A disappointing three years
The third anniversary of the Progressive Liberal Party’s (PLP) current term in office has met the Christie administration mired in scandal and unable to point to many campaign pledges that have been fulfilled.
The government also suffers from a serious credibility crisis. It is having a hard time convincing even partisans of its ability to do what it says it will do, when it says it will do it.
Like the first term of the Christie PLP, this current administration has been dogged by multiple controversies, and has generally failed in its commitment to provide accountable, transparent governance with focused, decisive leadership.
The third anniversary coincided with the inaugural Bahamas Junkanoo Carnival.
While it is unlikely that the projected economic boost of $60 million came close to being realized, Carnival has proven to be one of the bright spots for Christie, in terms of the potential it has for greater economic generation in years to come.
Not surprisingly, Christie felt a boost from Carnival.
He was encouraged by the many thousands of Bahamians who supported it, although a segment of the crowd booed him while he was on stage at the Music Masters competition at Clifford Park on Friday night.
Much of the disappointment that accompanies the third anniversary of the PLP’s term is linked to the fact that the party over promised in the lead-up to the 2012 general election.
Its pledges were largely unrealistic.
We are reminded of what one minister told us: “You have to do what you must to win.”
On the crime front, the government has had little impact. We are still unsafe. Crime is still too high. Murders are still occurring with great frequency.
In his final address before the May 7, 2012 general election, Christie said, “The first and biggest problem we face today in The Bahamas of 2012 is a relentless and escalating wave of crime and violence; 500 murders in the last five years.
“…Let’s make no mistake about it; we are a nation and a people under siege.”
When he reflected on the last three years during an interview with National Review on Friday, the prime minister acknowledged his government’s inability to get the crime problem in hand.
“If I could change something, it would be that I move faster in furtherance of my instincts, particularly crime and the fight [against] crime,” said Christie, when asked if he had any regrets.
“The single greatest challenge we have in the country today is crime and the fear of crime and we are now going to bring very strong focus on that because we have to find a way to diminish criminal activity, particularly killings in the country.”
Christie has made that statement repeatedly over the last three years.
He has yet to show what bringing “strong focus” on crime means.
We do not believe the government when it says it has the answers.
In the same pre-election speech we mentioned, Christie also declared that when he left office in 2007, The Bahamas was a regional leader in economic growth.
“And we did it without raising your taxes,” he said. “In fact, we provided tax relief.”
That statement might have given voters some comfort that the government would not raise taxes.
Upon coming to office, Christie said the state of public finances was much worse than he and his colleagues had initially realized.
On January 1, 2015, the government introduced value-added tax, saying it could no longer kick the can down the road. It needed a more efficient way of generating revenue and addressing the debt burden.
The Central Bank said recently the level of government debt to GDP (gross domestic product) has breached 70 percent for the first time ever.
At the end of a complicated financial year, with gains in tourism output partially offset by rising inflation and lower energy costs set against higher inflation, The Bahamas’ national debt at the end of the year had risen 7.2 percentage points from 2013 to just over 73 percent of the country’s GDP.
This is the highest debt-to-GDP ratio in the country’s history, versus a historic low of 23.2 percent.
There are also challenges on the jobs front.
In 2012 before he came to office, Christie noted that one in three Bahamians could not find jobs.
“Businesses and families are struggling with a tax burden that is crushing them into the ground,” he said.
Today, unemployment remains high.
The most recent statistics in this regard are for November 2014.
At that time, unemployment was recorded at 15.7 percent, up from 14.3 percent in May 2014.
The government pointed to the fact that the number of discouraged workers had declined. Christie said it was a sign that more people are feeling good about their economic prospects.
That same survey showed that youth employment stood at 31 percent in November, compared to 28 percent in May.
Earlier this year, Christie projected that 8,000 new jobs will be created by the end of 2015.
On Friday, he said he is “very optimistic”.
“For example, in seven days I will announce a major, major development in an island, and you’ll get notice of it, real development, sustainable development, and big time, and so these are things that are happening in The Bahamas and that is why we are preparing for it,” he said.
The prime minister said he is not discouraged.
“All that has happened for me is that I know that it takes time to bring in programs and policies,” he said.
“I know for example that today I am being criticized for not coming up with a mortgage relief program. At this present moment I’m working on a mortgage relief program. Yes. I wish it had come before, but the banks weren’t ready for it.
“I believe that they are ready now and I am hopeful that in the coming weeks I am going to be able to come with that.”
Christie added, “I’m going to judge myself over four years of governance and I believe what I haven’t done, in the next year you will see it happen.”
Christie has embarked on what he has called a fiscal consolidation plan. It is composed of efforts designed to boost government revenue and increase efficiencies so as to reduce costs.
However, given the realities of funding his programs, Christie has no doubt borrowed more than he intended. Borrowing has long exceeded $1 billion.
While he did not outline the “mistakes”, Christie said his administration recognizes that it has made mistakes along the way.
“In politics and in a democracy, one has to take the hits,” he said.
“There are ups and downs. The most important thing is that the prime minister must keep focused on the way ahead and knowing that there are mistakes being made, being able to acknowledge mistakes but keep on moving forward and keep moving the country forward.”
The Christie administration has had a difficult time shaking the perception that it is scandal ridden.
This year alone, the government has been slammed by scandal and controversy on a weekly basis.
While the Bahamas Agriculture and Marine Science Institute was billed as an important initiative for economic diversification and food security, BAMSI is best known for the controversy that ensnared it after an arsonist torched the male dorm in January.
The building was not insured and taxpayer dollars will be used to help rebuild it.
Controversy has also surrounded MICAL MP V. Alfred Gray, who was accused of interfering in a judicial matter in his constituency.
While the Urban Renewal Programme is touted by the government as essential in the crime fight, there are widespread concerns that public funds were not properly managed and expended.
This came to light with a report from the auditor general, which was leaked to The Nassau Guardian several weeks ago.
More recently, the government came under fire when it was revealed that it sat on a consultants report that pointed out that residents who live near the Rubis gas station on Robinson Road and people who work near it were exposed to harmful substances from a gasoline leak two years ago.
The government took 14 months before making that report public and has expressed regrets.
While it continues to face image problems, the Christie administration should recognize that perceptions could continue to weaken it.
In 2007 when unemployment was at 7.9 percent, the PLP was voted out of office amid a mountain of scandal and perceptions of weak leadership.
This time around, Christie does not appear to be doing a better job at controlling scandals.
He also does not have a lot of time left to do some big things.
The government has already made the hugely controversial move of legalizing web shops. In so doing, it faced fallout by ignoring the results of the 2013 gambling referendum.
It also has been unable thus far to hold the promised referendum on gender equality.
The government now appears on track to implement National Health Insurance (NHI) in January 2016.
This will be a very difficult proposition, however. While Christie views this as vital to his legacy, another tax on Bahamians will be a difficult pill.
We are also waiting for the government to conclude its negotiations with PowerSecure for a management contract for the Bahamas Electricity Corporation.
If the government could successfully effect energy reform within the next two years, this would go down as among its significant accomplishments.
While two years might be a long time in the world of politics, it is no time for the PLP to deliver on all it has promised.