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Make or break year for FNM govt

An outlook for 2019 
Prime Minister Hubert Minnis and Deputy Prime Minister Peter Turnquest along with other Cabinet ministers walk to from the Cabinet Office to the House of Assembly. FILE

In 2019, “progress” must be the watchword of the current administration.

It can no longer rely on a sympathetic electorate if it continues a familiar approach of blaming the Progressive Liberal Party (PLP) for the many critical problems that continue to plague us.

The challenges the Minnis administration will face this year will likely be more pronounced as more Bahamians grow frustrated because they are not “feeling” an improvement in their personal economic conditions.

It will be more difficult for our leaders to convince the population of the need for patience as they tackle issues like poverty, limited job growth, a broken health system, crime, poor infrastructure and an underperforming education system.

In 2019, the Minnis administration will likely find it difficult to inspire people to believe that it remains committed to taking action to improve their standard of living.

Bahamians will demand more.

The government will as a result feel more pressure to deliver. It has exhausted much of its political capital, so it will probably find governing more challenging in the months ahead.

Many who elected the Free National Movement (FNM) to office in 2017 are today less trusting of the administration.

The government, meanwhile, finds it increasingly difficult to explain to the people the complexities of governing in a climate so challenged by a far-from-vibrant economy.

The demands on government are great. The FNM in opposition set the expectations of the people high. Few are prepared to give it a pass in government. As the year progresses, whatever goodwill that remains will likely be further eroded, as the solutions to our most difficult challenges are not immediately in front of us.

The immediate challenge many Bahamians face is the burdensome cost of living, exacerbated by the introduction last July of a higher value-added tax (VAT) of 12 percent. The government tried to make the case that the tax hike was necessary to bail us out of a dire fiscal situation.

Immediately, everything became more expensive: Food, gasoline, healthcare, you name it.

Things were already bad for many when the VAT increase was placed on their backs.

Just two months before the VAT hike, the Central Bank released the results of a survey in which 47 percent of respondents said their earnings were usually insufficient to cover their living expenses.

People do not feel good about their government and their everyday existence when these kinds of pressures are placed upon them. Many continue to cry for relief. The government has argued that this bitter pill is necessary to get the country’s finances in order.

It believes that the bold and unpopular decision on VAT will prove a responsible move and that many will come to see that before the next election is held.

Prime Minister Dr. Hubert Minnis has said he would prefer losing the next election doing what is right than winning it doing what is wrong. That sounds good, but he and many others in his team are no doubt concerned about doing things to get reelected.

That will probably be a tough proposition though. Voters have not reelected an incumbent government since 1997. They tend to vote against the government, leaving opposition parties to think their leadership and plans were so superior that voters were drawn to them.

At the start of 2019, the Minnis administration is hopeful that an improved economy will make the burden of VAT and a subsequent rise in the cost of living more bearable.

But growth is projected to be modest.

The good news, as we reported in our year-end piece in this space, is that we are no longer on a fast track to economic doom.

Last month, a statement from the International Monetary Fund (IMF) after its latest review of our economic developments said, “The Bahamian economy continues to recover, with real GDP growth projected to reach 2.3 percent in 2018 and 2.1 percent in 2019.”

The IMF said growth is driven by an increase in tourist arrivals, paired with an expansion of hotel room and airlift capacity, and against the backdrop of the continued expansion of the U.S. economy.

That is at least a positive, as we are no longer recording economic contraction. The Bahamian economy is not growing fast enough to keep up with demand for jobs, however.

At the time the unemployment survey was taken last May, 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.

There are no major prospects on the horizon for significant job creation in 2019, although tourism continues to perform well.

Over in Grand Bahama, the government is dealing with risky business. It has poured millions of dollars into buying the troubled Grand Lucayan resort and is set to spend millions more on renovations and severance packages.

It says it is looking for a buyer, but this deal could become a tighter noose around the Minnis administration’s neck.

One of the government’s major screw-ups last year was the signing of a deal with Oban Energies for a promised $5 billion oil refinery and storage facility on Grand Bahama.

After the media revealed just how bad this deal was and public pressure grew against it, the government pulled back; it says it is now negotiating a new deal for the project, which is eyed for environmentally sensitive land.

It must tread carefully before bringing Oban II to the public. There is no more room for “missteps” on this crucial matter.

Pledges

Minnis likes to remind us that he has five years (and even longer in his mind) to do what his party promised to do in the lead-up to the last general election.

He promised legislation that would address a fixed election date and a term limit for prime minister by the end of 2018. That, of course, did not happen.

Minnis also promised legislation to institute a recall system for poorly performing MPs and campaign finance legislation.

None of these measures appear to be priority items for the government, although the prime minister claims they are.

They might also not be priority items for an electorate that is understandably concerned with meeting the demands of a high-cost environment, but the government’s failure to fulfill such pledges won’t play well when election season rolls around once again.

It would also be unwise to address such measures close to an election season, as they are likely to become more controversial.

Last year, the greater part of the focus of this administration’s legislative agenda was on financial services bills intended to keep us off various blacklists. This means that some social legislation and other legislation promised have been delayed.

For example, a key pledge made by the FNM on the election trail was to pass legislation to strengthen the country’s anti-corruption regime. The perception that the Christie administration was corrupt featured prominently in the decision of many voters to cast their lot with the FNM.

More than a year after the government tabled the Integrity Commission Bill in the House of Assembly, it remains shelved. The bill would repeal the Public Disclosure Act.

It comprehensively details acts of corruption, including the behavior of public officials with respect to the awarding of contracts, soliciting or accepting any personal benefit, or providing an advantage for another person in the performance of his or her functions as a public official.

It has also been more than a year since the prime minister declared that all children born to Bahamian women will be automatic citizens of The Bahamas no matter where they are born.

Nothing has been introduced to make that effective, although Minister of Immigration Brent Symonette said recently Cabinet was set to receive a presentation from the Law Reform and Revision Commission on proposed reforms to the Immigration Act and Bahamas Nationality Act.

In 2018, Parliament passed the prime minister’s much-touted Over-the-Hill Rejuvenation Bill, but it is too soon to determine whether the legislation has had any real impact on the economic and social development of communities in the designated zone.

The government also introduced the Access to Affordable Homes Bill, but 85 percent of applicants were unable to afford service-ready lots as a part of the program, the government later revealed.

In 2019, the Minnis administration is expected to continue its push toward National Health Insurance, something that has been considered in some form by successive administrations over the last 20 years.

In the waning weeks of its term, the Christie administration launched a skeletal program in an effort to convince voters that it had fulfilled its promise.

The current government wants to roll out something more substantive.

The revelation last October that the National Health Insurance Authority was proposing a two percent tax to fund the scheme received strong pushback. On Monday, NHIA Chairman Dr. Robin Roberts told us the authority expects to submit its final report to the government by the first week of February.

Many already-burdened taxpayers would not take kindly to any additional taxes — even if the government chooses to play semantics and uses another term to describe reaching deeper into the pockets of its people.

Communications

How the government communicates what it is doing is also important.

But good communications does not make up for poor or incompetent leadership or performance.

Still, Minnis and his ministers ought to recognize that the image they project does a lot to define how they are perceived, and perceptions often shape the decisions voters make at the polls.

People do not want to see their prime minister fumbling and bumbling and making multiple faux pas, as Minnis is famous for doing.

He recently appointed a communications director — Erica Wells Cox, former managing editor at The Nassau Guardian. This was a good move, as her appointment is based on her ability and not on any political considerations. It is one of the best moves Minnis has made in a very long time, as far as appointments go.

Minnis’ press secretary, Anthony Newbold, has struggled to convey what the government has been doing since coming to office. Reporters often view his press briefings as a waste of time, as they seldom come back with anything worthwhile.

Bahamas Information Services still proves to be an ineffective tool for the dissemination of government information. Much of what it is doing is a waste of taxpayer dollars.

But even a competent communications director would be barely effective if the prime minister lacks message discipline and continues to miss important moments that require him to demonstrate focused leadership. Judging from his record, this would be a challenge for him.

He is prone to deliver meme-worthy gaffes that portray him as an awkward and even incompetent prime minister.

For the FNM government, this must be a year of competent performance properly communicated to the electorate. The continued challenge, of course, will be ensuring that information rises above the so-called ‘fake news’ that often takes on a life of its own in the social media world.

This year will likely amount to a make-or-break year for the Minnis administration.

If it fails to do certain key things by the end of 2019 — the midpoint of its term in office — chances are it would lose the support of many who are still willing to give Minnis and his team of ministers more time to set the ship of state on a more certain path to prosperity.

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