Is the FNM prepared to risk losing the 2022 general election because of Brent Symonette?
The Free National Movement (FNM) is apparently gearing up to hold a come-to-Jesus meeting in early November in order to give an ultimatum to MPs Frederick McAlpine, Reece Chipman, Vaughn Miller and Travis Robinson, as per The Tribune. The four nonconformists have apparently annoyed the top brass of the governing party by voting against the move to lease the Town Centre Mall to the state for approximately $900,000 per annum over a five-year period. Cabinet Minister Brent Symonette and his brother own the shopping complex. The FNM seems to value Symonette so much that it is prepared to severe ties with four of its MPs just because they oppose the decision to lease a building owned by him. The FNM knows that most Bahamians aren’t happy with this move. If not, then the governing party is apparently aloof. Why risk angering the masses for a small group of financial benefactors? To the FNM, that is a risk worth taking, it seems.
Symonette represents the Bay Street Boys remnant. This group of wealthy Bahamians is thought to be the biggest financial backers of the FNM. Winning 35 seats, or nearly 57 percent of the votes in the 2017 general election, the FNM hierarchy is probably now attributing its election success to Symonette and co. That election was one of the most unusual in living memory. The FNM won Progressive Liberal Party (PLP) strongholds Nassau Village, Elizabeth, Tall Pines, Golden Gates, Golden Isles, Fort Charlotte, Fox Hill, Bain and Grants Town, Centreville, Pinewood, Yamacraw, West Grand Bahama and Bimini and Marathon — seats the FNM really had no business winning. I am not sure why anyone within the FNM leadership would think that Symonette and the Bay Street Boys wing of the party had anything to do with the outcome of the election. In reality, the driving force behind the FNM’s victory was social media and several political activists who used this medium to spread negative propaganda about the Christie administration. Some of it was false; some probably true. But the important thing is that tens of thousands of Bahamian voters swallowed these anti-PLP allegations hook, line and sinker. Had Symonette and the Bay Street Boys refused to pump one farthing into the FNM’s campaign coffers, the FNM would’ve still won 35 seats. Prime Minister Dr. Hubert Minnis seems to have forgotten that certain hostile elements within the Bay Street Boys group, along with the Loretta Butler-Turner faction, were all attempting to stage a coup for most of the five years he served as opposition leader. Many of them only decided to bury the hatchet months prior to election day after seeing the handwriting on the wall. From January 2017, everyone could have seen that the Christie administration was in deep trouble. Consequently, it would a bit of a stretch to suggest that Symonette was a huge supporter of Minnis as opposition leader.
As everyone knows, the Minnis administration plans on moving the General Post Office to the Town Centre Mall, which will serve as a stop-gap measure until a permanent location is found. To put the $900,000-per-annum cost into proper context, the FNM administration has agreed to spend $4.5 million to rent a portion of the shopping complex over the duration of the lease. However, the principals of the Town Centre Mall will only accrue a $1 million profit, seeing that they will pump $3.5 million of their own money toward renovating the building. This means that the owners will only gain $200,000 annually or $16,666 monthly in rental fees, once the $3.5 million is taken into consideration. All things considered, this is a very generous concessionary rate, due to the market value of the Town Centre Mall and its prime location. The Minnis administration is adamant that this option is far more financially feasible than relocating to the old Phil’s Food Store building or the Independence Drive Shopping Centre. The revelation of the discounted rate puts to rest the unbridled speculation put forward by the late Bradley Roberts and PLP Chairman Fred Mitchell that the Minnis administration would be forking over $25 million per annum or $150 million over five years to the owners of the Town Centre Mall. The astronomical figures bandied by the two angered thousands of grassroots. This was a class warfare tactic that the PLP often utilized when Sir Lynden Pindling was leader of the country. Ironically, Minnis also campaigned on a populist platform about putting an end to governments catering solely to a select group of wealthy lobbyists and prominent families. That’s why his campaign slogan was ‘‘It’s the people’s time”. Bahamians were really counting on Minnis to be different.
Mitchell is well aware of the attitude that many grassroots hold toward the wealthy aristocracy, of which Symonette is a part of. The PLP will remind Bahamians that Symonette declared his assets to be $156 million in 2017. The PLP will also remind Bahamians that 90 percent of them — working Bahamians that is — don’t even have $5,000 on their bank accounts, as per the Central Bank of The Bahamas. The masses rejected the PLP in 2017 for Minnis. You can be sure that Mitchell and co. will fight hard to regain the confidence of this important demographic.
According to Chipman, 82 percent of the 600 voters polled in Centreville opposed the Town Centre Mall relocation. Centreville is just one of the many stomping grounds for grassroot Bahamians. I think the Centreville poll results are an accurate gauge of the mood of the Bahamian people regarding this issue. The Town Centre Mall matter is one of optics. It will be an uphill battle trying to convince the Bahamian people that this is not an obvious case of a conflict of interest, despite the massive financial discount the government has received from the Symonette brothers. The Minnis administration seems to value Symonette to the extent that it is willing to risk losing in 2022. If that were to happen, Symonette would be just fine. With his fortune, no PLP administration would be able to harm him financially. It is the low-ranking card-carrying members of the FNM who have been given soft government jobs and lucrative contracts who should be worried. It is now no longer out of the realm of possibility that the FNM gravy train will come to a screeching halt in 2022. An incoming PLP administration under Philip Brave Davis would immediately purge the civil service of diehard FNMs. That’s the tribal nature of Bahamian politics. It happens every time a new administration is installed. At the rate this FNM government is going, my only suggestion to FNMs in the civil service, those so-called political appointees, is to make the most of their opportunities.
Any move to force McAlpine, Miller, Chipman and Robinson out of the party would only serve to reinforce that possibility.
— Kevin Evans