Riot police used pepper spray on protesters who blockaded Bermuda’s Parliament on Friday to stop the territory’s government from authorizing an airport redevelopment deal which was initially offered to the Cayman Islands.
The Canadian Commercial Corp., a Canadian government-owned company, entered talks with Bermuda’s government after proposals for the $200 million airport partnership collapsed in Cayman.
The deal was scuppered here amid concerns from the Foreign and Commonwealth Office over the lack of tendering process and complaints from retailers and businesses that they would be cut out of the new privately run airport.
It has proved an even more controversial proposition in Bermuda.
As the ruling One Bermuda Alliance, which holds a slender majority in the territory, prepared to push through enabling legislation on Friday, hundreds of protesters linked arms to block legislators from entering the gates of the House of Assembly.
Police in riot gear tried to clear a path through the crowd, dousing some protesters in pepper spray, the Royal Gazette newspaper reported.
Eventually the debate was postponed.
The proposal on the table in Cayman, similar to the one now being discussed in Bermuda, would have involved the Canadian firm financing and building expansions to the airport and runway in exchange for a 30-to-40-year operating concession and the right to collect “aeronautical and non-aeronautical revenues.”
Concerns were expressed about a loss of direct government revenue, loss of control over a key strategic asset for the country and potential loss of jobs at the airport. On the plus side, the deal would have led to an extensive redevelopment without adding to public sector debt – a troubling issue for both territories.
Robert Hamaty, chairman of the airport tenants association in Cayman, said it was a bad deal with few benefits other than keeping debt off the government balance sheet. He said he was not surprised to see it meet with opposition in Bermuda, but did not agree with the tactic of blockading parliament.
In Cayman, he said, the tenants association had met with the Cayman Islands Airports Association board and highlighted the problems similar deals had caused in other countries.
“The Canadian Vancouver company takeover was rejected by the previous CIAA board,” he said.
“The plan was for government to lease out the airport for 40 years, locals get removed and foreign companies take over the shops …. The country loses its sovereignty and the airport becomes like a USA shopping mall with high prices, not to mention the local airport management is removed.”
Similar concerns were highlighted in Bermuda.
MP Walton Brown told the Cayman Compass his party objected to the length of the contract and the lack of tendering process. He said there were far too many concessions involved on the government side.
Opposition leader David Burt said in a radio interview before Friday’s protest, “The One Bermuda Alliance is planning on using their very slim majority to sell our airport, to privatize our airport to a foreign company and we cannot let that happen.”
Bermuda Premier Michael Dunkley told the Gazette before Friday’s debate that the project would “generate jobs, career and business opportunities for Bermudians, get built on time, on budget, and stimulate economic growth with no increase in the national debt.”