The 43 candidates running for office in May’s general election face no shortage of campaign issues this year, but there are five that stand out as hotbed topics on the road to the voting booths.
On top of many candidates’ list of issues is crime. Although Royal Cayman Islands Police Services statistics show the number of crimes dropped from 2007 to 2008, a number of high-profile serious crimes in the past year have skewed public perception.
The abduction, rape and killing of 33-year-old Estella Scott-Roberts in October, 2008, put much of the Grand Cayman public, especially women, on edge.
This year, the killing of 21-year-old Sabrina Schirn in March once again brought serious crime to the forefront of voters’ minds.
Even though police have arrested suspects in both of those deaths, the nature of the crimes themselves, along with an increase in murders, attempted murders, rapes and illegal firearms possession offences, have combined to make many people feel less safe living in the Cayman Islands.
The increase in serious crime occurred in spite of the People’s Progressive Movement Government significantly increasing funding of the RCIPS during its term in power.
The PPM government has complained that it has little say in police policy beyond providing funding because the RCIPS is accountable only to the governor under the provisions of the existing constitution.
The proposed new constitution, however, would provide for the establishment of a National Security Council to assume oversight of the RCIPS. Comprising the governor, the commissioner of police, members of civil society and elected representatives on both sides of the aisle, the National Security Council would give government greater involvement in public safety decisions. Although the governor would still have the ability to overrule a recommendation by the NSC, he would be expected to agree to those recommendations unless they compromised the United Kingdom’s interest in some way.
The state of Cayman’s economy will also get a lot of attention from the candidates. The global economic downturn has reduced tourism arrivals both by air and sea and affected the financial services industry as well.
Although job lay-offs in Cayman haven’t been at the levels seen elsewhere in the region, higher prices for goods and services have become a problem for many residents.
After Hurricane Ivan in September 2004, there was sharp price increase in many consumer goods, but the increase in property insurance caused hardships for nearly everyone.
Homeowners with mortgages had no choice but to shell out thousands of dollars to property insurers because they were required to carry insurance as part of their loan agreements.
Renters felt the pinch too, because landlords had increased costs from higher insurance costs.
Though the insurance rates went up significantly after Ivan, they have been slow to come down. Increased hurricane activity in the Caribbean Basin generally over the years since has kept the rates high, proving to be a constant financial drain on property holders here.
Ivan also caused an increase in electricity bills when the government granted Caribbean Utilities Company the right to add a surcharge to their bills to help pay for the company’s uninsured losses.
In January 2007, former US President George W. Bush made a decision that would further affect the cost of living in the Cayman Islands. President Bush increased the mandatory production of alternative fuels sevenfold to 35 billion gallons by 2017, creating an almost instant demand for ethanol gasoline. Ethanol is commonly made with corn because of the grain’s high sugar content.
The drive to produce more ethanol raised the price of corn to 10-year highs, resulting not only in higher prices for products made with corn, but for animal products the feed on corns such as eggs, chicken and beef.
In 2008, rising oil prices caused another sharp increase in the cost of living in Cayman. Gasoline rose to more than $5 per Imperial gallon for the first time ever here. Driving a vehicle became more expensive, as did electricity because of a fuel factor CUC adds to its electricity bill. The higher oil prices also increased shipping costs, further raising the cost of many goods imported into the Cayman Islands.
When oil prices finally came down toward the end of 2008, the global financial situation was worsening, causing cutbacks – if not layoffs – at many Cayman workplaces. Depending on the company, employees saw cuts in hours, wages, or benefits.
Despite uncertainties in the global economy, the People’s Progressive Movement Government forged ahead with the building of two new high schools in 2008. This followed a complete overhaul of education system that began in 2005.
When it took over the government, the PPM said education would be a top priority and later announced it would build four new schools. In addition to the now-under-construction Clifton Hunter High School in Frank Sound and a new John Gray High School in George Town, the PPM plans to build the Beulah Smith High School in West Bay and a new George Town Primary School. In total, the cost of the four new schools will exceed CI$200 million.
Although the government said feedback on the changes made to the education system were positive, the changes haven’t yet led to the desired results in the classroom. Last year, only George Town Primary School was rated a good school by the Schools’ Inspectorate.
Providing a good education to Caymanian children is considered the cornerstone of social harmony going into the future. Some Caymanians hope it also can stem the tide of population growth by allowing Caymanians to become qualified to take jobs currently held by expatriates.
A government-commissioned report released in 2007 showed that the population had grown 428 per cent from 1970 through 2006, from just more than 10,000 to more than 53,000. If Cayman’s population continued to grow at the same pace, there would be more than 84,000 people here by 2016 and more than 134,000 by 2026.
Even a modest growth rate of 3 per cent would produce a population of 71,000 by 2016 and 96,000 by 2016.
More than half the population of the Cayman Islands is non-Caymanian. As of January 2009, there were 25,900 non-citizens working on work permits or government contract, plus some 2,800 dependents and 1,800 permanent residents living here, bringing the total of expatriates to more than 30,000. This number does not include expatriates that have been granted Caymanian Status. Cayman’s estimated population is about 55,000.
Although some Caymanians would like to see a slowdown in growth, others believe continued population growth is required to fuel the local economy.
In addition, massive real estate developments like Camana Bay and Dragon Bay, along with new planned luxury hotels in Cayman’s eastern districts, would all require more people to staff them.
How these new developments, seen as essential to Cayman’s tourism product, can operate without increasing the population is a quandary for the next government.
Many Caymanians have historically steered away from jobs in tourism, but successive governments have tried to encourage more Caymanian involvement through a variety of programmes and initiatives.
Tourism in Cayman, however, faces a more basic challenge in deciding how it would like to develop in the future.
Cruise tourism, which brings vastly higher numbers of visitors than stay-over tourism, has been declining over the past few years. Cruise lines say part of the reason is that Cayman does not offer berthing facilities for cruise ships, and that passengers instead have to be tendered ashore, something neither the passengers or cruise lines like.
A four-ship berthing facility that would require the relocation of the current cargo dock was proposed last year, but caused uproar with environmentalists because of its potential negative effects on the marine ecosystem and wave patterns along Seven Mile Beach. Others also objected because they believe Cayman should cater to high-end stay-over tourists, not to cruise tourism.
However, most people believe Cayman needs the right balance of both cruise and stay-over tourism. Finding ways of achieving that balance won’t be easy, and will certainly be a challenge for those elected in May’s general elections.