans if you lose the general election?
A. That is not an option so I will not give any consideration to that. Losing is not an option.