Wednesday, May 22, 2019

Dark of night

The government last week signed a heads of agreement with Disney Cruise Line for its planned development of a cruise port at Lighthouse Point, Eleuthera, in the absence of media.

This was odd and curious, to say the least.

In signing the agreement behind closed doors, the government denied media an opportunity to grill officials on the deal and opened the door to criticisms about its lack of openness on the matter.

While the Minnis administration still has to table the agreement in the House of Assembly, the decision to ink the deal in private contradicts its oft stated commitment to transparency.

We hope that this is not the new standard for the signing of such agreements going forward.

In opposition, the now prime minister, Dr. Hubert Minnis, often preached about the importance of transparency, repeatedly stating that his government would be transparent in all matters.

“The new Bahamas is a place where government must be transparent, acting in the best interest of all citizens,” he said in October 2013.

“In the new Bahamas, there is no room for secret, clandestine governance. There is no room for back room or under the table deals. Any stable democracy must be mature enough to give its citizens access to information.”

One would imagine that the Minnis administration is still reeling from the disastrous signing of the Oban agreement last year for a controversial oil refinery and storage facility in Grand Bahama, and wants to be cautious in how it deals with these matters.

Media presence at that event was important in exposing the sham signing, which the government later claimed was a ceremonial signing.

A Nassau Guardian social media camera recorded an Oban official signing the name of another company official. It worsened the debacle already ensnaring the deal.

Disney is a reputable company, and we hope the government learnt its lesson from the Oban fiasco, so we expect that the signing last week was above board.

Asked whether Disney Cruise Line was opposed to media being present for the signing, Kim Prunty, the company’s public affairs and communications vice president, said Disney was respectful of the process as set by the government. 

The secret signing — later announced by Prime Minister Minnis during a town hall meeting in Eleuthera, with more information being sent via a press release — does not set a good precedent.

The government should not cherry pick which major deals it signs in the open. It should provide an opportunity for media scrutiny and demonstrate to the public that it has nothing to hide in signing these agreements.

It should be open to questions alongside investors. The government should then standardly release all agreements it signs.

The official opposition has lashed the government for failing “the test of openness and transparency” and flubbing the example of good government. 

“The public found out (about the deal) by a release from the Bahamas Information Services,” Progressive Liberal Party (PLP) Leader Philip Brave Davis said in a statement on Monday. “The PLP would never have gotten away with this and never tried to.”

Davis questioned whether the government had entered into a secret deal with Disney.

“Inquiring minds want to know why the secrecy,” he said. “What is there to hide? The prime minister and his government need to confess and come clean to the Bahamian people with this deal.”
 
PLP’s record

Not surprisingly, the PLP is attempting to create an appearance of scandal, but that seems unnecessary, unless it is privy to some information that we are not.

Again, while we too question the decision to sign the agreement without media present, any decision by the government to keep the deal from the public would be unacceptable and a much more dramatic blow to transparency.

This does not excuse the Minnis administration from its poorly thought out decision on the signing, but it also does not elevate this to the level of fiasco that surrounded the Oban signing.

The Christie-Davis PLP to the contrary was far less transparent in its handling of these matters.  

While Davis said the PLP would never have gotten away with signing a deal in private, the truth is, the former administration tried to get away with much more.
It became well known for signing deals and failing to make them public.

In August 2014, the Christie administration signed an agreement with Cable and Wireless Communications for the Bahamian people to regain just under two percent of shares in the Bahamas Telecommunications Company (BTC).

While it did invite the media to witness the signing, it left office nearly three years later without ever making the deal public, despite repeatedly promising to do so.

When we asked the then Prime Minister Perry Christie a year after the signing whether he still intended to make it public, Christie said, “Yes. In fact, I am glad you reminded me.”

That was all baloney, of course. 

There are matters that fell directly under Davis’ portfolio which also never saw the light of day.

On July 22, 2015, the Christie administration signed a $900,000 transitional services agreement with PowerSecure, a U.S. energy firm, to complete a business plan for the Bahamas Electricity Corporation (BEC).

Davis, who was the minister responsible for works, repeatedly promised to make that agreement public, but never did.

It was finally tabled by the Minnis administration in 2017.

The Christie administration was also secretive on crucial matters related to the once troubled Baha Mar.

There are many more examples of this government failing to be open on matters of public interest. Not all relate to heads of agreement, but the Christie administration — of which Davis played an integral role — was not big on transparency.

Recall the Rubis scandal in which the former government sat on a crucial report that warned residents of Marathon that they were potentially at risk due to an oil spill.

We can go on, but the point is made.

The PLP paid a big price for its failure to be transparent and its violation of the public’s trust.

It was voted out of office in May 2017.

It is now seeking to brand itself as a trustworthy, transparent and accountable party with some of the same players of the former administration at the helm.
But it struggles on the believability scale.
 
Benefits

As it regards the Disney agreement that fueled recent criticisms of the Minnis government, we look forward to reviewing the details and hope the deal reflects maximum benefits for Bahamians. 

Environmental groups that had strongly opposed the project when debate over it raged last year, released a measured response, free of the hysteria that sometimes accompanied the public discourse on the matter.

The groups — The Bahamas Reef Environment Educational Foundation, reEarth, Save the Bays and Waterkeepers Bahamas — expressed disappointment that such a signing was made “in the dead of night”, but said they are pleased that Disney and the government have confirmed that no construction will take place at Lighthouse Point until the environmental impact assessment (EIA) is prepared, reviewed and approved.

“It is our expectation that Disney will prepare a world class environmental assessment consistent with the best U.S. and international standards, and that Disney and the government will engage in a transparent and public process reviewing the EIA on the impact of the proposed project at this internationally recognized, very special space,” the groups said. 

In the absence of the EIA, the prime minister has already declared, “The project will be environmentally friendly and there will be no damage to our environment.” 
His declaration seemed premature.   

We imagine the government is not silly enough to have entered another agreement that states the project would proceed even if an EIA determines there would be adverse impact on the environment.

That clause — contained in the Oban deal — is presumably one of the clauses the government wishes to change when it renegotiates that Grand Bahama agreement.

The government has said the Disney project will be valued at between $250 million and $400 million.

It said the agreement mandates that Disney directly employ at least 120 Bahamians during the construction of the project and requires the cruise line to create “as many as 150 permanent, sustainable jobs with health benefits in a range of positions for Bahamians once construction is completed”.

Scrutiny of the heads of agreement whenever it is tabled, however, will provide a better opportunity to determine whether the best deal has been worked out for Bahamians.
 

Candia Dames

Candia Dames is the managing editor for the Nassau Guardian.

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