In an unprecedented event leading up to an election, Cayman’s political leaders took part in a live radio-broadcast debate last Thursday in which the questions were not given to them ahead of time.
The debate between Leader of Government Business Kurt Tibbetts and Leader of the Opposition McKeeva Bush took place as the concluding segment of the 2009 Fidelity Cayman Business Outlook conference at The Ritz-Carlton, Grand Cayman.
Moderator Gary Linford, a former regulator with the Cayman Islands Monetary Authority, said one of the conditions of his accepting the role was that the debaters could not be shown the questions in advance.
Fidelity Chairman Anwer Sunderji explained the decision to hold the debate during the conference.
‘We thought this would be the perfect time right after the US election and [with] the Cayman Islands election coming up to have a presidential-style debate… and see what these leaders have to say,’ he said.
Mr. Linford set out the rules of the debate beforehand, saying each man would have 90 seconds to respond to the questions and that he had the right to ask a rebuttal question if he felt the question wasn’t answered.
The first question Mr. Linford asked of Mr. Bush concerned the People’s Progressive Movement’s extensive infrastructure projects and the fact that the United Democratic Party has criticised the government for overspending on infrastructure.
‘If your party gets back in power, which projects are you going to cancel?’ Mr. Linford asked.
‘That is a hard question,’ Mr. Bush responded, with a laugh. ‘We would first have to see how far on the government is with their projects.’
Mr. Bush said the UDP had never denied the need for infrastructure.
‘But we have always said we don’t have to overburden the country [by doing all the projects] at one time.’
Mr. Linford then asked Mr. Tibbetts is he thought criticisms from the financial industry about a lack of political commitment to the financial sector were fair.
Mr. Tibbetts said that he did not think they were.
‘We have been engaging in consultations with the industry,’ he said, pointing to the recently formed Economic Managerial Advisory Council and the Financial Services Council as two organisations that have been established by the PPM to work closely with Cayman’s financial industry to monitor local and global events affecting the sector.
Although the debate’s structure did not allow both men the opportunity to respond to every question, Mr. Linford allowed Mr. Bush to also answer the question about the financial industry’s criticisms.
‘The government hasn’t done enough,’ he said. ‘Innovation has not taken place. Legislation hasn’t been put in place…’
Mr. Bush said Cayman’s financial services industry hasn’t seen the results from government actions that it needs.
‘We don’t have lobbyists in the UK or Washington, or in any of the places that matter,’ he said. ‘A mere trotting out of articles in newspapers cannot help us.’
Mr. Tibbetts was then asked about what he considered the single most important item on Cayman’s tourism agenda.
‘It’s almost impossible for there to be one item singled out,’ he responded. ‘The port redevelopment is going to be very vital.’
Mr. Tibbetts explained that most of Cayman’s regional competitors in the cruise tourism market were either improving or incorporating berthing facilities at their ports.
‘If we don’t, we’re going to be left behind.’
Responding to the question about tourism, Mr. Bush agreed there was a need for the cruise berthing facility, but he didn’t think Cayman needed a new cruise ship pier and a new cargo dock so close together.
Both men were asked if they considered Cayman a high-end tourism destination.
Mr. Tibbetts said cruise tourism was vital to the economy, but that Cayman also had to increase stay-over tourism as much as possible.
Mr. Bush had already responded to that issue with an earlier comment.
‘At the moment, the government is scattered and contradictory in its tourism policy.’
Mr. Bush said the government shouldn’t be spending its time and money promoting boxing matches.
‘Instead, we should try to get the tourism industry and the financial sector working together to get [Cayman’s] brand right.’
Although Mr. Bush added that Cayman can’t be all things to all people, he, like Mr. Tibbetts, agreed there was a place for both cruise tourism and stay-over tourism.
‘But it has to be finely tuned and balanced,’ he said.
The debate also had several moments of humour.
In a long preamble to a question, Mr. Linford told of a Singapore politician who had publicly stated the country’s population needed to grow from six to nine million people – mostly with expatriates – in order for the economy to prosper. Mr. Linford then asked Mr. Bush if he would be willing to say something similar to a Caymanian voter.
‘What, that we’d have nine million people?’ Mr. Bush asked.
The Leader of the Opposition then asked if he could respond by talking about Cayman’s rollover policy.
‘Well,’ Mr. Linford responded, ‘you can either answer my question or pull a Sarah Palin and answer another one.’
Later, Mr. Linford asked Mr. Tibbetts why nothing had been done about the George Town Landfill problem.
‘It’s simple; it’s a matter of money.’
Mr. Tibbetts explained that Minister of Infrastructure Arden McLean had led an initiative to study the problem and had decided a waste-to-energy facility was the way to move forward.
‘At present, the funds aren’t available,’ he said, explaining the cost would be high. ‘It would take $150 million to do the trick.’
Mr. Tibbetts agreed that something will certainly have to be done about the situation at the landfill, but given the government’s revenues, government projects had to be prioritised.
Moving to another question, Mr. Linford asked what Mr. Bush thought should be done to help young Caymanians avoid getting into a life of crime.
Mr. Bush said he was sympathetic to the government’s battle in that respect.
‘Every government since I have been part of government… has tried to do more and more to keep our young people out of harm’s way,’ he said, noting that young people today have more things to do than ever before.
‘No church is going to do it alone; no school is going to do it alone; government has a role to play, but we as parents and grandparents have to spend more time with our children.’
Mr. Linford ended the debate by asking both leaders what they would say if they were asked to write the other man’s obituary.
Mr. Tibbetts said he would say Mr. Bush was a man of great spirit and tenacity in politics, even if he sometimes went a bit too far in personal attacks.
‘But by and large, he was a man who was good for this country.’
Mr. Bush said he would say Mr. Tibbetts listened to Alden McLaughlin too much.
‘But he meant well,’ he said, adding that Mr. Tibbetts was a good father and a good husband.
‘Most times, he was true to himself.’
Each man was then given five minutes to tell the audience why a government he led should be re-elected.
Mr. Tibbetts sought to assure the audience that the current economic crisis would pass and that Cayman would survive.
‘We’ve have been through times like this before and… we will see times like this again,’ he said. ‘It’s going to take all of us to see our way through these times; and we will get through them.’
Mr. Bush was more specific in what needed to be done.
‘We need an economic recovery plan,’ he said. ‘We need a list of policy changes; we need a list of fiscal changes.’
Mr. Bush said the lists should state both the pros and cons of the actions.
‘We need more than just a committee that is monitoring the situation,’ he said.
Mr. Bush said Cayman’s immigration framework needed to be changed.
‘No one should expect the financial industry or the tourism industry to work with the same immigration policies that the construction industry works with,’ he said, claiming that the current immigration framework has forced jobs away from Cayman.
‘Government is not focusing on smart policies to get our economy going and to get our people back in jobs and keep them in jobs.’
Mr. Bush said a government he would lead would put in new policies ‘to ensure this country not only recovers, but is put on track for sustainable growth.’
‘The global economy is bad,’ he said. ‘But let’s not make it worse by our own actions.’
Speaking after the event, Mr. Tibbetts said he thought the idea of a debate without the questions provided in advance was a good thing. He said he was not intimidated by the format, partially because he faces unknown questions from journalists nearly every week at the Cabinet press briefings.
‘So, this was nothing new,’ he said.
Although Mr. Tibbetts said he had no problems with the format and that he would gladly take part in another such debate if organised before the coming elections, he did offer a suggestion.
‘What I found difficult was the 90 second time limit,’ he said, adding that if he were to take part in another debate, he would rather see a two-minute-thirty-second time limit, with a warning at two minutes.
Mr. Bush also said he had no real problems with the debate either, but said he thought both men should have had a chance to answer each of the questions.
Compass reporter Shurna Robbins contributed to this article
Leader of Government Business Kurt Tibbetts, left, and Leader of the Opposition McKeeva Bush, right, debate during the 2009 Fidelity Cayman Business Outlook last Thursday. Photo: Alan Markoff