On Thursday 27th July 2017, during her contribution to the Parliamentary debate on The Investment Authority (Amendment) Act 2017, MP Joanne Massiah chided the government for introducing a Bill that she deems will work to provide formal protection and lawful cover for would be abusive investors. The Member of Parliament for All Saints East and St. Luke told her colleagues that what the government has done is to jeopardize further the livelihoods of the workers in the Tourism sector and make a failing economy more vulnerable to the pressures of economic duress!
As the Political Leader of the DNA, Massiah highlighted a number of concerns with the legislation and offered alternative approaches which she stated, her Party would implement when elected. Among the major failings with the Bill, some of the concerns included, the absence of a coherent strategize which would protect the interests of workers during any period of prolonged lay-offs, the fact that the law calls for consultation between relevant stakeholders – including government – to take place after a hotelier had made a decision to temporarily close the property, the failure of the government to indicate whether it would absorb the displaced workers or whether there were serious plans to implement some form of unemployment benefits, the fact that too much discretion was placed in the hands of the Minister of Tourism and the exclusion of the Investment Authority in the discussion generally.
Massiah opined, “the Bill does nothing to stop determined investors from exerting economic duress on the government and the country but rather, provides them with protection and guarantees when they do so!” Massiah believes that the Members of the government, in their fit of anger against the Sandals Group, engaged in an “emotional rant and unfortunate confrontational approach” in response to the now resolved impasse between government and the noted regional hotel giant. She stated that, “the government’s action in hastily causing an ill-thought out Amendment to be drafted, has caused inadvertently the government to surrender its power and influence and opened up the nation to greater abuse.” Massiah also told Parliament that the legislative requirement for two months notice was a redundant issue as it is accepted that the tourism sector is seasonal and hotels have historically closed for two to three months for varying reasons according to a particular schedule. In fact, she observed that Sandals would have provided more notice than what the Bill requires. While she accepted that notice should be given to government and key stakeholders, Massiah described the issue of notice as “a low hanging fruit”, stating that it has never been a problem and accused the government of not addressing the real issues affecting the sector.
Massiah also highlighted the fact that the categories of exemption provided in the Bill were poorly defined and therefore laden with problems as to how they will be applied. For example, the Bill exempts hotels from the requirement to give 60 days notice, if the hotel has “low occupancy”. She asked the government to define “low occupancy”, pointing out that it could have subjective application and would undermine the purported objective of the Bill itself. Massiah also told Parliament that she was not in favour of the vague sweeping discretion given to the Minister of Tourism, which she felt was ripe for Ministerial abuse in the manner it is used. Further, she highlighted the fact that as the grantor of the concessions to investors in the first place, it is the Investment Authority that should determine the process for revocation of concessions, asserting that Ministers of government should be removed from the process of granting concessions. In chronicling the issue with Clause 3(3) of the Bill, she advised the Gaston Browne administration that their failure to even identify which concessions were subject to the unilateral revocation by the Minister, meant that they were not only giving the Minister unfettered powers, but they could possibly open the country to legal jeopardy.
In outlining the position of the DNA, Massiah stated that the existing national developmental model of a total reliance on foreign direct investment (FDI) would not be continued by her Party. She stated that the continued failure of successive governments to be creative and innovative and to diversify the economy was the true issue at hand. She told the Parliament that she was disappointed and embarrassed by the Prime Minister’s admission that his Cabinet was made to eat “humble pie”, consistently acquiescing to the whims and fancies of investors. She reminded them that “Antigua and Barbuda was a sovereign nation and that they were elected by the People to make decision in the best interest of the people and the nation at all times which did not include cowering to investors.”
She highlighted the unfair practice and abuse of Cabinet discretion in granting concessions to favoured investors which had perpetuated the unleveled playing field, which is now parasitic on the industry and on the country. Massiah gave a detailed account of how a DNA government would strategically diversify economy generally and the Tourism sector in particular by introducing medical, sports, entertainment and eco tourism in an effort to augment the existing tired brand and bring an end to the notion of seasonal employment. Massiah also spoke about linking concessions to developmental priorities like education where government should have hoteliers fund the tertiary education aspirations of youth to prepare them to eventually assume management roles in the hospitality industry.
In closing, Massiah highlighted successive government’s failure to rescue the nation from the precipitous decline in the World Bank’s Ease of Doing Business Report. She stated that these are the critical and consequential issues with which a serious government would concern itself so that the country is more inviting to prospective investors seeking to conduct legitimate business thereby allowing the nation to break the trend of the over reliance on a few large investors to prop up the economy.