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Parliamentary debate on airport funding

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Like many other Vincentians, I tried to follow the Parliamentary debate on the Supplementary Appropriation Bill last week, conscious of the importance of the Argyle international airport and of both the degree of enthusiasm as well as controversy it has attracted. I mentioned “tried,” because it is not always easy to listen to some of our Parliamentarians who reveal time and again their complete unsuitability for such national responsibility. It is one thing to rabble rouse on parochial matters; quite another to address the nation on matters of national importance.{{more}}

Sadly, at the conclusion of the debate, my view about Parliament and the nature of our politics has not substantially changed. It is on matters like the construction of the airport that the inadequacy of a two-sided Parliament becomes obvious. Scoring politics points takes precedence over substantive issues and time and again, the reference point was always the next elections. This is where the lack of independent voices in the House becomes so palpably clear.

Let me hasten to say that “independent” does not preclude a person from political sympathies, but rather the courage and capacity not to be blinded by any such sympathies and to bring a non-partisan perspective to the debate. Aside from the real issues, the debate boiled down to the Government side painting the Opposition as anti-airport while those in Opposition involved themselves in all sorts of needless contortions to try and demonstrate that the building of the airport was retarding national progress.

Just try to imagine if, instead, we had a Parliament with senators drawn from the business community, the labour movement, the faith-based community, the Association of Professionals or similar representational groups. Just think how the debate could have been enriched by the views of an engineer, a hotelier, a farmer, a worker, an entrepreneur, not on party strings!

It was indeed sad to see the deterioration in the level of debate until we got to the point of the all-too-familiar walk-out by the Opposition. On that matter, it is my view that the Speaker could have been more receptive to the concerns raised by the Member for West Kingstown. Indeed, the Senator, whose remarks caused objection by the MP, himself amended his statement after the walk-out. That does not mean that the Opposition, so steeped in its ways, would not have found another reason to do so, but it merely strengthened the view from the Opposition benches, and among others, that he is not very considerate where the Opposition is concerned. Not an easy task with some difficult folk, I admit, but it is nevertheless important that the Speaker is perceived to be even-handed.

There was an over-riding concern on the part of the Opposition about whether the level of debt being incurred on the airport project is affecting government’s ability to meet its day-to-day obligations. While it may be true that the Opposition has painted itself into a corner by its irresponsible utterings on the Argyle airport construction, nevertheless it is in the public interest for any concerns, especially as they relate to public debt and the ability to service it, to be aired. They must not be brushed aside as simply being anti-airport. Many citizens who clearly support the airport project also have concerns and the best way to deal with them, is for them to be ventilated, discussed thoroughly and some common consensus and understanding to emerge.

Government must be prepared to admit that if it had been more embracing early in the project cycle, if it had provided more opportunity for a true public/private partnership, then there would be less room for the negative prophets and their negativism would have been exposed. The apparent hogging of the show has not helped. Thankfully, belatedly, there is more openness.

On the other hand, it is time the Opposition adopts a more mature approach. The genuine concerns expressed were swamped by the strident nonsensical outbursts which seemed to be counterposing the building of the airport to every day-to-day challenge. Too many speakers on the Opposition benches seemed to be pandering to the everyday problems, forgetting the real purpose of the debate. Maybe they didn’t get the script right but we expect better at the level of our national Parliament.

Our Parliamentary Opposition has an important role in the democratic process. The people depend on them for alternative views, for continued pressure on the Government to ensure accountability. Its tactics, as well as its strategic positions, are vital in exercising these functions. Opposing for opposition sake and constant boycotts of Parliament as tactics need to be reviewed.

The Argyle airport is a national project and is a reality we must all face. To support it does not mean that one supports every method, measure or action of the Gonsalves administration. That administration deserves credit for its boldness and initiative in realising this project, but it also needs to be made accountable, to understand the concerns of our people in such hard times so that a right balance is struck.

Renwick Rose is a community activist

and social com-mentator.

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