The online world is ablaze with speculation that all in not right in the Antigua & Barbuda Labour Party (ABLP). Amateur political observers, and our favourite conspiracy theorists, are convinced that the party’s unity is beginning to show cracks and members are beginning to flex their perceived powers in attempts to test their colleagues – in very public and extremely unusual displays.
The street talk began in earnest back in late February when Prime Minister Gaston Browne openly called for Antigua Public Utilities’ (APUA) General Manager Esworth Martin to be fired, after he reportedly granted approval for an external company to run the old Sembcorp plant. At the time, the PM was angry at what he saw as a direct disobedience of the Cabinet, the APUA Board and a contravention of acts of parliament related to the tendering process. He said, “get their backsides out and fire Martin for defying the instructions of the Cabinet and the APUA Board.“
In an editorial during the midst of that power tussle, we wrote, “So it is now very interesting to see the next move by these two ABLP powerhouses. Sir Robin has flexed his muscles and has stood in the way of the PM’s “next step”, in order to protect his GM from the fallout. The result of this struggle will indicate who holds the power in the Government and the ABLP.”
We all know how that turned out. Sir Robin shielded his GM from any fallout and the PM’s threat that “the next step would result in firings” fizzled. After the Cabinet decided, in his absence, to give Martin a pass, the PM said, “I had no opportunity to participate in the Cabinet meeting by phone or otherwise. I have stated my position but ultimately, I am guided by the consensus of the Cabinet and the Board of APUA.”
The next very public incident occurred in early July when Minister of Tourism, Asot Michael, called for the head of the Airport Authority, CEO Stanley Smith, because of a fumigating accident at the old airport terminal from which fumes leaked into the control tower causing the airport to shut-down and several flights to be diverted. Few details emerged as another management head, under the control of Sir Robin, was cleared of any wrongdoing and another Minister’s strong calls for ‘accountability’ and ‘consequence’ fell by the wayside.
The most recent, and probably most interesting exchange, surrounded the surprising news that Sandals was going to close its doors for up to five months. The Attorney General, Steadroy ‘Cutie’ Benjamin was quick out of the gate to say that he thought the closure was “good” for Antigua & Barbuda, and would not affect the economy. His assessment was that residents should look at the situation from a positive light and look at the glass as being half full.
It is what he said next, and the response from the Prime Minister that has the online world in a tizzy. Benjamin said, “I think our politicians are so skewed in turning everything so negative that even when people are upgrading their facility they try to make it appear as if something bad is happening in the economy when in fact our economy is getting an injection and an upgrade.” Of course, everyone has focused in on the direct reference to politicians’ negativity. They note, that Minister Benjamin is extremely exact in what he says and proud of his oratory skills, so his deliberate use of the word “politicians” and not “opposition” has meaning.
Then, as night follows day, the PM, a politician, delivered an extremely negative assessment of the situation. He bluntly stated that the announced five-month temporary closure of the Sandals Grande Antiguan Resort & Spa was “an act of hostility” and a play for concessions. He said, “If it is what I think it is; it is clearly an act of sabotage and I am saying that no investor should be able to treat our people in that way.”
Wow! You can now understand why the armchair political observers are getting repetitive strain injuries from thumbing or typing their take on these matters – especially this most recent. The responses from the Attorney General and the Prime Minster are worlds apart and many are wondering who the target for the message of negativity was? Was it for the Sandals team to forewarn them of an impending public ‘shot across the bow’ or was it for the PM to tell him to ‘just cool it’. If it was for the latter, the message was not received, or if it was, it was ignored.
Little else has been said publicly since but it is interesting to note that on at least two of these occasions, these major tussles happened when the Prime Minister was away. That, in and of itself, has the conspiracy theorists going crazy. Many believe that all the flexing is evidence of party in-fighting and that the surface cracks that we are seeing are exposing deeper issues in the foundation of the Gaston Browne led administration.
We have been asked about our thoughts on this, and we will say that history shows that the ABLP is extremely adept at holding it together when in power. They maintain an outward appearance of unity to maintain their hold on power and rarely have public spats. That is why people are so fixated with these public outbursts. From our perspective, Gaston Browne has a firm grip on the leadership of his party and any challenge to that grip will require an extremely well-coordinated approach and a lot of intestinal fortitude. Overall chances of major upheaval is slim to none, but this is Antiguan politics and anything is possible.