Wednesday, 06 March 2013 02:30
By Colin Sampson
As the first quarter of the year draws to an end the United Progressive Party’s very controversial Citizenship by Investment Programme (CIP) continues to wind its tortuous way along the path that has seen the CIP Bill twice returned to the Lower House after being debated, passed and sent on to the Senate.
History will record that it was the Honourable Gaston Browne, now political leader of the Antigua Labour Party and Leader of the Opposition, who first proposed that this country emulate neighbouring St Kitts & Nevis by introducing some form of economic citizenship. Browne made the suggestion on the floor of the Lower House while debating the 2010 Budget. At the time he was a mere Member of Parliament for St Johns City West, though deputy leader of the ALP.
At that juncture our twin-island state was feeling the worst and most immediate effects of the global economic meltdown, as the international banking crisis both triggered and combined with the collapse of the Stanford Empire to force painful contraction on the local economy. The abrupt and unforeseen reductions in revenue had already forced the Ministry of Finance & the Economy to make desperation moves that included late-night chats with our benefactor Hugo Chavez and a reluctant resort to the International Monetary Fund.
The government’s basic political objective is easy to understand: one has only to recall the many occasions on which finance minister Harold Lovell has spoken glowingly of his government’s estimable record in “not sending home a single civil servant.” To maintain that sterling record government needs revenue. It was against that backdrop, and as part of his party’s campaign to discredit the finance minister’s resort to the IMF, that MP Gaston Browne made his own individual proposal that this country take a leaf out of the book of St Kitts & Nevis.
At the time Browne was roundly hooted down by the government benches, and also suffered a few unkind slings and arrows from his own side. Since then, even after a bit of personal uncertainty here and there by individual politicians, the ALP has maintained a consistent attitude of official opposition to the CIP as introduced by the United Progressive Party government. Although maverick MP Asot Michael delivered an earnest and impassioned address in support of the CIP, to this day few people are able to say what was the position adopted by Gaston Browne during that first parliamentary debate.
At that time, though, the ruling party took advantage of the Gaston Browne proposal to launch a scathing assault on anything that smacked of what the UPP itself labeled “selling passports”. So comprehensive was the UPP response to what the faithful saw as a heaven-sent opportunity to embarrass their arch-rival that a solid foundation of scornful opposition to any economic citizenship programme was laid down within the UPP itself.
Having so diligently prepared the ground to ensure a hostile reaction from within their own ranks, the UPP leadership then proceeded to perform their most shocking policy flip-flop ever: they abruptly changed horses in midstream, introducing their very own Citizenship by Investment Programme.
That this mad decision has effectively demoralised the ruling party is patently clear to all who care to apply an objective analysis to the CIP Bill’s parliamentary career to date. That the ruling party’s mad decision is based in their state of fiscal desperation is amply demonstrated by the government’s determination to bring the rejected Bill back to the floor of the Lower House within two weeks, despite open rebellion in the ranks.
The Ministry of Finance & the Economy has projected the CIP to earn EC$32 million in revenues in 2013, with greater amounts expected in future years. A budget has been passed that includes that interesting bit of information. The problem for the finance ministry is that no legislation authorizing such a revenue-raising measure resides within the law-books of Antigua & Barbuda.
There is a popular perception, reinforced by the indecent haste with which Prime Minister Baldwin Spencer hustled off to Dubai entourage in tow, that there is something more in the mortar than the 32-million-dollar pestle. What sent the public’s collective eyebrows sky high was the knowledge that their PM had hustled off to Dubai, order book in hand, right after the Bill passed the Lower House but before the Senate had any say in the matter.
An attempt has been made to justify this odd maneuver on the basis that the CIP legislation is a “money bill”, and as such does not require the approval of a Senate that is constitutionally limited to discussing the new measure. Be that as it may, it is indeed curious that Leader of Government Business in the Senate Dr Errol Cort claims to have decided on his own judgment as LoGB to “withdraw” the Bill from the Senate before any debate, on the basis (he says) that his own perusal had revealed certain areas that needed attention before the legislation could proceed further. And this, we are assured, occurred after the Lower house had avidly debated the CIP Bill to a “frazzle” while overlooking those glaring errors.
On this significant detail, however, hangs the premise upon which Attorney General Justin Simon QC asserts that the CIP Bill may properly be returned to the Lower House for renewed attention before once more making its way to the Senate for another pro forma debate.
Dr Cort’s astute action in withdrawing the CIP Bill before debate in the Senate has the effect of making the Senate’s latest move to return the CIP Bill to the Lower House only the first time this has occurred – not the second. If it were in fact the second that would trigger the restrictions on which the opposition party MPs are basing their rejection of the government’s hasty move to return the Bill to the Lower House without delay.
It would be a most interesting exercise to identify what precisely were the issues that the perspicacious Dr Cort identified in the CIP Bill originally passed by the Lower House, and to see what changes were made before a new draft was submitted after timely intervention by the LoGB.
It will also be interesting to see how a surprised and embarrassed PM Spencer goes about filling at least 3 Senate seats before pro forma discussion on the re-submitted CIP Bill starts. As things stand now, the “new” CIP Bill stands a chance of being defeated for a second time in the Upper House. That would really mess up Antigua & Barbuda’s 2013 fiscal profile, as well as possibly create some rather unhappy potential passport buyers.