Painting the issue as a choice between “prosperity and decline”, Premier Alden McLaughlin tabled a bill for a referendum on the cruise and cargo port project Monday.
Speaking at the beginning of two days of debate on the bill, which sets the date and question for the upcoming poll, McLaughlin insisted the case for building the cruise piers was “overwhelming”.
“Prosperity or decline? This government chooses prosperity for this and future generations of Caymanians,” he said.
“I ask all members of this honourable house to vote ‘Aye’ to this referendum bill and to those Caymanians that go out to the polls on Referendum Day, I ask them to vote a resounding yes [to the project]”.
In a two-hour speech Monday morning, McLaughlin hit back at critics of the project and of his government.
He claimed some of the Cruise Port Referendum Cayman leadership had used “scare tactics and misinformation” to encourage people to sign the petition.
Several CPR members were present in the public gallery Monday to hear the debate.
The premier dismissed new concerns about the referendum bill, outlined in a legal opinion obtained by CPR from UK law firm Matrix Chambers, as a “smokescreen” aimed at derailing or delaying a vote they were worried about losing.
CPR’s legal team questioned the phrasing of the question, the exclusion of newly registered voters from the polls, and the lack of provisions for campaign financing, among other concerns. In a letter to the premier Saturday, CPR urged government to amend the bill to avoid potential legal action.
While McLaughlin said there would be some administrative amendments, he said there would be no changes to the substance of the bill, the question or the date of the referendum. He said government had followed international guidelines and taken legal advice and was satisfied with the existing procedure.
“We have bent over backwards to ensure the question is as fair as can be,” he added.
He said cargo upgrades were an intrinsic part of the project and were being funded by revenue from cruise passengers and, therefore, had to be included in the question.
He said the case for the piers was clear and suggested Cayman would face the “gradual and inexorable” decline of cruise business without the new facilities.
The premier said this would have a “serious impact” on jobs and insisted the deal struck with Verdant Isle Port Partners, the preferred bidder on the project, would ensure increased cruise arrivals and could be delivered with no cost or financial risk to government.
He acknowledged government would give up some of its per-passenger-head tax to help the consortium recoup its costs but insisted this loss of revenue would be more than covered by the increase in arrivals.
If Cayman does nothing, he said, cruise tourism would decline.
“As cruise ships grow in size, they will increasingly pass by Cayman on their way to other destinations that have the facilities needed to cope with their passengers,” he said. “Visitors numbers will fall, Caymanians will lose their jobs, and their businesses will fail.”
He acknowledged legitimate environmental concerns, but said government had done its best to minimise these impacts and Verdant Isle was investing millions in a coral-relocation plan.
He also took aim at some of his critics on the opposition benches, pointing out that the “smiling faces” of several members, including Alva Suckoo, Kenneth Bryan and Anthony Eden, had appeared on the cover of the Progressives manifesto when the party first committed to the project ahead of the 2013 election. The three members have since left the PPM and now sit as independents on the opposition bench.
He added that “every government elected since 2000” had promises of a cruise port in their election manifesto.
“The question on the ballot paper at this referendum is about cruise berthing and enhanced cargo facilities. The question for the country is whether we still have the confidence in ourselves and our future to grasp the opportunities before us,” the premier said.