There is broad consensus among candidates on all sides ahead of Wednesday’s election over what Cayman’s key issues are. The continuing response to the COVID-19 pandemic, the high cost of living, congestion on the roads and the fiery issue of the landfill have all registered high among the talking points for candidates.
Longer-term concerns like education and healthcare reform have all featured heavily in the pre-election debates while questions over how an independent-led field might form a government have been part of the discussion.
Based on our candidate surveys, the election debates, campaign rallies and our own coverage, we examined what some of the key players are saying about 10 critical issues that could influence the election.
1. COVID-19 and the post-pandemic reopening
Government has campaigned hard on its record during the pandemic.
At its rallies, government members have highlighted the absence of masks and social-distancing requirements, and pointed to the fact that people in Cayman are now able to live and work freely, in relative security from the threat of the virus.
A national vaccination programme, funded by the UK, is well under way and both Premier Alden McLaughlin and Roy McTaggart, the new leader of the Progressives, have targeted a measured reopening of the borders to tourists once the bulk of Cayman’s adult population has been inoculated.
The clear message from the Progressives and their partners has been that Cayman is close to the finish line in the battle against COVID-19 and cannot afford to change direction or leadership.
McTaggart, speaking during a Crosstalk election debate last week, said that if elected he would look to have a “phased reopening” led by the science and by medical advice.
“We are not going to do anything to squander or take away from the great gains we have made in this administration in terms of keeping people safe and healthy,” he said.
Few candidates have sought to challenge government over their handling of the pandemic or suggested a different approach to reopening.
Some have questioned the extent to which government deserves credit for Cayman’s pandemic response, however.
George Town South candidate Alric Lindsay’s response during a Crosstalk debate, typified some of the opposition positions.
“I would have taken a similar approach in terms of taking instructions from UK public health, the governor and the chief medical officer,” he said.
Lindsay also argued the country needs a safe, gradual reopening and a long-term economic recovery plan that focusses on new revenue sources.
Others, including George Town East candidate Richard Bernard, said government was not the main reason for the island’s clean bill of health.
“I give the credit to the people,” he said.
2. The economy
Steady handling of government’s finances has been another central part of the pitch for re-election from the Progressives and their alliance partners.
Finance Minister Roy McTaggart has argued that running budget surpluses and amassing cash reserves over several years meant that Cayman did not need to go into debt as the tourism “pillar” of the economy crumbled in the aftermath of the border closure.
The civil service has maintained full staff on full pay and a $1,500 monthly stipend (increased from $1,000) has been extended to displaced tourism workers.
Government was also able to secure an emergency $500 million line-of-credit that could further stimulate the economy, if needed.
None of this would have been possible, government has argued, if it had not managed the country’s finances so adeptly before and during the crisis.
McTaggart said government’s stewardship of the economy had created the “buffer” that enabled it to prioritise health over money during the pandemic.
McLaughlin made a similar point at a recent rally adding, controversially, that government would be in a position to raise the stipend if re-elected.
Critics of government’s handling of the economy have highlighted millions of dollars in concessions granted to developers and the high cost of living on island among their concerns.
Johann Moxam, the independent candidate for George Town North, has argued government policy has prioritised special interests over regular Caymanians.
Citing concessions packages granted to private developers, he said ordinary people were being left behind.
Moxam has also criticised government for “lack of focus” on the financial services industry, claiming its failure to meet key deadlines for required legislative changes landed Cayman on the European Union’s tax blacklist last year.
The designation has since been downgraded but Moxam argues that more attention needs to be placed on Cayman’s key industry amid a range of global threats.
3. Who are we developing for?
The surge in development before, during and after the coronavirus crisis in Cayman has become one of the most persistent areas of concern for those who oppose the current government.
A vocal and growing environmental lobby has kept the issue of ‘reckless and unplanned’ development front and centre of the national debate, with the question of “Who are we developing for?” becoming a recurring refrain.
Concessions for developers along with rapid population growth and its impact on the quality of life have been key talking points for many independent candidates.
Wayne Panton, the former environment minister, who is campaigning in Newlands, said Cayman is not placing enough value on the environment and argues for “sensible growth” that considers quality of life, climate change resilience and protection of natural resources.
“The bottom line is that we are not entitled to pursue our prosperity today at the cost of our children’s prosperity tomorrow. We must strike the right balance,” he says.
Sammy Jackson, who is challenging McLaughlin in Red Bay, said on CrossTalk, “This island right now has runaway development with no regards to consequences for the environment or infrastructure.”
He said the legal requirement to develop sustainably and consider the environment already existed but needed to be enhanced and properly enforced.
Emily DeCou, an independent candidate in George Town East, said Cayman needs to address conflicts of interest in the planning process and come up with a national development plan that ensures growth is sustainable and organic.
André Ebanks, candidate in West Bay South, also highlighted an environmental management framework as one of his top priorities.
Mario Ebanks, who is running against McKeeva Bush in West Bay West, called for a ‘Vision 2050’ project to determine a strategic plan for the future of the country.
He also spoke out against ad hoc concessions packages, arguing for a consistent approach that required developers to contribute to infrastructure and society.
Planning Minister Joey Hew has defended government’s record, saying it has initiated the first full review of the Development Plan in a generation.
He said completing Plan Cayman would be a priority in the next term.
Government has also previously highlighted the importance of the construction industry in propping up the economy as tourism collapsed during the COVID crisis.
4. Gridlock on the roads
Whatever government is elected on 14 April, one of the first orders of business will have to be to deal with traffic congestion.
The respite from gridlock during lockdown proved to be temporary and, even with more than 5,000 work-permit holders leaving the island, traffic came back when people returned to work and children went back to school.
A Compass series last year examined the issue in-depth and found that the amount of time Cayman commuters lose by being stuck in traffic, proportionate to expected journey times, is among the highest in the world.
Panton said an enhanced public transport system should be a priority. He also proposed limiting the number of cars on the road, potentially through restricting vehicle ownership for newly arrived work-permit holders.
Several other candidates highlighted placing restrictions on expats as a potential solution to reduce the number of cars on the road.
Kenneth Bryan, George Town Central incumbent, said he wasn’t against that idea, but stressed the need for public transport improvements to come first.
“The business community need to know their staff can get to work,” he said.
Ellio Solomon, a candidate in George Town South, proposed more flexible working hours and suggested building a monorail – an idea previously put forward by North Side independent Ezzard Miller – as part of a public transport solution.
Austin Harris has been the point person for government on the issue of traffic. He shared a 10-point plan with the Compass in February last year, with recommendations including restricting vehicle imports, buses for private schools and carpooling incentives.
None of those suggestions have been implemented as yet, though Harris said they had been accepted by Cabinet and would be part of the plan for the next regime.
Government has also highlighted road works under way to alleviate the pressure at key bottlenecks.
5. Cost of living
From minimum wage and affordable housing to the challenges of retirement and putting food on the table, Cayman’s high cost of living is high on the agenda of all candidates.
A Cayman Compass series in February highlighted the inflated cost of housing, mark-ups at the grocery store and the high amounts of debt in our society among a number of issues.
Our analysis showed that average salaries are also significantly higher in Cayman, as well as being tax-free. The cost-of-living impact, economists told us, disproportionately hurts the poorest in society.
Several candidates highlighted raising the minimum wage from $6-an-hour as an important priority.
Frank McField, running in George Town East, has campaigned on raising the hourly figure to $10. Bernard, one of his opponents in that district, said the current figure was a ‘joke’ in Cayman.
Bryan, who also supports raising the minimum wage, highlighted the reduction of import duty on essential items as another way to bring down expenses for families. Both Moxam and Bernie Bush (West Bay North) made similar proposals.
Moxam said duty concessions for developers should have been targeted at affordable housing projects instead of luxury condos.
Malcolm Eden, an independent running in Savannah, said cost of living was the top issue facing the country and plans to commission a detailed analysis to address rising prices and find solutions for affordable housing and lower utility bills.
Prospect candidate Michael Myles, in his debate, highlighted better education and training as a means to get Caymanians qualified for the higher-paying jobs in society.
The Progressives manifesto highlights steps it has taken on housing, including increasing stamp duty exemptions for first-time Caymanian buyers and building new affordable homes in the eastern districts.
It also points to increased salaries for civil servants, reductions in fuel import duty to lower CUC bills and increased ex-gratia payments to seamen and veterans as well as significant financial support to those impacted by the pandemic.
The manifesto also includes promises to review and increase the minimum wage this year, to consider import duty waivers on essential items and a ‘sustained focus’ on affordable housing initiatives.
6. Healthcare reform
The pandemic shone a light on a long-term systemic problem with Cayman’s healthcare system – linking health insurance to employment.
Those who lost jobs during the COVID crisis were forced to choose between getting healthcare coverage and paying rent or grocery bills.
All involved, including the government, acknowledge the system is neither fair nor cost-effective.
Chris Saunders, an independent running for re-election in Bodden Town West, has been a vocal advocate for reform of the system. In a recent interview with the Compass, he advocated for an expansion of CINICO’s coverage to provide basic healthcare for everyone, with private insurance offering additional policies on top of the basic plan.
“The government basically finds itself in a situation where all the people who are high risk are at CINICO, while all the low-risk people receive private insurance. In a sense we have privatised profits and socialised the costs,” Saunders said.
McLaughlin has been among a number of politicians to suggest support for a national health insurance system.
The Progressives election manifesto calls for investigating a plan that is similar to Saunders’ idea of expanding CINICO’s coverage to the wider population.
The manifesto states the Progressives would “review the effectiveness and viability of a modern health insurance system that includes a national health insurance plan alongside options for private insurance”.
It also aims to “investigate the feasibility of commissioning a single healthcare provider for the care of indigents etc. to improve outcomes for patients and reduce the cost to the Government”.
7. Improved school performance
Education is highlighted by the majority of the candidates as the most fundamental issue facing the country.
They differ markedly, however, on the extent to which the public school system is currently failing and how radical reforms should be.
Barbara Connolly, counselor in the education ministry, highlighted increased pay and professional development for teachers and ‘improving’ Office of Education Standards inspectorate reports as a success to build on.
The Progressives have set a target that every child should be able to go to a school rated good or better within the next four years.
Currently the Lighthouse School is the only public school rated good or better by the inspectorate, with the majority ranked as ‘satisfactory’.
Many opposition candidates have argued for more radical reform, allowing greater independence for schools and new types of school structure that allow expats and Caymanians to share classrooms.
Raul Nicholson-Coe, candidate in West Bay South, said reintegration of schools should be a priority. He also called for a comprehensive analysis of proficiency of students and teachers in numeracy and literacy to help develop a strategy to address any deficiencies.
Highlighting the reported $170 million price tag for the new John Gray High School, Moxam said the focus had been on expensive buildings rather than raising standards.
Rolston Anglin, a former education minister, was one of several candidates to link weaknesses in academic performance to social issues. He said more must be done to help families.
“You cannot cocoon a child and say, I’m going to help this child educationally without helping their family,” said Anglin, who is running in West Bay North.
Myles has been one of the most vocal advocates for a greater emphasis on vocational education. He claims there is a disconnect between what is taught in schools and the needs of the economy, and is also advocating for reform of the scholarship system to free up more funds for students to pursue career training.
Government has highlighted programmes at the Cayman Islands Further Education Centre, the Public Works Department and the University College of the Cayman Islands as evidence of a growing commitment to technical and vocational education and training.
Myles said many of these courses weren’t licensed by the Education Council and very few Caymanians are employed as plumbers, or air conditioning or cellphone technicians.
“We should be pumping out our people into these sectors. These are credible jobs making a boatload of money.”
What is currently provided is “just a drop in the bucket” compared to what is needed, he said.
8. The McKeeva question
One question that has dogged all candidates on the campaign trail has been the issue of whether they would work with the former Speaker following his conviction for assault on a woman.
In some respects the McKeeva Bush question has been a side show, but it could move to centre stage if no group or alliance gets a clear majority.
If the former premier is re-elected along with some of his West Bay running mates he could hold some cards in the post-poll discussions over the formation of the new government.
The Progressives candidates have stood by their decision not to seek to have Bush removed from office, insisting that to do so would have led to the collapse of the government in the midst of a pandemic.
Critics point out that they would still have had the majority, albeit by a slim 10-9 margin, if Bush and his colleague Eugene Ebanks had left the government. That scenario would have likely involved the appointment of a new Speaker from outside the elected members.
Progressives leader Roy McTaggart has said he wouldn’t have Bush in his Cabinet if he is elected premier.
Several party members, including McTaggart, had said they did not support Bush continuing on as Speaker, leading to the early election.
Others have sought to hold government’s feet to the coals over the Bush incident, accusing the Progressives leadership of placing political expediency over moral integrity.
DeCou said “unequivocally” she would not work with Bush as a personal, moral stance.
Bush’s direct opponent, Mario Ebanks, said at the Chamber of Commerce debate that he believes Bush has breached the public’s trust one time too many.
“At this election, character is on the ballot, decency is on the ballot, integrity is on the ballot and ethics is on the ballot,” he said.
Others have put the issue in the hands of the electorate, saying if the people of West Bay West vote for Bush, they have a responsibility to work with him.
McField is one of only a few candidates to publicly defend Bush, saying he had done a lot of good for the country. Bryan also had some kind words for the former Speaker, calling him the ‘grandfather of the House’ and saying he would have no issue working with him.
For his part, Bush has indicated he believes he is being made a “scapegoat” for political reasons and insists others in the race have been involved in scandals over the years.
If he and his West Bay running mates are elected, he said they would be willing to talk to anyone about forming a government in the best interests of the country.
9. The leadership conundrum
The Progressives have highlighted their ability to ‘get it done’ as one of the reasons to vote for the slate of alliance candidates over independents.
McTaggart, who entered the political scene in 2013 as an independent but subsequently joined and now leads the Progressives, said the only way to be sure of who you were voting for as premier was to vote for the alliance.
Speaking at a campaign rally, he said the independents were not a coherent group with any leadership, saying they lacked the ability to ‘get to 10’ – the magic number needed to form a government.
“They have 10 prima donnas or 10 premiers – I’m not sure,” he said.
There are, however, multiple alliances emerging among independent members. Panton is running with Osbourne Bodden (running in Bodden Town East) and Heather Bodden (Savannah) and has also been seen at meetings for other candidates including Bryan.
Moxam, Lindsay, Jackson and Saunders have appeared at each other’s meetings and there are talks over a broader independents coalition.
When asked, most candidates have said they will look to partner with others who share their mindset.
North Side independent Ezzard Miller has put his hat in the ring for leadership, saying he would be prepared to work with “like-minded” individuals, though he ruled out any alliance with the current leadership or with McKeeva Bush.
Jackson said several of the independents were working together and he believes there are the makings of an alternate government within that group.
“We don’t know who the leader will be, it hasn’t reached that stage yet.”
Jackson said whomever is selected it would be through a fair democratic process and not based on tenure.
“It needs to be someone who can build consensus, who understands the wide array of issues that effect Cayman.”
Bryan, who has publicly endorsed both Johann Moxam and Wayne Panton, said he was willing to work with any of the other elected members and felt he could play a role in government.
“I am willing to work with anybody, regardless of disagreements. We may not agree today but that is one issue; we move on in a mature manner and talk about the next subject.”
10. The flaming landfill question
The familiar site of thick black smoke and orange flames bursting from the George Town landfill last month put Cayman’s long-running waste-management concerns back at the top of the agenda.
The day after the fire, government announced the completion of a contract with a Dart-led consortium of companies to close and cap the current landfill mound and build a waste-to-energy facility where garbage will be incinerated to generate electricity.
The Integrated Solid Waste Management System will also include a smaller lined landfill, and recycling and composting centres.
McLaughlin said the new facilities would be completed by 2024 and would mean Cayman had a suite of modern facilities for the next 25 years.
He denied the deal was timed with the election in mind saying government had answered the decades-long call to “fix the dump”.
Even before the fire, the majority of candidates, in a Compass poll, cited the landfill as Cayman’s most urgent infrastructure issue.
Solomon said it was a “biological risk” and “an eyesore”, and the absence of proper recycling was a missed opportunity for business.
Eden also said it must be a priority.
“It has been lingering for decades and needs a viable long-term solution implemented forthwith,” he said.