Sunday, Dec 9, 2018
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State of Inertia

MPs pray in the House of Assembly in January 2017.

The government seems to have drifted into a state of inertia with its parliamentary agenda.

Last week, the House of Assembly spent an entire day debating The Bahamas Baptist Missionary and Educational Convention Incorporation Bill.

Before that, the focus of attention for MPs was that controversial resolution seeking parliamentary approval for the government to rent space in Brent Symonette’s Town Centre Mall to relocate the General Post Office. Symonette is currently a minister of government.

That resolution also took a full day of debate, stretching into the night.

There is a need for the government to focus on meaningful social legislation or legislation that seeks to achieve something transformational – and we aren’t advocating for another round of tax increases either.

A feeling is setting in that it is piecing together a legislative agenda as it goes, and wasting some time in the process.

The Parliament will soon take the traditional break for the holidays.

When it was not on its long summer break, the Parliament spent some time dealing with legislation it said was necessary to safeguard the financial services industry of The Bahamas.

It passed the Credit Reporting Bill, the International Tax Cooperation (Amendment) Bill and the Financial Transactions Reporting (Amendment) Bill.

It also passed the Anti-Terrorism Bill.

More than a year ago now, Minister of State for Legal Affairs Elsworth Johnson tabled the Integrity Commission Bill.

That bill is intended to establish a commission to promote and enhance ethical conduct of parliamentarians, public officials and other persons and to provide measures for the prevention, detection and investigation of acts of corruption.

The bill, intended to be a key piece of legislation in the government’s anti-corruption arsenal, has been shelved.

It also tabled an Ombudsman Bill, but that too is pending as is the National Intelligence Agency Bill.

Earlier this year, the government did pass the Interception of Communications Bill, more commonly known as the ‘spy bill’. It was a controversial move as the Free National Movement in opposition had objected to efforts by the Christie administration to pass near identical legislation.

More than a year ago, Minnis announced in Parliament that the government will take legislative action to ensure that the children of Bahamian women automatically receive citizenship no matter where they are born in the world.

It was a significant policy announcement that was welcomed by families that have suffered the injustice of constitutional discrimination. Minnis wrongly accused the media of not reporting his announcement as he claimed the media generally ignore important policy announcements.

That particular announcement was obviously not up for urgent consideration as the government has not made any movements in regard to citizenship issues.

There was no follow up to that one-line announcement made by the prime minister in the House last November.

Proposed changes to the law to criminalize marital rape are also off the table right now.

Days ago, Prime Minister Dr. Hubert Minnis told a Nassau Guardian reporter that the government will table before the end of the year legislation that will address a term limit for prime minister and a fixed election date.

The government intends to hold a referendum to address these issues, but has not said when it will happen.

In September, Attorney General Carl Bethel told us the government will not hold a referendum near a general election as has happened with the last two constitutional referenda that were held — one in February 2002 and the other in June 2016.

In its Manifesto 2017, the FNM pledged to introduce a term limit for prime minister, a recall system for non-performing members of Parliament and amend the constitution to establish an independent Boundaries Commission and a fixed date for general elections.

If it is serious about fulfilling those pledges it would not want to wait too close to the end of the term to address them.

Several bills the Minnis administration prioritized early in its term were intended to improve economic activity, it says.

A year ago, Parliament passed the Commercial Enterprises Bill and this year it passed the Economic Empowerment Zones Bill to promote the redevelopment of communities of The Bahamas through the granting of certain exemptions and fiscal incentives for the renovation of property and the encouragement of businesses in a designated Economic Empowerment Zone.

The latter piece of legislation represented the fulfillment of a key promise made by the FNM on the campaign trail.

More recently, Parliament passed the Fiscal Responsibility Bill to mandate accountability in the handling of public finances.

Today, the House will not meet at all. The Senate is set to take up the Baptist bill, which apparently needed urgent attention.

It comes amid increasing fears about a rising cost of living. Just about everything is on the rise these days — from the cost of the food we eat to the cost of energy and there is no real relief in site.

Last week, as public furor built over higher electricity bills, Minnis announced in the House of Assembly that the government will bring a bill to increase the value-added tax (VAT) exemption on Bahamas Power and Light bills from $200 to $300, but that had no one we know of jumping for joy.

Bahamians are fearful that they are being stretched to the limit as they seek to make ends meet for their families.

The latest consumer price index released by the Department of Statistics shows the CPI reached an all-time high in July. Nearly 50 percent of the people interviewed for the Central Bank’s Financial Literacy Survey 2018 said their earnings were usually insufficient to cover their living expenses.

These are the issues that average Bahamians care about, but the government has not had an aggressive parliamentary focus to bring legislation to make living a bit more bearable for the most vulnerable among us.

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