Candidates for the Sister Islands faced off at a Chamber of Commerce forum on Cayman Brac Friday night, 12 April.
The candidates – the two incumbents, People’s National Alliance nominee and Cayman Islands Premier Juliana O’Connor-Connolly and the People’s Progressive Movement’s Moses Kirkconnell as well as independents David Bodden and Maxine Moore – were asked questions submitted from Chamber of Commerce members and people in attendance at the forum meetings.
The forum covered a range of topics including tourism, the economy, the environment and gambling.
Asked how to improve tourism in the Sister Islands, Mr. Kirkconnell said it was vital to bring more people to the islands, where 50 to 60 hotels rooms remain unfilled on a daily basis. “We have to advertise to bring more people here and when they commit to come here, they have to be able to get seats on … Cayman Airways,” he said, adding that there is not enough air lift to bring passengers to Cayman Brac.
His comments were echoed by the other candidates, including Maxine Moore who called for more direct flights from overseas destinations to the Sister Islands and for more airlines to service the islands. Mr. Bodden suggested Cayman Airways fly a larger aircraft, like a 40- or 50-seater Dash 8, to Little Cayman and Cayman Brac, rather than the 19-seater Twin Otter, which currently brings passengers to the islands.
A Boeing 737 jet flies travellers between Grand Cayman and the Brac, but cannot land on Little Cayman’s small airstrip. “We have not developed the airstrip at Little Cayman. It’s eight to 10 years overdue in being built. As a result, the Brac has to settle for Twin Otters on a regular basis,” Mr. Bodden said.
Premier O’Connor-Connolly responded that more funding was needed to market and promote the Cayman Islands overseas and expressed the hope that the next minister of tourism would hail from the Sister Islands. She added that she also hoped that more direct flights from the US could come to the Sister Islands.
Asked to give one strategy to create more jobs, Mr. Bodden said Cayman Brac needed its own cruise ship dock that would bring a cruise ship to the island daily.
“We have to have a stimulus here, the economy is dying – it‘s not stagnant, it’s dying,” he said, adding that he understood a cruise ship dock could be built on the Brac for $4 million.
Ms Moore pointed out that the re-employment of retired civil servants on the Brac meant school and college leavers and young job seekers were not being given a chance to work in those positions. She said she would push for young people to be hired in local jobs. “We must give them the opportunity to get that work experience and that work ethic,” she said.
Mr. Kirkconnell agreed with an initiative to bring small cruise ships to Cayman Brac and have a cruise dock there. In the short term, he said diversification of employment was needed on the Brac, where about 90 per cent of employees work for government, so that school leavers would not have to depend on the government to create every local job. He suggested that back office jobs, for example, a call centre for Cayman Airways or a bio-tech spin-off from the Shetty hospital, could be created.
Ms O’Connor-Connolly said more inward investment in Cayman Brac was needed and that such investment would be required to build a cruise dock. She said local businesses needed to be encouraged to grow, but admitted this was a challenge on an island with just 2,200 residents.
Responding to whether candidates would change the existing seven-year work permit term limit policy, Ms O’Connor-Connolly said the issue was her “pet peeve” and she had never supported the rollover policy, adding that she hoped the next government would look seriously at immigration reform. “We have allowed the nationalistic approach to kill the goose that has been laying the golden egg. We have somehow been able to convince everybody that if we don’t give work permits or don’t give key employee [status], then all of our Caymanians are going to get jobs. It does not really work that way,” the premier said. She added that while Caymanians should have priority in the jobs market, “I don’t think we can do that by trying to use the immigration law [as] a labour policeman.”
Ms Moore said she supported immigration reform, which involved Caymanians being given first priority in jobs, adding that she did not support a term limit for work permit holders. Mr. Bodden said people who came to Cayman to live and work should have the option to apply for permanent residency. “We should not let people in if we don’t intend to allow them to become citizens,” but said Cayman had to be careful not to allow its small population to be overrun by another nationality. “All jobs should be reserved for Caymanians first,” he said.
Mr. Kirkconnell said his approach to the rollover policy would be to do away with key employee status and after seven years, give every work permit holder the right to apply for permanent residency. “If we make sure that if we provide the proper training and the proper opportunity for the Caymanian people and we allow this to continue to be a melting pot for the world to come here and be with us, I think we have a tremendous future in how we live together in harmony,” he said.
Most of the candidates said they believed that the issue of casino gambling in Cayman should be put to a public referendum.
All the candidates said they were in support of a National Conservation Law. The legislation has been languishing for years, with successive government saying they will introduce such a law, which has been through several rounds of public consultation and iterations. Mr. Kirkconnell, Ms O’Connor-Connolly and Ms Moore said the long overdue bill needed to go through more public consultation and be updated before going forward. Mr. Bodden argued that there was no point in trying to get the legislation perfect before putting it in place. “I don’t know why we’re still talking about this law still not being passed … It’s been bandied about for many years,” he said, adding: “We need to get something as close as we can to what’s acceptable and have the will to get it passed and then amend it as need be,” he said. “It’s embarrassing that we don’t have the law passed,” Mr. Bodden added.
Asked if they would support direct taxes, all candidates said they would not support income or property tax. Ms Moore said she did not support any form of taxation, saying that Cayman’s “tax-free haven” attracts tourists who come here on vacation and mix business with pleasure by “going to a bank and opening up an account and invest”. Mr. Bodden argued that Cayman already had very high taxes in the form of consumption taxes. “We have one of the highest costs of living probably anywhere in the world,” he said, citing duty fees on gasoline and other imports.