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Sealy adds to DLP’s woes

Albert Brandford

Sealy adds to DLP’s woes

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I simply cannot accept the senseless, backward, myopic point of view that somehow the Government of Barbados should simply only support LIAT. It doesn’t make any sense and this incident further reinforces my position. – Minister of Tourism Richard Sealy, commenting on the fire at LIAT’s hangar in Antigua, to Starcom Network Inc., June 12.
ONE OF THE PEOPLE WHO MATTER most in my life did not appear to be too happy after I suggested last week that given recent public differences in the ruling Democratic Labour Party (DLP) and the findings of the latest CADRES poll, maybe the party should be placed on “suicide watch”.
Perhaps I may have misread the tone and tenor of her comment but it was still not immediately clear that she disagreed with my assertion.
I had placed the remark at the end of the commentary reflecting on the DLP’s troubles that had been exacerbated by the very public outburst from Minister of Agriculture Dr David Estwick, who had threatened to resign over his party’s treatment of the sector.
Then, lo and behold, Minister of Tourism Richard Sealy offered up what appeared to be a very scathing denunciation of the people who refused to grant REDjet the support it had been seeking to continue operations.
Sealy, who had been publicly singing REDjet’s praises for its role in significantly improving visitor arrivals from CARICOM, was responding specifically to the fire, but made the salient point that Government had to look beyond LIAT.
“This situation further underscores my view that we need to have alternatives and options and competition where regional travel is concerned,” he said.
It was a point that was apparently lost on his Cabinet colleagues, particularly Prime Minister Freundel Stuart and Minister of Finance Chris Sinckler, at whom fingers were pointed by REDjet when news broke Sunday that the airline had filed for bankruptcy after a last-ditch appeal to Government for financial support failed despite solemn promises.
According to the report, the airline’s group executive chairman Ian Burns had pressed the Government in May for payment of $8 million which he said had been solemnly promised at a January 14 meeting attended by Sealy himself, the Prime Minister, Sinckler, Minister of International Transport George Hutson and Minister in the Office of the Prime Minister, Senator Darcy Boyce.
“A letter dated 25th January, 2012, caveated this solemn promise made under handshake with [the] Minister of Finance and [former REDjet director] Bizzy Williams, stating it was subject to Cabinet approval. By the 16th March, 2012, no approval had been sought. To this day, we do not have a signed agreement,” Burns complained.
The report also said Burns appealed to the Prime Minister for debt forgiveness on behalf of the carrier, in need of $16 million to “secure its future”.
While the newspaper was not able to ascertain if or how the Prime Minister responded to Burns’ May 21 correspondence, it obtained a copy of the January 25 letter from Sinckler in which he reaffirmed the Government’s commitment to assisting REDjet.
In it, Sinckler said the Stuart administration would “pursue the particulars of a possible guarantee for the undertaking of a loan facility to assist with an $8 million injection into the company under conditions to be agreed by the company, the [Barbados Tourism Authority], the Ministry of Tourism and the Ministry of Finance”.
The report said Burns was adamant in his correspondence to the Prime Minister that “whatever the political issues your Government faces from LIAT and its supporters, an injection, as referred to in Minister Sinckler’s letter of $8 million to secure these economic and social benefits, now must surely make sense and, the contrary, not to make such a contribution makes absolutely no sense”.
Sealy would have been acutely aware, moreso than many others,
as a member of the Cabinet and an attendee at the pivotal meeting, of Government’s intentions towards REDjet and its subsequent lack of action, which, it is being said, was the final nail in the coffin of the airline.
And it may be that his frustration over this turn of events, rather than any understandable lamentation over LIAT’s misfortune, was responsible for his pointed remarks, which – coming so soon after Estwick’s outburst – suggests another public disagreement with Cabinet’s direction.
Sweet nothings
For while the Government has quite rightly continued its role as the major shareholder and supporter of LIAT, it had also been publicly whispering sweet nothings into REDjet’s ears.
Early in May, the Prime Minister told a DLP meeting that while his Government had some concerns about the airline before it could invest in its operations, it had not turned its back on the cash-strapped carrier.
He reported that he had asked Boyce to secure a copy of the company’s balance sheet so that it could be examined by Government, after which a determination would have been made about the airline, which he insisted would not be treated as “some cast-off child”.
“It is a nationally designated airline,” Stuart said, “and Barbados
is not going to resile from that. The movement of visitors through the Caribbean increased during the time that REDjet was in the air and we have no particular interest in frustrating that.
“Barbados has a vested interest in ensuring that people from other parts of the Caribbean visit this country. Our largest source market for tourism is Britain, our second largest is the United States and our third largest is CARICOM, so we have a vested interest in people being able to get here and to get here at economical rates.”
Stuart noted that Barbados paid millions of dollars annually to American Airlines to get that carrier to bring passengers from the United States to Barbados and vice versa, arguing that his administration could not in good conscience support the United States-based carrier “which does not belong to us, and turn its back on REDjet”.
So, what happened?
The upshot of all the solemn promises, public commitments and balance sheet perusals is that REDjet has been forced to seek the court’s protection from its creditors, and booked passengers, who had been promised refunds when it suddenly stopped flying, are still crying.
Sealy’s own plaintive cry adds to a level of public divergence over Cabinet policy that is astonishing, to say the least, and it makes one wonder whether these apparently disgruntled ministers are even conscious of the damage they are causing to the Government in the electorate’s eyes, or if, Heaven forbid, it is deliberate.
What was also surprising about Sealy’s comment was the fact that he was not one of the so-called Eager Eleven who publicly aired their concerns about Stuart’s leadership.
Indeed, some people read into his recent elevation to act as Prime Minister in Stuart’s absence – in preference to Minister of Education Ronald Jones, who had been doing that duty – an affirmation by Stuart of Sealy’s loyalty.
What, if anything, has changed so dramatically to evoke such a harsh comment from Sealy, who has not been a controversial politician, but a milquetoast decoration in the DLP’s Cabinet for the past four years?
In my view, it is way too close to a general election for such differences in Cabinet to be continually showing up in public.
But, my dearest, is there a higher level of concern for the welfare of a person or entity exhibiting such self-destructive tendencies than a suicide watch?
• Albert Brandford is an independent political correspondent. Email [email protected]