Friday, May 29, 2020
HomeNational ReviewIn need of an urgent reset

In need of an urgent reset

When the Free National Movement (FNM) meets in conclave this weekend it will assess its progress as a government and try to figure out how to reset amidst a soured national mood.

In the 17 months since it was elected to office, the euphoria and goodwill that accompanied that victory have eroded rapidly.

Governing is about tough decisions and the current administration has made some choices that have made it tremendously unpopular.

While no government should act just to gain favor with the public, the FNM — if it were to honestly assess where it is at — must be concerned with how its actions are being read by many in the public.

The Minnis administration has few wins under its belt. This week, it boasted about raking in more revenue and reducing the deficit, it says, by 52 percent in the first quarter of the fiscal year when compared to the first quarter of 2017/2018.

It collected $199.4 million in value-added tax (VAT), an increase of 19 percent over the same period last year. We will have to wait to see if the government’s projections are met — like the $400 million extra in VAT it says it will bring in this year.

It may be that the government’s hugely unpopular decision to increase VAT from 7.5 percent to 12 percent pays off in the end. It says it will balance the budget within three years and The Bahamas will be able to “take control of its destiny”.

The painful decision to raise the tax has led to sizable political fallout for the Minnis administration.

On multiple issues, many Bahamians feel they were lied to by the FNM in the run up to the 2017 general election.

In opposition, Dr. Hubert Minnis and his party scoffed at the introduction of VAT by the Christie administration and voted against it.

There have been other reversed positions too.

Minnis promised to cause Baha Mar to be sold “to a
qualified and respectable purchaser who believes in Bahamians”. Of course, when the FNM came to office, it recognized the importance of Baha Mar’s existence in a stable atmosphere. There was no more demonizing talk about the Chinese, once dubbed Perry Christie’s “allies”. The government in fact praised Baha Mar’s owners.

The International Monetary Fund later advised that the Bahamian economy was turning the corner. Baha Mar’s success was named as a significant reason for that flicker on the economic horizon.

There are any number of issues and positions that have come back to haunt the FNM in office, including the ‘spy bill’, which the FNM railed against in opposition but moved on early in the term.

The latest challenge the government faces is its move to implement National Health Insurance (NHI).

The committee it appointed to craft a sustainable and affordable plan has recommended a two percent salary deduction to fund the scheme.

Government officials are quick to say what is being proposed is not a tax, but tax-burdened Bahamians are less likely to be concerned about semantics. At the end of the day, the deduction would amount to money leaving their pockets. Whether that’s called a premium or a tax does not change the fact that they will have to come up off more money.

In 2015, Minnis said the FNM would not support an NHI tax because the rate of poverty was too high and too many people were finding it tough to make ends meet.

Not a whole lot has changed in that regard.

In May, the Central Bank of The Bahamas released the results of its Financial Literacy Survey 2018. When respondents were asked to reflect on the last 12 months and indicate whether their income was generally sufficient to make ends meet each month, 47 percent stated that their earnings were usually insufficient to cover their living expenses.

That is significant.

The July 1 introduction of 12 percent VAT has made life tougher for many people. Their grocery bills have increased; they have seen higher electricity bills; gasoline at the pumps now exceeds $5 a gallon. It is tough all around for many.

Many are feeling let down by the FNM government, which encouraged high hopes when it was trying to win the general election.

The thought of paying any more money out of their pay checks is far from palatable for many, even those in the middle class who have seen the government reach deeper and deeper into their pockets. They have had enough.

PR crises

In 2018, the FNM has struggled to put together one good week.

Despite what some in the party would wish to believe, this is not the fault of the media or what the media are portraying in assessing this government’s performance.

The Minnis administration has moved from one PR crisis to the other.

Its bad decision-making on the Oban deal back in February delivered a serious black eye for the government, which claims it is putting together a new deal for the proposed oil refinery and storage facility planned for the environmentally-delicate east Grand Bahama.

It has also faced fallout over its now stalled and well-intentioned plan to rid the country of shantytowns. It has become embroiled in a nasty spat with numbers houses over gaming taxes. Both issues are on hold due to legal challenges.

In August, an unfortunate public row between the works minister, Desmond Bannister, and former members of the board of the Bahamas Power and Light Company also left a stain. The prime minister, seeking to quiet the controversy, told the public there will be a probe into the matter. No evidence of such a probe exists, however, more than two months later.

Many get the impression that Minnis often talks without much consideration for how he will put into effect the statements he makes.

Meanwhile, the public once again spent months suffering through persistent power cuts.

The government’s recent decision to grant Disney Cruise Line approval to develop a cruise port at South Eleuthera also created public angst, although South Eleuthera residents seemed satisfied by that decision. The Minnis administration made what it considered to be the best decision in the interest of the Bahamian people, but it has also lost support from some Bahamians deeply disappointed by the move.

It has also had a difficult time convincing many Bahamians that its decision to buy the Grand Lucayan resort in Freeport was a wise one at a time when it says it is strapped for cash and had little choice but to hike VAT.

If the government is unable to execute a sale of the property in the next six months or so — and not just a fire sale — it could be in even more treacherous waters.

The latest fallout suffered by the FNM government was the decision to lease space from one of its ministers, Brent Symonette, who is a major shareholder in Town Centre Mall. The space will be used for the General Post Office.

The debate in the public arena was equally as vociferous as in the House of Assembly where several FNM MPs excoriated their government over the move. One MP, Vaughn Miller, suggested the government was engaged in a corrupt act.

In the midst of all these challenging moments have been mounting gaffes that have also created unfortunate distractions for a government that still has significant problems to address.

Lessons

When it meets behind closed doors in conclave, one of the key topics of discussion we suspect will be how to preserve political capital and get more buy in from the public for the many decisions it is making.

A part of this government’s problem is poor public relations. 

The release this week of its “First Quarter Snapshot on Budgetary Performance” was a good move in keeping with the government’s commitment to transparency and accountability, but there are so many other areas in which the public feels completely left in the dark.

There are many lessons the Minnis administration can and should learn from the Christie administration. It must not become so delusional and in love with power that it remains tone deaf to the mood of the people and disconnected from the realities on the ground.

It could easily be lulled into a sense of political security by the tremendous margin of victory it secured in 2017. It could also be comforted by the fact that the PLP remains a damaged brand and a weak opposition that does not appear to have regained the public’s trust.

The FNM should not underestimate the PLP with its four seats. Traditionally, elections have been more about the incumbent party and less about the opposition party.

In 2007, then Prime Minister Perry Christie left office a dejected and rejected leader even though unemployment was in the single digits and the economy was performing well.

The corruption perception lingered over the party, however, and Christie’s failure to act against compromised colleagues doomed the PLP.

But in 2012, an electorate, angered over decisions taken by the Ingraham administration, welcomed Christie and his party back with open arms. Voters were determined to send Hubert Ingraham, the then prime minister, a message and that they did.

In 2017, they sent an even stronger message to Christie, who failed to hold on to his seat in Parliament after 40 years.

Christie is gone from the political stage now — no doubt for good. The current PLP Leader, Philip Brave Davis, is neither endearing nor exciting. His contributions in Parliament are often hard to follow. They are dull and sometimes lacking in substance.

But that is not unlike how Minnis performed in Parliament as opposition leader.

Ultimately, the egregious actions of the Christie-led PLP propelled Minnis and his so-called change team to office in an overwhelming victory.

When they get the opportunity, voters are likely to make their choice based on how they feel about the Minnis administration’s performance.

There are more than three years left in this term. In some ways that is not a lot of time to achieve many of the big things the government has promised. It has listed as its priority economic revitalization. Many are still waiting to feel the impact of that.

In other ways, three years is a long time in politics. Anything can happen between now and then, but the FNM ought not take that for granted. It has already lost the attention of many people. It is hard to win back people who have shut out their political leaders because they view them as having lied to them, betrayed them or arrogantly disregarded their wants and needs.

For the FNM, there is a great deal to think about.

Candia Dames is the executive editor of the Nassau Guardian.
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