Foreign Affairs Minister, Nikolas Steele on Wednesday issued the first official reaction from the one-year old Keith Mitchell government in St. George’s about reports that Australia has reneged on the commitment given to Grenada to help in the rebuilding of the island’s Parliament building that was destroyed by Hurricane Ivan in 2004.
Steele said the island was officially informed on Independence Day – February 7 – that the Tony Abbott Government has pulled out of the aid pledge made to the former Congress administration of Tillman Thomas to build a new, state of the art Parliament for the Spice Island.
Ex-Prime Minister Thomas at a meeting of Commonwealth leaders in Trinidad & Tobago in 2009 was able to secure a commitment from his Australian counterpart, Kevin Rudd to pump $5 million Australian into the project with the rest estimated at US$5 million from the United Arab Emirates.
According to Minister Steele, the ruling New National Party (NNP) government will not stop the project but intends to approach other donors to make up the shortfall due to the Australian pull-out.
He said that Grenada has already spent one million Australian dollars from the funds pledged by the Aussies to complete preliminary work on the project.
The new Abbott government in Canberra is said to be unhappy with the manner in which the Rudd administration had committed millions of dollars to poor Caribbean and African nations to secure Australia’s prized seat on the United Nations Security Council.
The new leaders in Australia were strongly critical while in opposition on the way aid was pledged to assist the U.N. campaign spearheaded by then Prime Minister Rudd and in recent days have started to dismantle the aid commitments to both the Caribbean and African regions.
The pull out of Australia from the Grenada Parliament could seriously affect the pledge made by Prime Minister Mitchell to provide employment for locals as part of the campaign promises made to win the general elections one year ago.
A local firm Caribbean Office of Cooperates Architecture (COCOA) involving Trevor Bullen had won the contract under the Congress government for the architectural designs for the Parliament to be built on the grounds of Government House, the official residence of the Governor-General.
As a public service, THE NEW TODAY reproduced in full an interview that Bullen granted to ABC news on the decision of the government of Australia to pull out of the Grenada project.
TREVOR BULLEN: It came as a complete surprise, and so we’re sort of all left scratching our heads.
PETER LLOYD: How were you told?
TREVOR BULLEN: I was first told by our point person in the Government and then actually in the middle of the night, last night, I called our point person on the project from the Australian end. I called him for confirmation; it just seemed so odd, it just seemed out of the blue, and we had no prior indication. And he sort of confirmed to me that it was a surprise to him as well.
PETER LLOYD: Can you tell me firstly what it was you were told?
TREVOR BULLEN: Well, in the first instance with the Chief Technical Officer from the Ministry of Works, who was simply told that the Australians pulled out. I think you know that the United Arab Emirates were partnering with the Government of Australia to fund it – and he said the United Arab Emirates had been notified, and that Grenada’s Minister for Foreign Affairs, who had been the political point person on the project, would be either meeting with or speaking with the Australian High Commissioner in Trinidad, I think either today or yesterday.
PETER LLOYD: What explanation were you given for why this money was pulled away from this project?
TREVOR BULLEN: We were not given an explanation. We have no idea. There’s a huge amount of hope on this project in particular. It’s a highly visible project. But also, if you know the history of the project, the project was by the previous Prime Minister of Grenada, following we had a really devastating hurricane that basically destroyed our Parliament building.
So, many years ago, you know, when this project was first conceived, you know, people put a lot of hope in that. Because I mean the Parliament of the island has been meeting in a Trade Centre for the last eight years, I guess it is – eight, nine years. And then of course with the downturn in the economy, this was the single project, big project that was on the horizon. We had literally just last week notified all the pre-qualified contractors.
PETER LLOYD: Give me a sense of what kind of impact this will have on the community, in the sense of jobs lost and livelihoods affected, given that you’re a small community and this was a large project?
TREVOR BULLEN: Yeah, tiny. Well, Grenada’s got a population of about 100,000. I’m going to guess that this project probably would have created well over in excess over 100 jobs for the duration – it was an 18 month project. You know, in a small economy like ours, that’s pretty significant. Particularly within the construction industry, it was really viewed as the only thing going.
PETER LLOYD: How soon was it when construction was about to begin? Was it very soon?
TREVOR BULLEN: Within three months. It just really, really threw us off, you know.
PETER LLOYD: How do you think Australia will be viewed in the light of this withdrawal of funding?
TREVOR BULLEN: What I find most puzzling is that as a country, the sort of bilateral relationship, where a country makes a commitment to another country. Unless that other country breaches that agreement, I find it very troubling that they would not honour their commitments.
So, you know, what you think about it, it’s a very teeny tiny portion of the AusAID budget – I mean, it’s not even a rounding error. People will be looking for a reason.