Cayman’s new government, led by Premier Wayne Panton, has called for a ‘country first’ approach as the island’s 19 elected MPs leave what has been a gruelling political contest behind and get down to business.
“The campaign is over,” Panton said as he addressed the House of Parliament Friday afternoon, paying tribute to his new team and adding, “we are going to do this together for our beloved Cayman Islands”.
He paid his respects to Opposition leader Roy McTaggart, who, in turn, indicated his team will provide robust but fair scrutiny of the new government.
Many of the MPs used their inaugural speeches during the first sitting of the new Parliament to thank their supporters and to call for unity now that the horse trading is over.
Several spoke out against some of the nastiness and half-truths that came out on social media and elsewhere before, during and after the election.
Deputy Opposition leader Joey Hew was particularly forthright, condemning the “hatred and aggression” as well as the “influence of the unregulated world of social media”.
He thanked his supporters and family for believing in him and not the “villain” he had been portrayed as by his opponents and by “keyboard warriors.”
The new deputy premier, Chris Saunders, also highlighted personal attacks on his family, including his mother and sister, who were part of his campaign team. He again highlighted “special interests” which he said had been exposed as exerting an influence in the aftermath of the election.
Juliana O’Connor-Connolly, who was part of the Progressives but has accepted a ministerial post in the PACT government, railed against “slander” and highlighted threats made to her 77-year-old mother and family.
Bernie Bush, who will be part of Panton’s new Cabinet, also spoke out against “slander, smut and lies”.
Though some tensions clearly still remain, the vast majority of MPs seemed keen to move on from the bitterness of the campaign, in the interests of the jurisdiction.
Panton: Time for action
Panton said the campaign was now over and encouraged his government team to put words into action.
“We have the awesome obligation of running this country, running the government and making sure we deliver for our people.”
He said the new government members had shown courage and found unity.
“What they have been through,” he said, “is how you forge steel.”
He acknowledged “friends on the other side of the aisle” and described Progressives leader Roy McTaggart as a “decent, capable man” who had shown the respect to “sit in his chair as leader of the Opposition.”
Former Premier Alden McLaughlin and his deputy Moses Kirkconnell were absent from the session, though there was no explanation given as to why.
Though he acknowledged the Progressives alliance could and should hold his government to account, Panton said he believed all 19 members would work in the best interests of the country.
Touching on the controversial agreement with Speaker McKeeva Bush that helped him seal the government, Panton said he had put his personal feelings aside to prioritise the country.
Earlier, George Town South MP Barbara Conolly had criticised him for his U-turn on Bush, following his conviction for assaulting a woman, and asked “Is she still supported?” – a reference to the slogan of those who campaigned against gender-based violence following the high-profile incident.
Panton said, “The answer is ‘of course, she is supported'”.
Addressing Bush directly, he said, “Mr. Speaker you have issued a statement. You have acknowledged the issue and you have issued an apology for past transgressions. We are all human beings and you have to be commended for that.”
He said, going forward, his government would be one that “absolutely ensures” that the standards expected of all representatives set the best example in the community.
He closed by thanking his team for their strength and vowing to leave the islands a better place in four years.
“We will do this together for our beloved Cayman Islands,” he said
McTaggart: ‘I will be robust but fair’
McTaggart extended his best wishes to the government and new premier.
He acknowledged it had been a stressful six weeks and, while he finds himself a member of the Opposition, he said he would continue to work to move the country forward.
“In my role, I will be robust, but I will be fair in exercising my duties. I promise also I will be respectful to every member of this Parliament and I will never resort to personal attacks,” the Opposition leader said.
He said he understands the new government will need a period to “get their feet wet” and he will give them time to do that.
Saunders has high hopes
Saunders, the new deputy premier, said he was happy that the post-election negotiations, despite the twists and turns, had led to an independent coalition government.
He said the work ethic and ethos of those now on the government benches had been forged over the past week.
“I am happy with the way things turned out,” he said.
“It gave the Caymanian people and the world the chance to see the mettle that now sits on this side of the Parliament.”
He paid tribute to each member of government in turn, describing North Side independent Jay Ebanks, who had been viewed as a possible coalition partner for the Progressives, as the man “that kept this government together”.
He also gave credit to East End’s Isaac Rankine and Prospect’s Sabrina Turner, who he said he had not met personally until after the election, for coming back to PACT after siding, at one stage, with the Progressives alliance.
Saunders paid tribute to Panton for pulling the independent coalition together in the early hours of 15 April and predicted, “he is going to be the best premier we have ever had.”
Touching on healthcare and pension reform, Saunders began to outline the likely policy platform of the new government.
He said “people are hurting” and stressed the 19 members should put differences aside to work for the betterment of Cayman and its people.
“The things that are wrong with Cayman can still be fixed by the things that are right,” he added.
“We are going to make Cayman the best place to live and work on this planet.”
Hew: Social media caused confusion
Hew also congratulated the new government before speaking out against the influence of social media in the campaign and afterwards.
He thanked his supporters and close friends for believing in and re-electing the “Joey Hew they knew”.
He added, “The last few months have been one of the most arduous periods in my political career.
“The influence of the unregulated world of social media caused confusion amongst our people.
“The hatred and aggression towards each other in front of the world to watch left a stain on our country.”
He said he hoped the 19 MPs would do their part to discourage that type of action in the future.
Hew said he had endured “relentless attacks” on his character and family life during the campaign and that the “good people of George Town North” had not been “swayed”.
The Progressives deputy gave his thanks to the people and to his campaign team and those who had canvassed for him. He said the party could “stand strong” with their heads held high.
Conolly asks, ‘Is she still supported?’
George Town South MP Barbara Conolly echoed Hew’s comments, saying that the campaign had “really been difficult” especially with all the things alleged about her and her family on social media.
“It has almost been unbearable. It has really been the most difficult six weeks for me,” she said, adding that she ran a “clean and dignified” campaign.
Conolly, who came under fire for not speaking up against Bush when he was arrested and later convicted for assault, raised the issue, asking fellow “lady parliamentarians” across the aisle “#is she still supported?”
Panton answered this question in his speech saying “yes, she is supported”; however, Cayman must be put first.
He said his first priority is to the country, second is to his constituency and his third priority is his personal views and opinions.
Emotional moment for Seymour
Bodden Town East MP Dwayne Seymour, who has remained with the Progressives, delivered an emotional speech as he recounted the trials he endured over his childhood and over the campaign.
It was clear he was grieving the loss of his long-time aide Theresa Chin who died suddenly a few weeks ago and he was preparing for her funeral later today.
As he broke down during his speech, Cayman Brac East MP O’Connor-Connolly walked across the chamber to offer support and comfort to Seymour.
“I am not crossing the floor, but I am crossing the political divide,” she said. She later embraced Seymour after he ended his speech.
Seymour wished the new administration well and committed to work with them.
MPs thank supporters, vow to put Caymanians first
Many of the MPs that spoke expressed gratitude to their supporters, family members and their nominators.
In their maiden speeches, West Bay South MP André Ebanks, West Bay Central MP Katherine Ebanks-Wilks and East End MP Isaac Rankine pledged to do their best as they navigate new terrain.
“You will be hearing and seeing more of me,” Rankine said.
Ebanks expressed his gratitude to all who supported him.
He welcomed the announcement from Speaker Bush that one of the first orders of business will be the parliamentary code of conduct.
West Bay North MP Bernie Bush said that he was looking forward to his new role and pledged to put Caymanians first.
He added that he was once told he would be a bridge for the Caymanian and Jamaican communities and the young and old.
“Caymanians first… Caymanians second… Caymanians third. That is what I am here for,” he said.
Turner said her constituents would soon see she was “not all talk and no action” adding, “When I put my mind to anything I have the tenacity to get it done”.
Heather Bodden, who ran alongside Panton in the neighbouring Savannah district, said she was humbled to have been elected more than two decades after her last stint as a legislator.
She paid tribute to Panton saying, “This gentleman has faced much criticism throughout the entire campaign but has been the epitome of peace and calm.
“When I think of all he has been through personally – the triumph, the tragedies, the great personal losses, it fills me with great admiration for him and his passion for his country and our Caymanian people.
“He is the man that will steer this country in the right direction. He is here to build up, not tear down.”
Civil service stands ready
Deputy Governor Franz Manderson and Attorney General Samuel Bulgin extended their congratulations to all elected members and committed to work together with the new administration.
Bulgin said the challenges ahead are many and they require vision and diplomacy. He added he expects the Cabinet will work together to continue the stewardship of the “good ship Cayman”.
Manderson added that the civil service stands ready to assist the government in carrying out its policies.