On social media, in the cinema, on the pages of internet blogs and newspapers, the battle
for votes on the port project referendum is heating up. Citizen campaigners claim they are locked in a David vs. Goliath public relations fight. Government insists it is trying to educate and inform the people in the face of a tide of misinformation.
It’s a good idea. It’s a bad idea. To have a port, or not to have a port? That is, of course, the question.
As the port referendum looms, opposing sides of the issue will be doing what they can to persuade people to support their causes.
Promotions for and against the initiative have been popping up in a variety of places for months as the two sides wage war: Facebook posts, newsprint ads, videos on Instagram and YouTube, radio appearances and glowing electronic roadside signboards. Both sides have sponsored public meetings and both have ads running during the pre-movie commercials at Camana Bay cinema.
The battle is expected to only intensify, particularly with the government bringing on a dedicated public relations company for the duration of its campaign to provide a “focussed, persuasive, high intensity public education campaign,” according to the bid tender. That contract with Kelly Holding, which has not been finalised, will add to the $130,000 documents show the government has already spent promoting the project to the public.
The main campaign group, Cruise Port Referendum, has said it has only spent $12,000 to date, but is hoping to raise $125,000 to push its message and pay for the logistics involved in canvassing houses and helping to get people to the polls on 19 Dec.
“We are a true grass roots initiative,” said Johann Moxam, a member of the Cruise Port Referendum. “We’ve made history by getting to this point. It’s unprecedented. This is largely a David and Goliath scenario.”
Moxam says his group is massively outgunned by the government’s resources. But Premier Alden McLaughlin says he believes CPR is being supported by wealthy businessmen, including the tender operators. Adrien Briggs, who co-owns tender operator Caribbean Marine Services as well as several other businesses, has acknowledged that he has committed up to $100,000 from his personal funds to groups opposing the port, including CPR.
See the related story: No rules for campaign finance
McLaughlin, in a recent interview with the Compass, said there was no way to know for sure who was funding the anti-port movement and how much they were contributing.
“We don’t know because there is no transparency in what they do,” he said.
“No one can say categorically where the funding is coming from, how much they have spent.”
But, he said, he believes it is beyond the $130,000 the government says it has so far spent on its pro-port campaign.
“Just looking at the campaign that they have run and looking at what we have done and what it has cost government, it is without question they have spent a lot more money than government has on the campaign,” he said. “We are not going to be persuaded with these arguments about David and Goliath and ‘poor CPR don’t have any money’. It is simply not true.”
CPR officials said on 18 Oct., they had spent just $12,000 on their campaign. They did not provide any documentation to confirm that number.
McLaughlin said the group had outpaced government on its advertising efforts.
“If you analyse the amount of ads, promotions, social media work that they have done and are doing compared to what government has done, we don’t come close,” he said.
Documents obtained in early October showed the government had, at that point, run nearly 4,400 radio ads promoting the port. CPR officials said they have run 313 such ads as of the last week in October.
David Carmichael, general manager of Caribbean Marine Services, Cayman’s largest tender operation, and co-owner of the company, Attlee Bodden, have both denied providing any money for the anti-port movement. But the company’s second owner, Adrien Briggs said he has given something less than $100,000 to those trying to stop the project. Briggs did not provide a breakdown of when and to which groups — Save Cayman and Sustainable Cayman are also active opponents of the project — the money went to.
Katrina Jurn, a CPR member, said the largest donation the group has received is $20,000.
Pro-port group spent $48,000
A pro-port group, Cayman’s Port, Cayman’s Future, also has a Facebook page and has run advertisements. The group recently retained marketing firm Fountainhead for assistance in the run up to the vote.
It confirmed, in response to questions from the Compass, that it has spent $48,000 since 2016 in “communicating our support” for the development. The money has come from a mix of pro-port tourism businesses on a “pay as you can” basis, according to a statement from the group.
Funds have been spent on T-shirts, video production, a website and some print and radio advertising, the group said. No documents were provided by the group.
Jurn said her group thinks it’s inappropriate for the government to spend public money to promote its own agenda. She cited a passage from the European Union Referendum Act 2015, a document both sides have used, at least in part, as a guideline for the referendum, which says, “public authorities . . . must not influence the outcome of the vote by excessive, one-sided campaigning. The use of public funds by the authorities for campaigning purposes must be prohibited.”
McLaughlin said he doesn’t have an issue with the government being able to push its own initiative.
“Government is entitled to spend taxpayers’ money to promote any of its projects,” he said. “That is the way it is and that is what we are doing. This is not a party political issue; this is a national issue for which the government has a mandate.”
Both sides have accused the other of dishonesty.
“The government campaign has been riddled with misrepresentations of the facts,” Moxam said. “They lied about the fact the government would not have to contribute anything to this project.”
He said the increased portion of the passenger arrival fees that the government will pay to the cruise companies — the most recent estimate is $2.32 per passenger — represents a loss of government revenue and an indirect “tax” on Cayman.
Government officials have said from the beginning that the cruise companies would recoup their estimated $200 million up-front cost of the port through such fees. It believes an expected increase in passenger numbers will offset the lower per-person revenue.
Proponents and opponents have also gone back and forth on the environmental impact the project will have on the surrounding reefs. Some port supporters have claimed the reefs in the area are already devoid of coral life. Recent photos and accounts from divers have shown significant coral and fish life.
Moxam says the government has presented selected information to make its case. McLaughlin makes a similar claim.
“Much of what they have said has been completely debunked by the facts,” McLaughlin said. “They have engaged frankly in a campaign of misinformation and the government has struggled to be able to challenge those claims until recently.”
That struggle, he said, was due to the confidential nature of the bidding process, which kept government officials from addressing certain topics prior to a contract being signed.
Moxam said CPR has been “honest and forthright”. He added that the referendum has gone beyond a simple question on the future of the proposed cruise ship port to a more existential one that will determine future politics.
“It’s an indictment on the leadership of the country,” he said.
Additional reporting by James Whittaker