Monday, Sep 23, 2019

Off track

A day after promising an improved communications program, Prime Minister Dr. Hubert Minnis rudely dismissed a reporter who squeezed in a question about his promised Bahamas Power and Light (BPL) probe at a press conference to announce a donation from Albany to the government’s Over-the-Hill revitalization initiative.

Given that Minnis never lived up to his promise upon coming to office to hold quarterly press briefings to field questions from reporters on a variety of issues, it is not unusual for those reporters to use other opportunities to seek answers.

At his Monday press conference, Minnis admonished senior Guardian reporter Travis Cartwright-Carroll to “stop looking at those texts and stick to the script”.

He also wanted to know what BPL “got to do with Over-the-Hill?”

It was an odd and condescending statement from a prime minister who appears to still struggle with certain insecurities and an inability to defend or explain positions he has adopted. Minnis uses arrogance to mask those insecurities, but it is not a good look.

Minnis promised to probe matters connected to BPL more than two months ago after a firestorm erupted involving Works Minister Desmond Bannister and former members of the BPL board. Bannister made certain claims about former board chairperson Darnell Osborne that appeared unfounded.

It was clear to us at the time that the prime minister was merely seeking to kill the debate over the matter when he blurted out that there would be a probe and that the results would be made available.

We were fully prepared to give him the benefit of the doubt. Twelve weeks later, there is no evidence that such a probe ever started.

It remains to be seen exactly what the prime minister means by an improved communications program and whether such a program would be able to rehabilitate his government’s image less than two years after the Free National Movement (FNM) was elected to office.

Minnis made the commitment to improve communications during his party’s conclave on the weekend.

At that gathering, the prime minister acknowledged that his administration has made mistakes.

According to a statement sent out by the FNM on Sunday, “He noted that the FNM’s accomplishments were not being heard because of these mistakes, and because the party needed to improve its communications program, which he noted he is committed to doing.”

Yesterday, the prime minister’s press secretary, Anthony Newbold, said Minnis will start his quarterly press briefings when he sees fit.

He also confirmed the BPL probe has not yet started.

New direction?

Minnis told FNMs that his government has helped turn the country toward a new direction.

“Crime and the fear of crime is down; our economy is growing stronger; public finances are being restored, and there is accountability and transparency with the people’s money,” the prime minister said.

There have been no crime statistics released in a very long time, but serious crimes like armed robberies continue to show up frequently in police reports. This past weekend, for example, police reported five armed robberies on New Providence.

When we talk about the high rate of crime, many people associate that with the number of murders. The Nassau Guardian carried a front page story last week on the fact that murders are down 36 percent. That is good news.

The fear of crime, however, is difficult to measure, especially in the absence of any scientific polling.

As it relates to the national economy, the International Monetary Fund (IMF) reported earlier this year that the economy has turned the corner, but it said significant challenges remained.

“Near-term prospects are improving on the back of the much-awaited opening of the mega tourist resort, Baha Mar, and a stronger U.S. economy,” the IMF said.

That statement does not point to any direct action taken by the Minnis administration, but the improvement is something for the government and Bahamians in general to be hopeful about.

In his budget communication in May, Finance Minister Peter Turnquest announced, “We expect the rate of economic growth, in real terms, to increase from the 1.4 percent of 2017 to some 2.5 percent this year and 2.2 percent in 2019.”

In the five years of the Christie administration, the economy did not record any meaningful growth.

The improvement highlighted by the IMF is not yet enough to provide widespread confidence that the current administration has a plan to foster more meaningful economic growth.

The high level of unemployment remains a concern.

The national unemployment rate remained virtually unchanged, going from 10.1 percent in November 2017 to 10 percent in May 2018, according to the Department of Statistics.

Youth unemployment increased from 22.1 percent in November 2017 to 24.1 in May 2018. Discouraged workers in the country also increased by 6.9 percent over the six-month period. There were 2,175 discouraged workers in May 2018.

The government recently boasted about collecting additional revenue this fiscal year. It raised VAT from 7.5 percent to 12 percent, despite accusing the Christie administration of introducing the tax in an “unconscionable” move in 2015 and voting against the implementation of VAT.

The government recently reported to the public on fiscal performance in the first three months of the current fiscal year. The report was in keeping with the government’s commitment to transparency.

It said it collected $199.4 million in VAT, an increase of $32 million or 19.1 percent. With the increase in the VAT rate, it has projected to bring in an additional $400 million in VAT when compared to 2017/2018 and claims it will balance the budget within three years.

Minnis also reported at the conclave that the deficit is down, tourism is thriving, major investment projects are on the horizon and his administration is on the path to rescue Grand Bahama after decades of despair.

“We have stopped the massive corruption that was draining the public treasury,” Minnis declared.

Although it has not always been on message, this is the message the Minnis administration is seeking to send about its successes in its first 17 months.

Disconnect

But it has a significant disconnect with the Bahamian people, many of whom are not seeing their living standards improve.

Minnis’ declaration comes at the same time Bahamians are being told by the BPL chairman to expect higher electricity bills over the next few months. It also comes as motorists on New Providence are paying $5 per gallon at the gas pumps and Bahamians are digging deeper to pay grocery bills. The elimination of VAT from breadbasket items is being offset by the 12 percent VAT on the bulk of the items people purchase and the services they use.

There is also a pushback that is building against the proposed two percent National Health Insurance (NHI) tax (or should we say “premium”). The proposal was made by the National Health Insurance Authority (NHIA) headed by Dr. Robin Roberts. Minister of Health Dr. Duane Sands appeared to back the proposal by stressing the need for funding to be a shared responsibility.

A 2015 Guardian article in which Minnis declared the FNM would not support an NHI tax with so many people struggling quickly made the rounds. Minnis soon pointed out in the media that there is merely a proposal from the authority at the moment and no decision on whether the tax will be put in place.

Efforts to implement NHI might be noble, but to be talking about another tax so soon after raising VAT is a bad idea, which many people are already rejecting. Calling it a “premium” does not change the fact that people feel they are being squeezed tighter than they can survive.

One angry Bahamian professional posted on Facebook that she is “crazy worrying about my country”.

“The hardships being inflicted on us as a result of nonsensical, clueless, greedy, self-absorbed leadership is quickly killing us,” she wrote. “We can no longer afford electricity. Our healthcare facilities are deplorable. We can barely afford to feed ourselves (and some, quite frankly, can’t).’

Impediment

In the statement sent after the FNM conclave on the weekend, the “mistakes” made by the FNM since coming to office were not outlined.

In opposition, parties are able to say just about anything as they seek to get elected. When they come to power, they quickly learn that governing is no easy task and the electorate is not always as patient as an administration would like, particularly when that party raised expectations so high in the lead-up to the general election.

One of the difficulties the FNM faces in its communications is that Minnis in government has sharply reversed positions on any number of issues. This is because he is a panderer, often reading the direction of the wind and forming his positions based on that. He does not come across as someone with a set of core convictions.

This is why on nearly every major issue the FNM in government has addressed, we are able to go back to positions stated by Minnis in opposition and expose stunning contrasts.

While no senior FNM would come out publicly and acknowledge it, the greatest impediment to a smooth and effective communications program for the government of the day is the prime minister himself.

He is frequently haunted by contradictory statements he made in the past and has made multiple gaffes which have embarrassed him and his administration. He often leaves senior ministers, his press secretary and other officials to do verbal gymnastics to try make his statements make some kind of sense.

The Minnis administration cannot have message discipline and a respectful tone as long as the prime minister himself displays a lack of message discipline and a poor attitude in dealing with the media.

He is not helping himself or his government when he acts in an embarrassing fashion. It seems Minnis cannot help himself, though. He has such disdain for reporters and continues to misread the 2017 vote that was overwhelmingly in the FNM’s favor.

We have stated it often. It was a vote against the Progressive Liberal Party. The people had become so angry with former Prime Minister Perry Christie and his government that they, in great numbers, voted them out of office.

After the 2017 general election, more than half of the people surveyed who voted for the FNM said they did so not because they were in love or inspired by Minnis and his message of change, but because they thought it was time to throw out the PLP.  We reported on the Public Domain survey months ago.

The FNM has struggled to stay connected to those people.

As the Minnis administration speaks about its planned communications program a year and a half in office, it is having a difficult time convincing many Bahamians that it has the capacity or a real plan to move the country forward.

There are thousands who are in need of jobs and many more whose frustrations with the high cost of living are reaching a boiling point. Throughout the last term, the FNM, of course, did not urge the people to be patient as the Christie administration tried to work things out.

Today, it faces the same critical issues and a growing angst among the people who feel they were hoodwinked by the FNM.

The FNM administration will need more than communications to get on track.

It will need a dose of humility, less of a focus on PLP failures and greater action in fulfilling its mandate.

Candia Dames

Candia Dames is the executive editor of the Nassau Guardian.

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