British dramatist Harold Pinter once said, “The past is what you remember, imagine you remember, convince yourself you remember, or pretend you remember.”
As election time approaches, the Antigua Labour Party (ALP) is busily trying to refashion itself to offer itself once again as the best choice for governing Antigua & Barbuda. In this process, the ALP appears to have convinced itself to remember history much differently or is imagining or pretending to remember in a way that is astounding many.
Gaston Browne, chairman of the party, appeared last Thursday on Voice of the People on OBSERVER Radio, and attempted to put forth his ‘new ALP’ platform as it stands at this point in the political process.
As was expected, host Winston Derrick and many of the callers asked Browne why he thinks the ALP deserves another try at running the country after they were defeated so soundly in 2004 for what many thought was a multitude of good reasons.
Browne announced that he believed the main reason that voters turned the party out of office was because they had simply ruled for too long.
“After 28 years in government, people naturally would require change. That would have been the single largest issue affecting confidence in the Labour Party going into the 2004 general election. However, at no point did the people ever lose confidence in the economy presided over by the Labour administration,” he declared.
Well, since memory can be unreliable (or imagined), we decided to go back to the black-and-white historic record of exactly what was happening in Antigua & Barbuda during the later days of the ALP administration.
We started examining past issues of the Daily OBSERVER, and for brevity, looked at the period from October 2003 to January 2004, months leading up to the historic March 2004 election.
In the month of October alone, many were concerned about the economic situation – mostly about whether they were going to get paid. Stories detailed threatened or actual strikes over unpaid back wages at Holberton Hospital, the Public Works Department (PWD) and the Post Office.
The government then proposed to pay public service employees 7 per cent of all monies owed from 2001-2003, which they found unacceptable.
In an interesting aside, at this point the Bird government tried to blame the money woes on the state of the world economy.
“The PM’s letter (to the public service employees) said the global economy is not doing well and as a consequence Antigua & Barbuda is experiencing cash flow below expectations,” said an OBSERVER article.
The ALP government’s other solutions to the economic problems? First they announced that $38 million was owed in property tax, and that was the primary reason for late payment of salaries. Then they went to the CMC for a bailout of $500,000 to pay PWD employees at least one week of wages.
Finally, on October 27, Prime Minister Lester Bird gave his promise that there would be no more late payment of wages or salaries in the public sector – a promise that was quickly broken.
In November, teachers threatened to strike over the lack of payments for October. Air traffic controllers shut down VC Bird Airport for a day and a half because of late payment of salaries. The Police Welfare Association held meetings because of the non-payment of salaries for October, and the PWD held a demonstration, hoping for payment of five weeks of back pay.
In December, the strike actions quieted down, but there were other signs of a less-than-robust economy. APUA announced there was a problem in sourcing electricity for the annual Christmas light competition because the Friar’s Hill generators were down and would not be repaired until some time in the new year. They explained that “most of the engines in APUA are aged,” and they depended upon Antigua Power Company for 40 per cent of their power.
Gaston Browne’s own constituency went on revolt. In November, the Daily OBSERVER had published copies of cheques showing that R Allen Stanford had ‘donated’ $100,000 to Team City West – Browne’s constituency. Not seeing any of this largesse, by December the people in his area were accusing him of neglecting them, saying “we are living like animals down here.”
To calm down some, the government announced they were distributing “Appreciation Vouchers” for $150 off electricity bills to selected public sector workers, most of whom had experienced late pay from January through October 2003. But still the PWD workers were fussing about wages being unpaid on Christmas Eve, with some late payments dating back over one month.
There was a multitude of other interesting issues brought up during that time, including those pesky cheques from Stanford that appeared to originate around the time the financier was negotiating a land swap to give him prime land on lower High Street. The negotiations were managed by Molwyn Joseph and Browne, and they both received initial amounts of $100,000 that were then doubled by Stanford after he got upset that people were questioning his integrity. And of course, a cheque for $500,000 was cut for the ALP at the same time.
It is clear from all the protests and complaints that the public was deeply concerned about the ALP’s handling, not only of the economy, but the government in general.
Ask anyone who wasn’t a die-hard ALP supporter what they remember about that time. They didn’t just think that the party had overstayed its welcome, as MP Browne declared, but rather that it had driven the country to the edge of economic disaster.
This little exercise was very instructive – so much so that we’ll be doing the same sort of research on other topics, such as the ALP’s land allocation policies of the past.