Three candidates in Wednesday’s general election took deeply divided positions on immigration reform, with some favoring a work permit moratorium and others seeking to take the granting of work permits away from the Immigration Department entirely.
The final televised debate of the 2017 political campaign season, held Thursday night at the Arts and Recreation Centre in Camana Bay was marked by the absence of the territory’s two political party leaders – Premier Alden McLaughlin and Opposition Leader McKeeva Bush – and a third candidate, Finance Minister Wayne Panton. All three had been invited.
For those who did take part, political hopefuls Chris Saunders (independent, Bodden Town West), Kent McTaggart (independent, Savannah) and Jonathan Piercy (Cayman Democratic Party, George Town West), immigration issues took center stage.
Mr. Saunders wasted no time in taking shots at the absent Progressives party members.
“Caymanians should feel entitled in this country,” he said. “This is what this campaign is about, putting Caymanians first. Not like what we have … with the PPM (People’s Progressive Movement, former name of the Progressives), and I’m really sorry they’re not here tonight to defend their dismal record. They have a lot to answer for.”
Mr. Saunders was the only one of the three candidates to support a moratorium on work permits.
Mr. Piercy, the lone party-supported candidate, said a moratorium was “not necessarily” needed.
“We just need to enforce the laws that are there,” he said, adding that proper enforcement of the current Immigration Law should end situations where Caymanians with college degrees cannot find jobs, or qualified Caymanians are passed over for promotion.
Mr. McTaggart opposed a moratorium, saying “It’s actually disadvantageous to us” in the long run, and he blamed the government service for lack of Immigration Law enforcement.
Mr. Saunders said a temporary work permit moratorium was needed.
“We have a system that doesn’t allow any form of enforcement,” he said. “This lack of enforcement is the reason why we have 900 people waiting on permanent residence right now.”
To fix the immigration-related difficulties, Mr. Piercy suggested removing the approval of work permit applications from the Immigration Department – an idea which has also been suggested, but not implemented – by the current Progressives-led government.
He said a human resources authority could help direct people in need of work to the vacant jobs, as well as speed up the permit application process where non-Caymanian workers were legitimately required.
Mr. McTaggart also said he doubted the Immigration Department could fix itself with regard to the work permit/labor issues, and some public agency needs to act as a “clearinghouse” in labor-related matters.
In a campaign season that has been rife with non-attendance at various debates (Mr. Piercy did not attend his own district candidate forum on May 2 in George Town West), the absence of both political party leaders was noted by the candidates who did appear and by the television commentators.
According to debate host Tammi Sulliman, Opposition Leader Bush declined to attend Thursday’s public event, and Premier McLaughlin, upon learning Mr. Bush would not attend, also declined to show up. Mr. Panton dropped out at the last minute, citing personal reasons. Debate commentators Ben Meade and Johann Moxam upbraided the party leaders for not appearing.
Mr. Meade said the lack of attendance did the country a “disservice” less than a week before the general election on May 24. Mr. Moxam, who was touted as a potential political candidate for this year but who decided not to run, called out both party leaders.
“You are in leadership positions in this country; you are not beyond sharing your views, your message … for the country,” Mr. Moxam said. “This is just typical, Caymanian power-play arrogance at its best.”
Mr. Bush told the Cayman Compass that he had informed the organizers more than a week before the event that he would not be attending because he did not belive that Hurley’s Media, which is owned by a business partner of Progressives cabinet minister Wayne Panton would be impartial.
“I was not prepared to go, in my last public appearance before the election, for a boxing match with the Premier and allow people to set me up,” he said.