Leader of the Opposition Godwin Friday on Tuesday said he agrees with Prime Minster Ralph Gonsalves that all Vincentians must join together to make the Argyle International Airport a success.
He, however, demanded that taxpayers — who are being asked to dig deeper into their pockets this year — be given an account of how monies spent on the project were used.
Gonsalves told Parliament on Monday that the airport has left the country with an EC$400 million debt, which he said can be covered by assets owned by state companies.
Friday on Tuesday called for a full report on the spending.
“We, therefore, call for a full and comprehensive report on the status of the construction, financing, certification and prospective sustainable operation of the Argyle International Airport, including, but not limited to, audited financial statements from 2008 to the present. I don’t think that is too much to ask, Mr. Speaker,” Friday said.
He told lawmakers that he agrees that the EC$700 million project is “too big a deal” not to succeed.
The airport will open next week Tuesday, Feb. 14, nine years after construction began and six years behind schedule.
Friday said the completion of the project — though long-delayed — was inevitable.
“So, Mr. Speaker, the people expect it to open, but the question is, what follows? And I agree with the Prime Minister when he said in the Budget Address that we must all try to make it work.
“Mr. Speaker, this is a very big deal for the country; failure in not an option,” Friday said and asked what are the plans for the sustainability of the operations of the airport.
The airport will open with regular flight by regional carrier LIAT and a number of chartered flights from North America, but no immediate schedule for chartered or regular international flights come Feb. 15.
The opposition leader noted that over the past three years there have been announcements by the government and the head of the Tourism Authority, Glen Beache, that they were negotiating with various airlines from the United States, Canada and the United Kingdom.
“But we haven’t seen anything,” Friday said.
Friday said he is serious about making the airport work, regardless of which government is in office, but said it is not going to be easy “given the way in which it was done and the problems that are still there”.
“What if, Mr. Speaker, we find that the dance can’t pay for the light? This expression has been used with the airport in Bequia and we have now to make sure that the Argyle International Airport doesn’t fall in that position. The situation, Mr. Speaker, as it stands now, doesn’t look very promising.”
The Bequia airport was built under the New Democratic Party administration and some observers say that it should never have been built because of limited demand for airlift from the island, which is just nine nautical miles away from Kingstown.
Friday said that Gonsalves told Parliament on Monday that Argyle International Airport has contributed EC$400 million to the public debt.
The opposition leader said the Parliament is yet to see properly audited statements about how monies used at the airport were spent.
He said that the opposition has never “dismissed, or, let us use the term that the young people would use, we have never dissed the Argyle International Airport”.
The statement was greeted with jeers from the government benches.
“Mr. Speaker, we have never dismissed the idea of building an international airport in St. Vincent and the Grenadines,” Friday said, adding that the NDP knows the dreams of all Vincentians and the frustrations of coming from abroad.
“What we are demanding, however, on behalf of the people, is that if the project is going to be done, that it be done right, both from the technical and financial perspective.”
Friday said the NDP has been very early and very consistently a supporter of building an international airport in St. Vincent.
To illustrate, Friday referred to the 1999 Budget Speech “just to show you how long and how consistent the New Democratic Party has supported the idea of an international airport”.
In the speech, then Minister of Finance Arnhim Eustace said that, as in indicated in the 1998 Budget Address, the NDP administration had commissioned a study on airport development in St. Vincent.
The study was required to establish the demand and estimate future demand for airlift in the country.
“In essence, we were interested in finding out the requirements for the establishment of air facilities to accommodate small to medium size jet aircraft,” Friday said.
Continuing to quote the speech, Friday said that the consultants were also required to prepare preliminary designs and cost estimates including the cost of mitigating adverse environment impacts and phasing of expenditure of the optimum solution determined.
The study pointed to two main options: the development of the existing site at E.T. Joshua or a new site at Argyle.
“So, you see, it started with the NDP,” Friday said, adding, “It is the same study by MM&M that was used by the government to go ahead with the Argyle International Airport.”
Friday said that anyone who doubts that opposition lawmakers had supported the project, “even with all its difficulties, should simply recall that on several occasions we voted in Parliament to approve borrowings to construct the airport”.
He said that most Vincentians “absolutely support the idea” of having an international airport.
The opposition leader, however, said many persons “are dismayed by the politicisation, the division, the lies, the gross mismanagement, the complete lack of transparency, and the lack of accountability that has accompanied the project”.
He said that in 2005 when Prime Minister Ralph Gonsalves announced his plan to build an airport, he went to great lengths to characterise the airport as a political project, saying that only the Unity Labour Party administration could do it.
Friday said that when the first set of heavy equipment came for the earthworks, they were paraded “in red” from Campden Park to Argyle.
Gonsalves, interjecting from across the floor, claiming that this was not true and that red was put on them to indicate danger.
Friday, further, said that when people complained about the red flags, it was said, “Who ye hut, ye hut”.
He added that on Dec. 6, 2016, a chartered LIAT fight was landed at the unfinished airport and was greeted by “a sea of red”.
“What was that? Was that for technical reasons or for political reasons? Do you think that is the NDP has said we wanted to have a rally at the airport and dressed in yellow we would have been permitted to do so?”
Friday said he still can’t understand why it was necessary for a LIAT flight to land at the airport on Dec. 6, 2015 and then no flights have landed there for an entire year after.
“Clearly, that’s why it was a political stunt intended to improve the ULP’s chances of winning the general elections which took place a mere three days later…
“Mr Speaker, Argyle International Airport is an extremely costly project and it has been implemented with zero transparency and accountability.”
Friday said that the original cost of the airport was announced to be EC$481 million, a figure that was revised to EC$729 million in 2015.
The opposition leader noted Gonsalves said on Monday that the cost of the airport was EC$700 million, and that with in-kind contribution the value was over EC$1 billion.
Friday pointed out that the NDP had done a study which said that the airport would cost EC$1.1 billion, even as the government was saying EC$500 million.
“It seems that we are right on track, Mr. Speaker, as we have been with so many things in the past.
“So we have a project that, according to the government should have taken three years, at a cost of $481 million, but instead it is going on eight years and over $1 billion in cost and a large part of that cost, Mr. Speaker is long-term debt.
“Mr. Speaker, the government’s mismanagement of this project from start to finish means that taxes and hardships for Vincentians will continue. And then, to add insult to injury, when we asked in this house for audited statements, of financial accounts of the IADC, … none was forthcoming.”
Friday said this shows “contempt for the very idea of transparency in government”.
He noted that even as the airport will open on Tuesday, the charter flights on that day will cost the country more than half a million dollars, according to the Tourism Authority.
“Mr. Speaker, our position on the airport in summary, is thus: that we support the intention to build an international airport at Argyle, but we do not support and we deplore the extreme politicisation that is taking place, the reckless behaviour in the administration, planning, financing and execution of the project. We deplore the expenditure of hundreds of millions of dollars of funds without proper accountability. And that is yet to come. We must have that. Because if we are asking people to pay addition taxes to finance the on-going work,– we are told that it will cost $20 million to operate the airport, which is $13 million more than it costs to operate E.T. Joshua Airport. That money has to come from somewhere. So, if the taxpayers have to put money into it, Mr. Speaker, they deserve proper accounting of the finances,” Friday said.